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What can we learn from the death of Diego Chavira?

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Posted: Friday, April 17, 2009 10:00 pm

I wish something more could come of the death of 19-year-old Diego Chavira. Something more than regret.

Diego was not someone I knew well, but you couldn't miss him. He played soccer and baseball with my youngest son, Mike.

He was a short guy long on desire. Diego delighted his teammates and everyone in the bleachers with his wisecracks and scrappy play.

I've tried this week to make sense of his life and the shooting that ended it. I'm sadly stumped.

Sheriff's detectives aren't releasing much about what happened, but it's clear from those close to his family that it was just the most senseless death.

It wasn't a gang thing, they say. Diego had avoided the gang activities in his east Lodi neighborhood. Diego was not a fighter. But he went to a fight - not his fight, but someone else's fight.

Maybe he went to break things up. Maybe he got carried away and made things worse. It was like Diego to think he could help, but he couldn't or didn't.

What we know is, he was shot dead.

His death has broken many hearts. His friends were both Mexican-American and "white," by which I mean of predominantly European descent. The parents and kids who are scratching their heads and wishing this hadn't happened come from both sides of the tracks.

Diego was the rare teenager who engaged adults directly and frequently, with respect and humor. He was also an unusual high school kid who reached out to people of all cultures.

"I'd say the majority of his friends were white," said his blond-haired friend Justin Mynear. "That's probably based on the fact he played a lot of sports. On the (Lodi High) baseball team, we were almost all white."

Diego was a crack-up. Several friends recalled funny moments - most of them more appropriate for a high school locker room than the newspaper. But there was the time he gave all-star baseball coach Ted Coffee a celebratory belly rub in front of the whole team.

But kidding aside, he respected his coaches and worked hard.

"It was impressive. His junior year, he didn't start; he didn't play much. But," said Mynear, "come his senior year, Diego was a much better player. He played Cal-Mex and Legion ball that summer. He was picking up games.

"Hitting, catching, throwing, fielding - he was an all-around better player … ," when he returned to the high school team for his last season.

Diego lived in the poorest part of Lodi's Eastside, but against all odds he was a good student. He would have gone to a four-year college. He wanted to study law enforcement at San Francisco State.

And then he was shot dead in a parking lot.

I've talked to Lodi Police Chief Dave Main about this - about boys who can't seem to avoid a fight. About those who drag others like Diego into their fights. Main knows it's a problem and is going through the methodical steps of testing a program to reach out to these boys.

It is called the GREAT Program - it has to do with gang resistance and education. But it has to be tried and tested before it goes out to most schools. Maybe next year, maybe if the test prove out and the funding comes through … .

I talked to Lodi High Principal Bill Atterberry. He thinks an education program might work at the elementary school level. By the time boys are in high school, their attitude about fighting isn't going to be changed by lectures from adults, he said.

Many of the parents I talked to about Diego's death - people like Robert Fowler, who opened his home to Diego for several months, and Jeanne Glass, whose son played soccer and had classes with Diego. They want to do something right now. But what?

I wonder if our readers have any ideas, any advice for people like Main and Atterberry and me in the media.

Can those who were touched by Diego Chavira do something that will make things better next time - prevent another killing?

Or do we just bury Diego on Tuesday, eulogize his generous spirit and short life, and then move on?

Is that it?

Marty Weybret is the publisher of the News-Sentinel.

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