Rhea DeHart, “The lion of Pajaro,” dies

Pajaro Valley Unified School District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez (left) listens as Rhea DeHart delivers the keynote commencement address for Watsonville/Aptos/Santa Cruz Adult Education in 2018. (Todd Guild/The Pajaronian file)

WATSONVILLE — Rhea Wood DeHart was a longtime teacher, union member, mentor and activist who helped lead the drive to unionize South County teachers, reshaped Watsonville politics and remained deeply active in the community she loved until the end of her life.

DeHart died Monday in Valley Convalescent Hospital. She was 96.

She was a fixture at Watsonville City Council and PVUSD Board of Trustees meetings, where she often addressed the elected leaders by pointing her finger, narrowing her eyes and speaking in an even-keeled but nevertheless authoritative voice to hammer home her points.

“When she wagged her finger at us, and told us how it should be, I paid attention,” said Watsonville City Councilman Lowell Hurst. “She had something to say about everything. The community was really lucky to have such an outspoken leader with a heart of gold.”

“She was the lion of Pajaro,” Hurst added.

DeHart’s friend Nancy Bilicich, who directs Watsonville/Aptos/Santa Cruz Adult Education, said that DeHart was a leader who worked with all political factions.

“She was an icon in our community, and will be surely missed,” Bilicich said. “She crossed over to so many different worlds. Democrat, Republican, everyone sought her advice and mentorship in so many areas.”

DeHart was born in Northampton, Mass. on Oct., 9 1922.

She attended Mount Holyoke College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1942 and a master’s degree in 1943.

Rhea DeHart as a college student

DeHart had not planned to be a teacher, but in the fall of 1943 she took a job in Brunswick, GA teaching seventh and eighth grade. This began a career in education that spanned the better part of six decades.

She married Thad James DeHart in 1945, one day after the U.S. bombed Hiroshima, Japan.

They were married for 39 years, until Thad’s death in 1990. They raised five children together. 

The couple at first lived in North Carolina, where they taught school and raised cattle, before moving to Santa Cruz.

That was a compromise for both – Thad had hoped to settle in San Diego, where he had been stationed in the U.S. Navy. Rhea, on the other hand, wanted to go to San Francisco, said DeHart’s daughter Katherine DeHart Hale.

Hale had praise for her mother, and for the community that nurtured her throughout her life.

“She had so many fantastic friends in the community who helped her,” she said. “It’s hard to express how much the people in the community did for her.”

“We were all inspired and motivated by her example, and her limitless energy,” Hale said.

DeHart began teaching in Watsonville schools in 1964, including Watsonville High School, where she taught government and history.

DeHart was a leader in the 1969 push to unionize teachers, which led to the formation of the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers.

“Rhea was a great mentor to many of us, as a teacher, a unionist and a community member,” said former PVFT President Francisco Rodriguez. “Her work will continue to have an impact for years to come both in the school district and the community.”

DeHart retired from Watsonville High School in 1984, but continued to teach adult education classes. She served as union president of PVFT and served as a field representative until 2001. 

DeHart moved to Watsonville after her husband’s death. She was elected to the PVUSD Board of Trustees in 2002, where she served a four-year term, two as board president.

Dehart returned to the classroom at 86 to supplement her pension, and even after her second retirement kept herself busy with the goings-on in Watsonville.

“She was fierce, right up to the end,” Hale said.

DeHart served on several Watsonville commissions, including Planning, and Parks and Recreation. She also served on the Board of Library Trustees and the Board of Directors for Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance board.   

“Rhea to me was the model example of a community servant,” said PVPSA CEO Erica Padilla Chavez. “She was really rooted in the idea that everyone has the right to a good life.”

In addition, DeHart served on the boards of Pajaro Valley Migrant Head Start, Migrant and Adaptive in the Americas Foundation, Watsonville Women’s Club and Mello Center for the Performing Arts. 

Sharon Gray, who served on the PVUSD Board of Trustees with DeHart, said the two became fast friends during their time there.

“She was one of the most honest, giving people I’ve had the privilege of knowing,” Gray said.

PVUSD Trustee Kim DeSerpa said she appreciated that DeHart always kept a “keen eye” on the matters that came before the board.

“She was so inspiring for her devotion to service, and trying to make the community a better place,” DeSerpa said. “I heeded her wisdom. I was deferential when she told me something. Not that I always agreed with her, but I listened closely to her.”

Former school board member Willie Yahiro said that DeHart’s influence spanned through the years from her students into the community at large.

“She would attend the city council meetings to observe, and was really quite proud of the people who made it to the council who were former students of hers,” Yahiro said.

Vic Marani said he has known DeHart for more than 40 years in a variety of capacities, including as a grandmother figure and next-door neighbor who held his infant children when they came home from the hospital for the first time.

Dehart led the drive to pass Measures H, I and J in 2014, Marani said, which among other things changed how Watsonville’s mayor is selected.

“It’s a tremendous loss for the community because of all the wonderful things she’s accomplished,” Marani said. “Many of us are standing on the shoulders of her accomplishments.”

As part of the Senior Coalition, DeHart also helped change local rules that now allow parcel tax exemptions for seniors and people with disabilities, Marani said. 

“She was always looking for ways to help people,” he said. “I hope I have half the impact she’s had, and the ability to touch lives the way she has.”

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