Mr. Rachunok

John Adams Elementary
John Adams Elementary

Third grade for me at John Adams Elementary in Corona was the 1987-88 school year, and I had Mrs. Jean Homer as my teacher. Our classroom was Room 26 on the southeast end of what was called Pod 2.

Back when I was there the school had three primary classroom buildings (each Pod 1, 2 & 3), and that year they added permanent portable classrooms, with cement ramps, pathways and railings over by the front parking lot adjacent to Pod 1. It was a sight to see of what used to be a grassy area with pine trees had suddenly become overtaken by new structures.

And that was not the only change we had at Adams that year.

Mrs. Homer put on a short film on the projector late one morning, and she had turned the lights off. We had a window that gave us indirect light next to our main classroom door. In the middle of whatever we were watching, our attention turned to the rear door that led out into the main area inside of Pod 2.

Standing there was our principal, Mr. Gene Wuflestad, and he had someone new standing with him. Not initially seeing the projector, as Mrs. Homer turned it off just as he came in, Mr. Wuflestad inquired as to why the lights were off. But he soon noticed it and went right to his reason for coming in. That was always the thing we could expect from our principal—he always got right to the point. He had been at Adams since the start of my first grade.

Standing well over six feet tall, dressed in a nice tan suit and wearing semi smoke-tinted glasses, we were introduced to Mr. Steve Rachunok, our brand new vice principal. He said a few words and put everyone at ease as he didn’t come off quite so authoritative. He had said that he was glad to be at Adams and looked forward to meeting everyone as he planned to be out at lunch and recesses—and that was a promise he kept.

Whether out on the blacktop, the lunch tables, the upper or lower playgrounds there was rarely a time Mr. Rachunok was not out there. With a watchful eye had also had a smile that also showed that he wasn’t just a VP. And I have an example from one of my first interactions with him.

At lunch one time some friends and I were over at the drinking fountain that was along the wall just outside the kindergarten classrooms. That area there pretty much was the open pathway that led you down to our lower playground that was mostly a grass field with blacktop on the west end that included basketball & handball courts and even a sandy area with a Jungle gym.

A couple of us had gotten into the teasing habit of touching the other while they drank from the fountain. And I kid you not when I say this… a shadow soon formed over us. It was Mr. Rachunok.

I was the last person to thump the other and I thought I was dead on the spot. Instead, he gathered us together and told a story that even to this day when I drink from a water fountain—it’s the first thing that comes to mind.

He warned us of the safety of not doing that as when he was still a teacher he said that some students had joked around like we did, but except one student was pushed a little too hard and busted some teeth. Did we get sent up to the office for a citation or formal visit? No. Just a friendly warning with a cautious story.

However Mr. Rachunok wanted to take a walk with me and talk. Leaving my friends, he and I went alongside the railing next to the lunch tables and when I went to address him I completely butchered his last name. Softly laughing, he turned to me and said it for me, and then rolled up one of his sleeves.

“Rash, like a skin rash…” and then he made a fist onto the railing “…and knock. Rash-knock.”

He went on to talk about me and how he’s observed me out on the playground and some concerns he learned from my teachers. He said that I was quite an excitable kid and showed me how to mellow out by teaching a breathing exercise. He really cared and made it a point long after that to check in with me, and encouraged me to do the same by coming to him.

That year we had a nice Back to School night and it seemed like every student and parent was there. As the evening wore on some of us found ourselves down by the outside of the office where a gathering of mothers were standing, observing and talking. They were looking at Mr. Rachunok—no, fawning. I couldn’t believe it. As Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was freshly out that box office season, the ladies started comparing him to Clark Kent with even one of them piping up and wondering if he even was Superman. I kinda knew where that was going, but when I heard the Clark Kent reference it made me realize at the time that I always thought he resembled Sam Malone (Ted Danson’s role from Cheers). After all it was the 80s.

But what some of those ladies possibly didn’t realize was that there was in fact a Mrs. Rachunok. She actually joined the faculty at Adams a little after Mr. Rachunok did, and she taught computers in one of the rooms over in the new portables. Some of us got to know her a little bit as I was part of a before-school square dancing troupe that was put on by our school Phys-Ed teacher. We practiced in the mornings at 7am in the room next door to Mrs. Rachunok’s computer lab and she became a fan. When square dancing had disbanded come the early part of 5th grade she was quite disappointed, saying to some of us “I won’t be hearing you guys knock around anymore.” She actually would come and watch us from time to time.

Just before Christmas in 1989, there in 5th grade, I noticed a section in that particular newsletter that printed feedback by parents who had visited the school, and one piece was a mother who commented on how great the campus looked and said that she hopes that our school custodians were appreciated.

My 5th grade mug
My 5th grade mug

I thought about that over the weekend, as we had a longtime school custodian in our extended family for the Anaheim City School District, and had an idea and headed to Mr. Rachunok’s office Monday morning before school had started.

The front office was like a rectangle of sorts. You entered the front door only to see a long counter with a podium where the secretaries and clerks worked. Behind them were a couple of rooms—one being the nurses office and the other a copy room. To the left was a short hallway that led into the teachers’ lounge, and in that hallway was the principal and vice principal’s offices on the left and right, respectively.

