Looking back at time as a student at Monte Vista High School in Danville, California, it felt more like a prison sentence than anything else. Nevertheless, many years have passed (to count how many is terrifying) since I went there, and I somehow find myself becoming nostalgic for certain things about it. Considering how I could not wait to graduate from there, this is almost surprising until I am reminded of one of my favorite teachers from this institution which was once considered one of California’s Most Distinguished Schools: Chester Farrow.
Chester, or Chet as his students liked to call him, taught many classes at Monte Vista High School including TV Productions and electronics for 32 years until he retired in 1999. In addition to teaching, he was also the scoreboard operator for the Oakland Athletics (a.k.a. the Oakland A’s) for even longer. On top of that, he was a well-known concert promoter who succeeded in bringing such music acts like Journey, Greg Kihn and Huey Lewis and the News to the Al Gentile Theatre on the Monte Vista campus. With the money he made from those concerts, he and his students built a production studio which came to be known as Rainbow Studios, and it became a place of refuge for many students including myself. Looking at this, you have to wonder how Chet found the time to do all of this. While most teachers need a second job to get by financially, much of what he did was out of a love for music, baseball and hanging out with teenagers who were desperately trying to find their way in a harsh adolescent landscape.
Chester Farrow died Sunday morning, May 24, 2020 at the age of 77 after a long battle with cancer. This was not a big surprise as many of us knew of his terminal diagnosis for some time, and he was determined to spend his final days at his home in Walnut Creek. His longtime girlfriend, Wendi Leyba, organized a fundraiser on GoFundMe.com to help pay for his part time health care which was said to be very expensive and not covered by his insurance. The fundraising goal was $10,000, but more than two months later, the total reached $31,150. If this does not describe the strong loyalty Chet’s students had for him, what will?
Like I said, the news of Chet’s death was not very surprising, but the void his passing has left is what really hit me hard. Chet was a titan in the Easy Bay of Northern California, and his influence on the lives and careers of many of his students is utterly profound to say the least. Those who knew him best have made it clear he will never be replaced, and I imagine Monte Vista is still on the lookout for a teacher like him ever since he retired back in 1999.
I was a student of Chet’s TV Productions class during my junior and senior year, and I became eager to enroll in this class after watching the cable access show “Just for You” which he produced at Rainbow Studios. Chet had produced this show for many years and, having just discovered a deep love for acting and performing, I was eager to become a part of it.
During my first year in Chet’s class, I found him to be a very intimidating presence, and I know I was not the only one. When we filmed an episode of “Just For You,” we initially did it live, and he demanded a level of professionalism we had no reason not to give him. Granted, this resulted in many stressful moments for him and his students as not everything came together in a perfect way. If he had problems with something you had written for the show, he would tell you straight out. There was always a no bullshit attitude about him, and he never hesitated to tell you what you needed to hear. Sometimes it hurt to hear his thoughts on your work, but the kind of honesty he gave us was hard to find elsewhere.
The second year, my view of Chet evolved as my classmates and I came to really respect his way of doing business. As time went on, he had a warm presence about him, and it became clear he liked talking to us instead of down to us like other teachers did. By this time, we were already working on Monte Vista’s annual video yearbook, and a couple of students neglected to film a lunch the freshman students were having at Oak Hill Park. To put it mildly, he was pissed.
“Okay people, there was a freshman lunch today which students in this class were assigned to film for the video yearbook, and they didn’t bother doing so. If this happens again, FUCK YOU, OUT OF THE CLASS! Now folks, I am not a happy pup…”
At the end of Chet’s rant, we all applauded him. Whereas these rants seemed frightening at times, we came to appreciate them because, hey, we were given a task to complete. If we didn’t get the job done, he had every right to get super fucking pissed at us. If you put in the hard work, it did eventually get recognized by him and he would point out your strengths to the rest of the class.
As I am sure you can tell by now, Chet did use a lot of profanity in the classroom. He never seemed to be ashamed of it, and he always felt free to express his opinions the way he wanted. Granted, this upset many parents who could not appreciate his unorthodox teaching methods or him going against the conservative grain most high school teachers were expected to work under. For the record, my dad was on the school board during this time, and he told me many of his colleagues wanted to see Chet get fired. My dad, however, liked Chet for the same reasons they did not as he felt every high school needed someone like him to shake things up, and I agree with my dad wholeheartedly on this.
Among other things, Chet taught us the power of promotion and of getting the word out about something you wanted to sell. This came about when he talked to us about putting the idea of the video yearbook into everyone’s head at Monte Vista. You always had to be talking about wherever you went:
“Hey, what are you doing out of class? Video yearbook. Say, do you know classroom the music department is at? Video yearbook. Hey, what are you doing smoking cigarettes by your car? Video yearbook…”
There was also the time when of his most prized students, Ian Williamson, was going through Chet’s old collection of tapes and discovered one in which he did a commercial about rock concerts which had, shall I say, a highly subliminal quality as a voice was droning in the background saying, “see you at the concert, see you at the concert, see you at the concert, see you at the concert…” Listening to it years later, were rolling on the floor with laughter, but I bet you it got a lot of people to attend those shows.
