The Armijo Union High School student body made nationwide news when students staged an impromptu strike May 11, 1954. The walkout was to protest the firing of two popular staff members, teacher John P. Marchak and vice principal/teacher George Quetin.
The story began three months earlier on Feb. 8 when a delegation of 18 parents brought allegations to the school board that Mr. Marchak had taught atheism, Communism, gave improper sex instruction and had disparaged the Catholic Church.
Marchak denied the charges and allegedly was never told who the accusers were.
The Ethics Commission of the California Teachers Association was invited by Quetin to help with an investigation. After testimony was taken from 70 witnesses, the CTA issued a report March 30 that cleared Marchak of the charges and recommending that he be retained unless he did not have community support.
On May 10, the school board voted not to renew Marchak’s contract and, at the request of Armijo principal Loren Wann, not to renew the contract of Quetin as well.
The next morning when the bell rang at 8:30 a.m., 450 Armijo students clustered in groups on the lawn in front of the school, then located on Union Avenue, and refused to go to classes. They chanted “We want Quetin! We want Marchak!”
Principal Wann urged them to go to their classes, but they refused. Later they filed into the Armijo auditorium and student speakers demanded to know the reasons for the dismissal of Quetin. Wann offered only to tell Quetin in private.
The students and principal went back and forth until about 11 a.m., then Wann suggested they reconvene at 1:30 p.m. Students were to return with their parents and the school board would be present.
The students then staged a downtown demonstration with at least 25 cars in a procession bearing banners that read “We Want Quetin, Down with Wann” and other slogans.
At 1:30 p.m., the packed auditorium was heated and repeated calls were made for why Quetin was let go. Finally at 2:45 p.m., Wann’s list of nine reasons Quetin was let go was produced and included things like “Very often you draw conclusions without getting all the facts” and “You express your opinions.”
They were greeted with catcalls and laughter. Quetin speculated the real reason was because he had brought the CTA into the Marchak investigation.
That evening, yet another meeting was called, and 500 parents showed up (students were asked not to come). After heated exchanges between parents and the school board, a 22-member Citizens Committee for Armijo High was created and passed a resolution calling for Quetin and Marchak to be reinstated and for the five members of the school board to resign.
“My mother was not one to keep her opinions to herself, so my family was right there in the mix when we gathered at the auditorium that night,” Karen McDonald Ramsden, Class of 1956, said. “The activities of the day were rather overwhelming to us as lowerclassmen, and we were definitely the followers and not the leaders.”
The Solano Republican newspaper printed a free extra special edition, its first in 25 years, that was distributed to every home in Fairfield, Suisun City and rural areas.
The school board stuck by its decision. Teachers did not have tenure at Armijo and thus hiring and firing was under the board’s purview. Armijo teachers expressed fears for their jobs anonymously in the press. The CTA warned that Armijo would in effect be put on a “blacklist” of places for potential teachers not to go.
The next week, the Citizen’s Committee sent a delegation to the State Department of Education in Sacramento to try to get Marchak and Quetin reinstated. State officials told them their hands were tied as the state had to respect local control.
Class of 1954’s Warren Sheldon provided post-scripts to the whole incident.
“The board relieved Principal Wann of his duties in 1956. He became the field rep of the State Department of Education and died in Pollock Pines in 1980. Mr. Quetin became the Selma High School principal and died in 1973. Mr. Marchak disappeared. Marchak and Quetin must have been good teachers because after all these years, former students still speak well of them.”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at [email protected].