'Champion of the Underdog' Dies

Donald S. Castro, special assistant to CSUF president, suffers heart attack

June 18, 2007

By Mimi Ko Cruz

Donald S. Castro, special assistant to Cal State Fullerton President Milton A. Gordon, died June 11 while in Mexico. He was 66.

The Claremont resident was at Mexico City’s Benito Juárez International Airport in the customs line when he suffered a massive heart attack. He was on his way to Queretaro for the annual conference of the United States-Mexico Training, Internships, Exchange and Scholarships (TIES) program. Paramedics were unable to revive him.

His daughter Antonia Castro and his assistant, Victor Rojas, traveled to Mexico to collect his ashes and a memorial service will be held June 22.

Castro was described by many as a passionate and compassionate man who championed human rights and equal opportunities for the disadvantaged.

“My wife, Marge, and I have lost a dear friend and colleague; the world has lost a great scholar; and students have lost a great mentor and inspiration for future generations,” Gordon said.

“This is a terrible loss,” added Silas H. Abrego, associate vice president for student affairs. “Don seemed like he could be a very imposing figure because he was so big and tall, but really he was just a teddy bear. He had a very soft side, always fighting for the underdog, and he was very successful at representing the underserved. He was their champion.”

In his position as special assistant to the CSUF president, Castro garnered million-dollar grants that are funding programs he created to help underserved students learn about, prepare for and finance a college education. One of his programs brings resources, such as tutoring, civics classes, leadership training, and social and medical services to a poor community of central Fullerton.

The project involves the Fullerton Collaborative, a coalition of partners — Cal State Fullerton, Fullerton College, the city of Fullerton, Fullerton School District, St. Jude Medical Center and Valencia Task Force. Students and volunteers make up the majority of the staff providing services, and Castro was the project director. He was planning to teach parents how to prepare their children for college in the fall, when a new building will be erected in the Richman Park neighborhood as part of the project.

Castro had said that the area’s adult residents are poor, have little or no formal education, few job skills and speak little or no English and that serving them was crucial, in order to get their children prepared for college and to lead prosperous lives.

Fullerton City Councilwoman Pam Keller, executive director of the Fullerton Collaborative, said Castro “was so good at everything he did.”

“He wrote wonderful grants because he was always worried about making sure kids were graduating and going to college,” she said. “He cared deeply about the poor and making sure that they got what they needed to survive and flourish.”

Keller said the June 19 Fullerton City Council meeting will be adjourned in Castro’s honor.

Another program Castro was leading was an obesity prevention project that brings together CSUF, the Universidad Autónoma de Tlaxcala in Mexico and various American and Mexican health agencies and hospitals. The partnership is one of 10 that the federal government, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, has established as part of TIES — an eight-year, $50 million collaborative program of the U.S. government, Mexican educational institutions and private sectors in both countries. CSUF this year received $299,525 for its participation.

The goal is “to empower local Tlaxcalan communities to maintain healthy lifestyles by promoting obesity prevention, to avoid those things that can cause diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease,” Castro said six months ago. “We are particularity excited by this cross-border collaboration and cooperation in this time of current misunderstanding on issues related to undocumented immigration. We hope to show that good health and healthy lifestyles recognize no borders.”

A Fulbright scholar and holder of a doctorate in history from UCLA, Castro first joined Cal State Fullerton in 1993 as dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. He held a variety of administrative and academic positions within the California State University, including: vice president for academic affairs at Cal State Dominguez Hills; interim associate vice president for graduate studies, research and international programs at Cal State Northridge; university dean of instruction, dean of undergraduate studies, chair and professor of history at Cal Poly Pomona; and associate director of the Office of International Programs for the CSU.

In December, he was appointed by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities to serve as team leader of the organization’s ongoing Study of Hispanic Student Success.

“Everyone liked Don, even when they disagreed with his decisions,” said Thomas P. Klammer, who succeeded Castro as dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at CSUF. “He was one of the most amiable people I have ever met; he always took a personal interest in everyone he knew, and he seemed to know just about everyone — not just at Cal State Fullerton, but everywhere in the Cal State system — and he had a story to tell you about everyone, too — never a mean-spirited story, but usually a funny one.”

Last year, Castro was awarded a Civil Rights Award from the California Association of Human Relations Organization for his many contributions to human rights.

Castro, Rojas said, liked to close his speeches with a favorite quote from Benito Juárez, the legendary president of Mexico from 1858-72: “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” — Spanish for respect for the rights of others means peace.

In a talk he delivered last year at a Vietnamese cultural celebration on campus, Castro said that as the son of immigrants himself, “we have a responsibility to be good citizens in our adopted country and a responsibility to preserve and be proud of our cultural heritages and make this country a beacon unto the world.”

A prolific scholar, Castro authored many journal articles, book chapters and monographs exploring the popular culture of Argentina — from theater to dance to poetry. In July, he was to have spent three weeks there to conduct research for a book. “Argentina was his passion,” Rojas said.

Castro served for many years as a member of the board of governors and executive board of the Pacific Coast Council on Latin American Studies and was founding president of the CSU’s Council on Latin American Studies. He was scheduled to be in Montreal in the fall to present a paper at the Latin American Studies Association International Congress.

His 25-year-old daughter, Daniela Castro, described her father as a “majestic historian” and the “best dad a girl could have.”

Orange County Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Aguirre recalled a chat he had some years ago with Castro about his family.

“Don’s father started a market called La Luz del Dia in Los Angeles in the 1920s,” Aguirre said. “That market became a chain of stores called the Boys markets and it was very successful. And, for it to be started by a Jewish Latino family was quite impressive in those days when there was so much segregation. Don saw how people were treated unequally and unfairly. That’s why his principal endeavor was to secure special grants to help students get ahead.”

Besides his daughters, Castro is survived by his wife, Connie, a CSUF lecturer in secondary education; brother, Leonard Castro, of Pasadena; and sister, Diane Castro, of Los Angeles.

Services are set for 10 a.m. Friday, June 22, at Temple Beth Israel, 3033 N. Towne Ave. in Pomona.

An endowment fund has been established in his name to award scholarships to disadvantaged students who wish to study abroad. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Don Castro Scholarship Fund, Cal State Fullerton Philanthropic Foundation, 2600 E. Nutwood Ave, Suite 850, Fullerton, CA 92831.

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