Granted, there were many times where he didn’t teach us but talked instead about things on his mind and of lessons we needed to learn sooner rather than later. After a time, it felt like we were in the presence of a wonderfully profane stand-up comedian who was polishing up his act with us. I will never forget when he took his kids to Disneyland, “the happiest place on Earth,” and the blank expression on his face perfectly illustrated the typical tourist who arrived there only to find things are more profit driven than magical. Then there was the time he was fixing a fellow teacher’s VCR, and once he figured out what was wrong with it, he quickly started doing the moonwalk while singing the chorus from the Beatles song “Come Together.” More often than not, he had us in hysterics, and you could usually count on him to put a smile on your face.
While Chet could be hard on his students, he loved hanging out with us and was always interested to hear about what we were up to. I came back to his classroom many times after I graduated, and he was always quick to tell me, “You are always welcome here Ben.”
Here are some testimonials from students of his:
Trevor Boelter: “Chet – I want to thank you for the philosophy of E.T.C — I think about that day working late in Rainbow Studios, cleaning the heads of the tape machines and having a private audience with you as you shared this piece of wisdom. I have always thought about this and have shared it with many people over the years. I wish I could embody this daily, but some days, I do and it always makes things better. If I have no EXPECTATIONS, due to not having CONTROL, my TEMPERAMENT will always be COOL. It was/is/always will be profound.”
Ian Williamson: “It’s important to me to say that Chester was an incredible person who over the years influenced so many people, including myself. He not only put me on the path my life has gone, but he was absolutely instrumental with the start of my career and the successes and happiness I’ve found along the way. I don’t think there has ever been anyone who believed in me as much as he did. To me he was an absolute giant among men, and more to my heart, he was like a father to me.”
Kenneth Hunter: “Hands down the best and most influential teacher I ever had the pleasure of knowing. What a great man he was! Love you long time Chester Farrow! You were not only a friend, a teacher, a mentor, but you were part of my family. Thank you for being such a great influence in my life.”
Laura Lamson: “I’ll always remember the Bammies! You were like a father figure to me. Even when I looked like I was down, you knew just what to say to brighten my day! I’ll always love you for that! I will miss you. You will always be in my heart!”
Michael Coats: “He and I had a 48-year relationship starting in 1974 at Monte Vista High School in Danville. Chester was the hippest, the best teacher many had. He will be missed. We love and thank you buddy, and may fair winds and following seas carry you on.”
Michele Goodrich General: “I loved him so much as a teacher. If it’s wasn’t for him, our lives would be so different.”
Laura Lamson also took the time to email the current principal of Monte Vista High School about Chet’s passing, and this was the principal’s response:
I am very sad to hear of Mr. Farrow’s passing. While he was at MV long before I arrived, I have heard quite a few stories about his time at Monte Vista. He was definitely an amazing teacher who truly cared about his students and his colleagues. . . and from reading your email, they loved him back. I have shared the news with our staff and will follow up with another announcement at tomorrow’s staff meeting.
Dr. Kevin Ahern
Monte Vista High School
Dr. Ahem also included the following quote in his email:
“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” – Charles Bukowski
Chet, as much as I do not want to relive my high school years during which I was afflicted with psychological disorders which were not yet diagnosed, anxiety and depression, your classes made going to Monte Vista worth the trouble. The first day of school always had me on the verge of tears as I wondered if I could endure another year of adolescent bullshit, but then I arrived at Rainbow Studios and found myself with a smile on my face. I remember when I was a senior and you made your entrance for the TV Productions class. Everyone there was quick to applaud your entrance, and few other teachers at Monte Vista could ever elicit such a response.
I thank you for laughing when I said “yo” instead of “here” when you actually took the time to take attendance. I used to say this or some variation of it like “yes man” or “here dude,” and while other teachers were annoyed with my choice of words, you were quick to laugh before my fellow classmates did.
Thanks for encouraging me to bring props for my “Just A Thought” segments on “Just For You.” Thanks for your at times brutal honesty because you always told us what we needed to hear. More importantly, thanks for being there for us when we were down and for relating to our struggles. Thanks for giving us reasons to rise above our miserable lives and giving us compliments when we flat out deserved them. Thanks for giving us a solid path to travel down which came to define our lives in a very positive way.
Godspeed Chet. You will be missed.
Here are some articles about Chester Farrow worth checking out:
Chet took the time to upload many Rainbow Studio videos which include episodes of “Just for You,” several volumes of the Video Yearbook, concerts and rock and roll recitals. Click here to check these videos out.
Before his passing, he took the time to write a memoir entitled “Chester: No Limit! – From Educator to Oakland A’s Scoreboard Operator. A Trip Down Memory Lane.” Click here to find out how you can purchase a copy.