Surrounded by friends, former students and colleagues at Camp Colvos Brewing, Cornelius Lopez, an island teaching legend, celebrated his 80th birthday.
“He is amazing,” said Frank Daniels who currently teaches math in the same department as Lopez. “He never quits questioning how we can do better.”
Lopez has been teaching for 56 years, 45 of those at McMurray Middle School. He spent his first two years of teaching in Kenya on a teacher exchange program in 1962 and 1963. He then taught around the United States and Canada before arriving on Vashon in the early 1970s. Here on Vashon at an average of 120 students per year, Lopez has worked with over 5,400 middle schoolers. Some of those middle schoolers grew up to become physicists, physicians, pilots and now his fellow school teachers.
Mike Kirk, who was principal of the middle school from 1987 to 2004, worked with Lopez for 17 of those years.
“He has had a tremendous impact on local kids,” Kirk said, adding that Lopez is “a legend” and has “a giving heart.”
For ten years Lopez also taught Saturday school. From 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., Lopez bought donuts and opened the school to students and their families to provide additional math help.
“The kids will do anything for a glazed donut,” Lopez said. “Even math.”
Lopez said he’s held 70 pencils in his beard.
“Back in the old days, it was an acceptable math lesson,” he said.
Lopez was always happy to do it. Many stories from former students and teachers, some funny and some touching, each with a description such as “a saint” and “dedication.”
Jenny Granum, a current colleague in the math department and former student, created a plaque for Lopez, who has been teaching in the same hallway for so many years.
“He puts in the most hours of anyone I have seen,” Granum said. “He eats, sleeps and breathes education.”
Toby Holmes, a former student who is now on the Vashon Island School District board, said Lopez, “still has the same energy and commitment” that he did when he taught Holmes decades ago.
Holmes recalled Lopez riding his bicycle everywhere, waving to every passer-by.
Ellie Lande, a former student now a senior at Vashon High school, said Lopez “loves his job” and has “some magical drive for education which is so wonderful for a student.”
Lopez said the joy of teaching is what keeps him going.
“Teaching is not something that gets old,” he said.
He loves that there is always something new to learn, to implement in his classroom.
“Teaching is not like any other job,” Lopez said. “You are never done.”