In Memoriam Patricia Peace Browning
By Arturo Castañares / La Prensa San Diego Publisher and CEO
Most people have at least one school teacher they remember as having been a big influence in their lives, passing on words of wisdom they still remember, or having encouraged them to read more books that led to a lifetime of reading. For me, the teacher that most impacted my life passed away recently, and it has made me even more thankful for what she did to change my life.
As an 11th grader at Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, I happened to end up in Mrs. Browning’s English class. I had never met her before and didn’t expect much from the 60-something year-old teacher. But, just a few days into the school year, she asked me if I would consider transferring into another class she taught; public speaking and debate.
I was a shy kid, and really wanted to be an architect where I could be left alone to design buildings and homes.
Our school offered drafting classes and a then-cutting edge class for Computer Aided Design, or CAD. Block letters on blueprints were my form of communication. I thought I had my career plans all set, but little did I know what would soon happen.
Mrs. Browning’s speech and debate class changed my life, directly and indirectly. On my first day in the class, she asked me to stand in front of the whole class and introduce the student that sat next to me.
I hated it. My ears were burning, I was sweating, and it seemed like it would never end. But, as the year wore on, I began to see and feel the impact of her class.
She taught us to write well, drilled correct punctuation into us (like the serial comma), and even practiced hand movements and gestures as purposeful tools of speaking. She taught me the power of words and to use them for maximum effect.
She took the time to work with me, and several other students, to break us out of our shells. She encouraged us, and gave us the confidence to stand up in front of any room and any audience to deliver a clear and convincing message. She unlocked my potential to better communicate with others.
But, her biggest impact on my life came when she introduced me to her son, Steve, during the summer before my senior year in high school. Mrs. Browning had previously been married to a Mr. Peace, so her son was named Steve Peace. He was our local State Assemblyman, and he, too, had been a high school speech and debate student. He offered me a summer internship in his office, probably at her insistence.
At first, I didn’t think much of the opportunity. My family had never been involved in politics, so I was completely unaware of what to expect. But, before long, I had met our Mayor, our State Senator, and our local Congressman. The political leaders of the community all came through our office, and I began to see a whole new world opening up for me. I abandoned my plans to study architecture and embarked on a career of community service.
Mr. Peace not only offered me a job while I was still in high school, but he took me in and mentored me. He took me to meetings that I had no business being in. I met the Governor, and sat in meetings with Willie Brown, the legendary Speaker of the Assembly.
Steve would always ask me what I learned from the meetings, and filled me in on what I had naively missed. It was like a doctorate in political science through on-the-job training. I worked for the Legislature through college and later worked my way up to lead Mr. Peace’s office as his Chief of Staff in the State Capitol.
I have since met dozens of senators, countless congress members and legislators, and elected officials at all levels throughout the country. I have had the privilege of walking into the Oval Office in the White House, and have shaken hands with presidents and vice presidents. None of this would have happened, I know for sure, but for Mrs. Browning’s presence in my life.
Through my work in politics, I’ve also met many leaders of the Latino community in San Diego.
These were the activists that paved the way for a young Latino like me to get into politics in the first place. I respected them, looked to them for mentorship, and wanted to be like them.
Through the years, as I got to know them, I was shocked to find out that I shared a common link with several of these community leaders. They had been high school students of a young teacher at Sweetwater High School in National City, Mrs. Patricia Peace.
The same teacher that had taken an interest in helping me had also helped countless students in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. I heard stories of how she took the time to help some of them to improve their reading skills in English, kept them out of gangs, and helped change their lives for the better.
For years, I thought I was the one lucky kid that she had redirected in life. I thought she only did it in her final years of teaching. I thought it was just a lucky coincidence in life.
Now, I have seen that her entire career was full of examples of her impact on students, and, especially, students of color. Herman Baca, Luis Natividad, Roger Cazares, and several other Latino leaders in San Diego remember specific instances of her kindness, toughness, and guidance that helped shape their lives. Mrs. Peace Browning helped shape the future leaders of our community.
I have now met students of all races and backgrounds that remember Mrs. Peace Browning as one of, if not the most influential teacher they ever had. There are lawyers, judges, doctors, teachers, administrators, business people, community leaders, and stay-at-home moms whose lives were changed by the same teacher. She taught us the discipline, determination, and courage to speak our minds and influence our communities.
Patricia Heinz was born June 16, 1929, and passed away on the morning of Christmas Eve this past December. She had come to San Diego from the Midwest as a child, and attended Escondido High School before earning her teaching credential at San Diego State University. She is survived by her two sons; Steve Peace and Patrick Browning; their spouses Cheryl and Lissa; five grandchildren, Clint, Bret, Chad, Caitlyn, and Aidan; and 5 great-grandchildren, Carter, Elena, Collin, August, and Ezra.
Mrs. Peace (as she was known then) spent her early years at Sweetwater High School teaching English and as the Faculty Advisor for the campus women’s service club, the “Suettes.” More than a decade later, she remarried and moved to Hilltop High where, as Mrs. Browning, she developed a national reputation as the coach of Hilltop’s Champion Speech and Debate teams through multiple years of national and state competitions.
I was fortunate to have been in her class, and to have had her take an interest in helping me. She didn’t have to do any of what she did for me, and for so many others. She was selfless, and she was strong willed. We all learned many valuable life lessons from her.
I went on to work for the Legislature for more than 13 years, and have now worked in government, politics, business, and the media for more than 28 years. Everyday, in some way, I use the skills Mrs. Browning taught me. Speaking, writing, negotiating; all things I learned directly from her, or from the experiences I only had because of her influence in my life.I often find myself saying, “Mrs. Browning would have killed me for saying that!”
Any impact that I may have in our community is a tribute to Mrs. Browning’s teaching career. I will forever be grateful for Mrs. Browning and her family. She opened new opportunities for me, and changed my life.
Now, as the Publisher of a Latino newspaper, I see a direct line from her teachings to my work where I put all of my past experiences into practice everyday.
Great teachers change lives. Over a career that spanned five decades, Patricia Peace Browning changed the lives of thousands of people, for generations to come.
Her family has planned a Celebration of Life event on February 8, at 5:30 p.m., at the Bonita Golf Course. Friends and former student are invited to attend to remember this great teacher and share stories about her. As trained speakers, I expect several former students will take the microphone and recount their experiences with her.
I hope many of her former students will come together to honor the life and career of an exceptional woman that was, not only a great teacher, but also a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and friend.
She will be missed, but Mrs. Peace Browning will always be in our hearts. May she rest in peace.
With my sincerest affection,