Mr. Wuflestad had departed during 4th grade, (as I later understood he became a lawyer), and in his place we had Ms. Cindy Schurr. I didn’t know her too well, but she knew me well enough and when she saw me I got the look of “What did we do now?” I had motioned towards Mr. Rachunok’s office that I was going to see him, and he noticed me and waved me on in.

I told him what I read and I said that I felt that Victor and our other two custodians, Veronica and George, deserved some sort of award. Mr. Rachunok leaned back in his chair and said he had liked the idea, and appeared to be thinking about it. At that time my eyes wandered high up on the wall to the left where an infamous wooden paddle had still hung. I imagine that thing hadn’t been used since the 1970s, but I do remember seeing a Corporal Punishment section in our district handbook we got every year, but I don’t believe it had ever been enforced, best to my recollection, during my time at Adams.

As the morning bell neared, Mr. Rachunok said this was a done deal… Victor, Veronica and George were getting an award and it would be done at the next school assembly but with one catch—he said I was going to be the one to award it to them. He told me to get working on a speech and he’d touch base with me over the ensuing weeks and on to class I headed. 

Christmas turned to New Years and before I knew it the assembly was right around the corner. The night before I was on my couch in the living room with a notepad and Night Court was on the TV. With distractions of Bull Shannon and Judge Harry T. Stone… I couldn’t get anything right that I wanted to say despite various drafts.

The morning of the assembly was cool and crisp and quite sunny. Corona was still known for its morning frost and thinly-iced water puddles in those days. I was summoned to the front office from class and there I met with Mr. Rachunok and he gave me a rundown of what we were going to do. He showed me the three certificates he had made up of which he was going to hold on to until I would be called up on stage. I ended up walking to the assembly with Mr. Rachunok and I went and sat with my 5th grade class. Not many, besides Mrs. Lopez and Mr. Rachunok, knew I was going to be presenting awards. Our assemblies were outdoors at our covered lunch tables that had cement steps leading up to the landing just in front of Pod 3 where they were held.

The assembly got underway and then it turned to the awards. Mr. Rachunok had the microphone and called me up on to the stage and said that we had a very special presentation to give. He started out by giving the history in saying “I had a surprise visit back in December with this student that had a wonderful idea…” and then he announced each award where I handed them to Victor, Veronica and George. All three were very surprised and I swear George had a tear in his eye.

Then it was my turn to speak. Mr. Rachunok handed me the microphone and I turned towards the sea of students and teachers. I remember seeing Mrs. Lopez and fellow classmates Amber Wright and Tamara DeVries looking back up at me, and I also believe I caught a glimpse of my younger brother, Shawn, sitting with his classmates in Mrs. Taggart’s first grade class. I almost lost my stride as I began to speak, but I didn’t get more than a few words out as Mrs. Barbara Brandt, our front office secretary, who I had known very well since kindergarten, ushered by me and quietly said for me to hold on and she went to Mr. Rachunok’s ear.

She spoke to him in a single sentence and there was only one word I could hear: bomb.

Mr. Rachunok asked for the microphone and leaned down to tell me to start heading to the lower playground and meet up with my class, and that we would make up this portion of the assembly later. As I headed down the grassy slope I could hear his voice echo from the speakers to the kindergarten building behind the lunch tables, stating everyone needed to evacuate as according to the practiced earthquake drill procedures.

As we all assembled on the grass for the next two hours—we learned that a bomb threat had been phoned in by alleged high schoolers who had also phoned another elementary, a junior high and possibly a high school. The neighboring class out on the field right by us was our next door classroom, fellow 5th graders, taught by Mrs. Linda Brew. Many of us in Mrs. Lopez’s class had our best buddies in Mrs. Brew’s class and I had mine at the time, Matt Brown. All I could wonder was “What is a bomb threat?”, as military choppers flew by on their normal flight paths, and what was going to happen to my speech.

We returned to class after the all-clear was given and I had waited to see what was going to happen for a make-up assembly. Days turned to weeks and so came the changes.

Our next assembly took place the following quarter and with that we had a new undersheriff in town; Mr. Rachunok was gone. As often happens in school districts, they transfer their school administrators around—especially the good ones where their help is needed elsewhere the most. It was around this same time that Ms. Schurr also moved on and we had Mr. Jason Scott as our new principal.

Taking Mr. Rachunok’s place was a make-no-bones-about-it vice principal, Mr. Dick Sutton. Often times these personnel moves come with little or no notice.  It really seemed like we went from one day to another with our affable VP on to someone who took no time at all to dot every i, cross every t and literally inspect EACH classroom for the slightest infraction, whether for student or teacher. I’m not putting Mr. Sutton down, but it was a stark contrast.

I’ll be writing more, I’m sure, in another post about my 5th grade and tell all those stories, but I wanted to really highlight a man that left a long-lasting impact with me all these years—Mr. Steve Rachunok. From the Spuds MacKenzie era through President Bush 41’s first couple years in office—we had the best in a vice principal. He was a leader and also a friend to everyone and it was a loss when he went on to his next school…wherever that was.

Mr. Steve Rachunok
Mr. Steve Rachunok

In preparing this piece I looked Mr. Rachunok up and found that he had reached thirty years with the CNUSD, and has since retired. And in one of the school district’s newsletters I found a recent picture of him that I believe is from his pinning ceremony from the Service Awards.

So Mr. Rachunok… thanks for everything and I hope retirement is what it’s all cracked out to be. You’ve earned it.