End of an era: Alta High’s longest-serving teacher retiresNov 07, 2023 02:22PM ● By Julie Slama
In April, Alta High teacher Rique Ochoa posed by the school library’s mural showing when the school opened and the year he was hired. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
The next time Alta High has a fire drill, something will be missing—a beloved social studies teacher wearing a taco hat to help his students locate him.
Rique Ochoa retired this past summer.
“I’m not the typical, model teacher, but I’ve taught 45 years and I really still like what I do,” he said as he packed up thousands of books that edged his classroom. “I just turned 73 and I want to do other things. I want to finish reading some books. I want to learn how to play the guitar. Honestly, I’m going to miss the kids.”
Ochoa was the last teacher left from when the school opened in 1978. He was hired to coach and build the debate program, but Ochoa also taught English, drama and social studies.
“Students are students. The biggest thing is letting the kids know that you care. I tell my kids to believe in what they want to do. It really comes back to you never know who you affect. I learned that my very first year,” he said.
Ochoa remembers a student who was disruptive and had a hard time learning. Ochoa planned to suggest at parent-teacher conference that he should find another class when the student’s father said to Ochoa, “‘Before we sit down, I want to shake your hand. The only reason my son comes to school is because of your class.’ That’s when I realized I didn’t know how much and who I was able to reach.”
Former Canyons Board of Education member Steve Wrigley said many students developed more than a love of history and service from Ochoa, they know he cares about them.
“His students know they’re loved, they’re valued, and they’re appreciated,” Wrigley said. “These kids 20, 40 years later, are still calling him their best teacher.”
Ochoa’s debate program grew to 200 students. To prepare for tournaments, he gave students stacks of evidence, 400 pages deep.
He also started the Silver & Black Tournament, a national qualifier for the Tournament of Champions.
“Back in 1990, the school district limited us to one overnight travel per activity which meant my debate team would only get that caliber of competition once. I wanted my kids to get more, so I thought, ‘why don’t I invite those teams and have my kids compete against them here?’” Ochoa said.
Alta students qualified every year for nationals and secured four second-place state team trophies during his 17 years coaching.
Speech and debate team members Kim Washburn and Dollie Murphrey McFarlin, who graduated in 1985, placed in in the top 10 at state; they credit Ochoa for their teaching and law careers.
“He was a skilled debate coach and took us to Berkeley for the big debate tournament,” McFarlin said. “He made sure we had tough competition, but afterwards, he’d stand on a desk and get us all laughing. Debate was our place to go; he guided us to make good choices.”
Washburn agreed: “He has a knack for being able to teach something eight different ways. He knew when to have fun and when to give us support.”
Ochoa’s drive was more than winning; he wanted to be there for his students.
When he was a debater in a small Catholic high school in East Los Angeles, Ochoa’s forensics coach had a significant impact on him. However, when his coach left, the school didn’t hire someone new, so Ochoa finished his high school debate career as a team captain, but without any guidance.
“I knew what it was like having someone influential, so I wanted to be there for my students,” said Ochoa, who also debated at Brigham Young University.
Ochoa wasn’t the backbone of just the debate team. He coached the academic decathlon, the “We the People” competition, and assisted coaching the boys soccer team, helping them win five state championships.
His love of sports—and academics—was apparent when he announced the football and boys’ and girls’ basketball games as the “Voice of the Hawks” during home games. He called football games for 40 years, boys’ basketball for 41 years and girls’ basketball for 15 years.
“When Alta was first built, I guarded the back fence to make sure that people didn’t jump over the fence to sneak in. Mostly people would back up their pickup trucks to the field to have a good time. But when Don Ward, who was a legend, decided he didn’t want to announce anymore, I decided to do that instead of watching the fence,” he said. “I had a lot of fun announcing. I’d get vocabulary words from the English department and incorporated them into the flow of the game, saying, ‘It was a flamboyant play’ or ‘the tackle was made by a veritable plethora of Hawks.’ One I enjoyed was, ‘The Hawks were faced with a conundrum.’ They had just scored a long field goal, but a penalty gave them a first down. Afterwards, I’d say, ‘That’s another word brought to you by the Alta High English Department.’ Announcing gave me another connection to the students.”
