Years ago, Caleb Navarro sat in on his father’s beginning band class at Gibson Leadership Academy in Las Vegas. He remembers being less than dazzled by the students’ music abilities.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, they’re really terrible,’” he said. “That was just me being really snobby back then.”
But his father Pablo Navarro, the middle school’s band teacher for about 25 years, showered his students with praise for how far they’d come.
Caleb, now 21, experienced his father’s enthusiastic teaching style first hand in middle school, and ended up coming to appreciate his father’s response to the occasional sour note. He just wrapped up his second year working at Gibson as a special education instructional aide, is enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada and hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a band teacher.
His father won’t be there to see his dream come to fruition. After being hospitalized for nearly six weeks, Navarro died May 27 due to COVID-19 complications. He was 54.
Mark Nekoba, a band teacher at Schofield Middle School in Las Vegas, created a GoFundMe page to help the family pay medical bills arising from Navarro’s battle with the disease caused by the coronavirus. As of Thursday, $13,305 had been raised toward a $20,000 goal.
Nekoba said he and the elder Navarro, who’d been friends for more than 30 years, talked on the phone in February and agreed they should get together for lunch, maybe after the school year ended. It was an engagement that would never be kept.
In an interview, Caleb Navarro described his father as “larger than life” and someone who was “always patient and compassionate with people” and didn’t give up on them.
If he was upset with a student, he said, “It was more because you’re doing a disservice to yourself.”
Navarro was the backbone of the Gibson school community and will be missed a great deal, Principal Jennifer Jaeger said. He was a “such a positive figure and champion of our school and who we are.”
Since Navarro’s death, the school has offered grief counseling for students and employees, Jaeger said, adding that the loss is “really hitting us hard.”
Looking forward, the school is working to establish a scholarship — likely, geared toward music education — in Navarro’s memory, Jaeger said. It’s exploring other options, too, to remember his legacy.
‘He was needed there’
Nekoba met Navarro in 1985 while they were in college at the University of Arizona and they became good friends. They later were in one another’s wedding parties.
Navarro first worked at a high school in California, but Nekoba persuaded him to move to Las Vegas in 1996 and a band teacher job opened at Gibson.
Caleb said his father fell in love with Gibson, which had a different atmosphere and challenges at the time. “Specifically, the band program was not at all what it is today,” he said. “My dad was really committed to changing that.”
Navarro got job offers from other school principals over the years, but turned them down. He ended up staying at Gibson for the rest of his career.
The Title I school has a high percentage of students who are living in poverty.
“He always said he was needed there and he was,” Nekoba said.
Navarro led several ensembles at the school, including the beginning, intermediate, advanced and jazz bands.
Navarro’s main instrument was alto saxophone, “but he played a little bit of everything,” Caleb said. “He was humble about everything that he could play.”
Nekoba said he will always remember his friend’s intelligence and high energy.
“That things that Pablo was passionate about, he was super, super exuberant about,” he said, noting his students loved that about him. “He always tried to get through to his kids just how great music was.”
Navarro’s classroom was also a popular gathering place for students. Some ate breakfast there instead of the cafeteria because “they just enjoyed the environment in his classroom,” Caleb said.
A popular hangout
And instead of going home right away after school, some of his students came to the band room, either to hang out or practice their instruments.
Navarro had extremely high standards for his students and held them accountable, Jaeger said. “At the same time, he had such a love for music and a passion for music education and I think he conveyed that.”
Navarro also showed his students he loved and cared about them, she said, and in return, his students wanted to do well and improve.
In 2008, Navarro’s efforts were recognized on a national level with an award from The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation during a ceremony in New York City.
As for life outside of teaching, Navarro used to take each of his four sons out individually for father-son days to places such as a restaurant or arcade.
Navarro was “very religious” and was actively involved in the Baptist church, Nekoba said. “Everything in his life really revolved around religion and his family. Those were the two most important things to him.”
Navarro leaves behind his wife Anita and four sons: Andrew, 23; Caleb, 21; Daniel, 19; and David, 17.
A funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at First Baptist Church of The Lakes in Las Vegas.