Rare is the individual capable of bridging generational gaps, transcending cultural differences and touching the lives of nearly every person in his or her community.
Ralph E. Vavak (1928-2013) was one such person, and thus, it is with sadness and regret that I write about the passing of the longtime educator who, over more than 50 years of service, left an indelible mark on the Cortez town that he called home.
Like so many members of our community, I was fortunate enough to forge a bond with Mr. Vavak while studying at Montezuma-Cortez High School.
While I never got to know “Mr. V” on the intimate level that many of my classmates and colleagues did, I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the man who, as a substitute teacher and band instructor, impacted my life and the lives of countless others.
As a tribute to, and in remembrance of, one of the finest educators our community has ever seen, I would like to share what I perceive to be the traits that set Mr. Vavak apart and allowed him to influence so many parents, students, colleagues and community members over the last fifty-plus years.
Ability to bridge generational gaps
Well into his 70s by the time I met him in 2001, Mr. Vavak was, in some ways, a man from an era long passed.
Often dressing in slacks and a button-down shirt, “Mr. V” sometimes appeared outdated amidst teenage students clad in baggy jeans and skater shoes.
Hip to popular culture and in tune with the pulse of the modern generation, however, Mr. V deftly balanced his appreciation for modern trends with an insistence on old-time values rooted in dignity and respect.
“(Mr. Vavak) could relate to days’ events with a lifetime of experience,” said Vavak’s longtime friend and current Montezuma-Cortez High School band director, Rodney Rithaller. “When he met a student or had any type of dealings with a student, he respected the person for who they were. He didn’t try to mold them or shape them into something that reflected his understanding of the world.”
Ability to transcend cultural divides
In addition connecting with students sixty years his junior, Mr. Vavak’s ability to relate with students of different racial and cultural backgrounds left an impression on the Cortez community.
An avid horseman and a collector of Native American artwork, Mr. V was a respected figure among Native American and Hispanic students, who, over the years, became staples in the M-CHS band program.
“Whether you were an Indian kid or a Hispanic kid, he was well educated in those cultures,” explained Rithaller. “He was very aware of the culture and the beliefs.”
“(Mr. Vavak) could get along with a lot of different folks,” added Ute tribal member Erik White, a former band student who now serves on the RE-1 school board. “Quite a few Native Americans really liked him.”
Ability to touch countless lives
A transcendental figure on many levels, Mr. V’s ability to touch countless lives was nothing short of remarkable.
Regardless of whether one was a standout band student, a choir member, an athlete or someone of a different ilk entirely, Mr. V was happy and willing to engage.
His ability to open his heart to others and touch the lives of everyone that he came in contact with was his most brilliant trait. Although such a trait is next to impossible to replicate, it is a trait I hope that we all aspire towards.
Gone in body, but forever here in spirit, Ralph E. Vavak’s memory will live on in the hearts and minds of those lucky enough make his acquaintance.
I, along with countless others, forever cherish the time that we spent the man that gave us so much.