In the 1990s, Ochoa resigned from debate to team teach Advanced Placement U.S. History with Ward in a room with a moveable wall so “we could open it for our 300 kids to be in one giant room,” but closed it when Ochoa taught AP government.
Ochoa was recognized as Alta High’s outstanding educator as well as Utah’s outstanding history teacher.
“For my birthday growing up, I was given a World War II book from the supermarket with a picture of the Battle of Midway on the cover. I just ate that thing up; I still have it,” he said. “I like American history because of my personal ties. My grandmother escaped the Mexican Revolution crossing into the United States. My uncle who was a Marine got bayoneted in battle. My wife’s dad lied about his age, so at 15, he was fighting the Japanese in New Guinea. I learned during the Depression my family ate tongue and beef brains as low-cost substitutes. I teach the Zoot Suit Riots because that happened in my neighborhood when I was growing up. I talk about the ‘68 campaign, and I tell students how Bobby Kennedy came in a motorcade down Whittier Boulevard and was extending his hand. I reached—it was a swing and a miss—but I was that close. That was the day before he won the primary in California and the day before he was shot. We talk about the implications if he had survived to win the presidency, how there would have been a bigger push for civil rights, and I think the war in Vietnam would have ended sooner—and how those choices were taken from us.”
2021 graduate Jack Dutton, who is now majoring in political science and history, said Ochoa inspired him.
“He uses his insight and experiences into American history to make it personable and relatable; when we were talking about the Cold War, he’d tell us how in school, he’d have nuclear bomb drills,” Dutton said. “He wants his students to understand why these things matter and how they connect to us. He knows how to teach history. It’s not just dates. It’s this overarching narrative with people who matter.”
Dutton’s mother, Mimi, said her two sons would “tell stories about funny things they’d learned in his class at our dinner table. That’s the sign of an excellent teacher, when the kids are that excited, they want to share it with their parents.”
Jack Dutton recalls his teacher had a tradition surrounding the AP U.S. History test.
“The night before the test, he called every student on their landlines, and said, ‘Hey, I’m cheering you on. I know you, you’ll do well.’ On the test day, he walked us from his classroom to the testing room. No other teacher does that. As we walked, he started listing off the amendments and everybody chanted along with him,” he said.
Ochoa brought in other ways to enrich students’ experiences. Under his direction, Alta hosted colloquiums with nationally known speakers and Pulitzer Prize winners. With an invitation to Ochoa from Rutgers University, Alta was the first high school in the nation to pilot the university’s women’s leadership program.
He led student groups to see the presidential inaugurations of Bush, Obama and Trump, and tour historic sights.
“I thought it was a cool opportunity,” Ochoa said. “We’d see all these sights not on a typical tour. At Arlington, we’d see the grave of Benjamin Davis Jr., the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen and first African American air general. We’d stop at the George Mason Memorial and talk about the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which is really the foundation of the U.S. Bill of Rights.”
They also met with some of Utah’s elected officials.
Growing up, Ochoa had significant relationships with elected officials. When Ochoa was a teen, his U.S. representative, Chet Holifield, sent him “huge boxes of printed congressional hearings” to use as evidence for debate. Ochoa also distributed literature for Kennedy’s 1968 campaign.
“My parents taught me that voting was important, that it’s your duty. I’ve always voted in every election and even had a voter registration drive here. Until COVID, my government kids did public service. They choose whoever they wanted to, and volunteered for a campaign,” he said.
Several students volunteered for Suzanne Harrison’s campaigns. Afterward, she met Ochoa and was so impressed, Harrison and her husband established an annual $1,000 scholarship in Ochoa’s name to honor a student “who caught the vision that Mr. Ochoa exemplifies of giving back in the community civic engagement and service in a positive and productive way,” she said.
Jack Dutton received the scholarship in 2021.
“Mr. Ochoa taught us how and why we should care about elections and about campaigns,” he said. “His legacy is not that he’s gotten so many people to love history, but that he taught them the real value of citizenship and civic engagement.”
Ochoa appreciates the distinction.
“It’s remarkable to have someone realize the impact a teacher can make and want to pay tribute,” he said. “It’s been a high point for me, to be recognized for what you do, and now these kids I’m teaching are going out and making a lasting impact.” λ