By Natalie Letcher
Norman Cornelius Letcher, Dean of Students at Berkeley High School, passed away peacefully in his sleep on May 1, 2015, and had been continually surrounded by family and loved ones. Born June 11, 1933, he was just one month shy of 82 years old.
Mr. Letcher had a longstanding successful career in education that spanned 25 years, which included employment in the Berkeley Unified School District as well as the Parks & Recreation Department. For over two decades he demonstrated outstanding dedication and excellence of service to the City of Berkeley and youth of our community. He held numerous official positions including: Dean of Students (BHS), Student Supervisor (West Campus), Child Welfare and Attendance Supervisor (citywide), Grade Coordinator and Counselor (MLK Jr. High), Teacher (various schools), and Boxing/Sports Coach (San Pablo Park, Berkeley Boosters, BYA). Beginning in 1968 at Berkeley’s San Pablo Park, he supervised the youth to keep the park safe, coached sports, and taught African/traditionally inspired woodcarving.
Mr. Letcher had an innate understanding, genuine respect, and love for young people and often preferred the candor, openness and playfulness of children and youth. A direct, outspoken, man who had tremendous energy and a great love of life, he related more to the naturalness and spontaneity of kids, in contrast to the behavior of many adults who adopt learned social conventions and artificial status divisions, rather than being ‘real’.
Although his integrity and strength of character commanded respect and he kept order in the schools and parks, Mr. Letcher also had a gregarious personality, told stories and joked around, putting people at ease around him. Add to this the talents of artist (sculpture, painting and sketching), poet, and a philosophical bent, and you get an idea of the kind of multi-talented person he was.
From the small Midwestern town of Leavenworth, Kansas, Mr. Letcher was the third of four sons to Spencer Carl Letcher and Bertha Jane Patterson. His other brothers were Spencer Jr. aka ‘Jack’, Lloyd aka ‘Flip’, and their youngest sibling Carey.
In his own youth, Norman left high school at 16, but then went on to earn his G.E.D in the Air Force, in which he served for four years, his B.A. in Recreation and Parks from San Francisco State University, and finally a Masters of Arts in Counseling Psychology from Cal State University Hayward (now Cal State East Bay).
Prior to entering the field of education, Norman began his adult career serving in the United States Air Force. Bestowed with natural athletic ability, he played football in the position of fullback while in the Air Force. After leaving the Air Force, he moved to California in the late 1950’s, turned his talents to a boxing career, and at his peak was a top world-class boxer, sparring with Floyd Patterson and being matched with well-known fighters at the time such as Bobby Sands, Zora Folley, and Bobby Foster.
Never forgetting his own humble roots and how far he came, Mr. Letcher had a special place in his heart for the underdog and was an ongoing advocate for youth at risk. In this respect, his work in Recreation and Parks was a perfect vehicle for him to empower youngsters to develop potential talents and build self-esteem, with sports and the arts used as positive outlets to channel anger and abundant energy. Dedicated to uplifting and encouraging youth to learn how to transcend limiting conditions, he was highly effective in this role, for what he communicated to them was grounded in his own personal experience. In addition to Berkeley’s San Pablo Park, he also worked at the San Francisco Hunters Point Boys Club.
After his official retirement in 1989, he continued to work part-time, offering his services in an after school program at Willard Junior High as part of the “Respect Team,” and volunteered to coach boxing and counsel youth at Temple Church in Berkeley. He also volunteered in the Stephen Ministries program at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church in Oakland.
The respect and appreciation he earned from both his peers, and the youth and students he served in his multiple roles over the years established him as a true pillar of the Berkeley community. in which he lived for 47 years.
Mr. Letcher is survived by his daughter Natalie Letcher, his grandson Michael, his nephew Stanley, his niece Janice, and other extended family, his ex-wife Sharon, his lifelong friend Charles Richardson (who also worked at Berkeley Schools and Parks), and other extended family and lifelong friends. The members of his original family from the Spencer and Bertha lineage have all preceded him in passing away.
It is with much love, admiration and respect that those of us who knew him cherish and remember his enduring legacy, thankful that we had this tremendous man of tireless dedication and goodwill in our lives. Those in the community whose lives were touched by Mr. Letcher are welcome to join family, friends and colleagues in honoring the man, remembering the legacy and celebrating his life at his Memorial Service this coming Saturday, June 13th at 1:00pm at his last place of worship: Lake Merritt United Methodist Church 1255 1st Avenue, Oakland, California.
In honor of his memory and his values, in lieu of flowers, it is requested that people make a donation to Berkeley Youth Alternatives (BYA), which is one of the places Mr. Letcher worked. For more information call (510) 845-9010 or visit www.byaonline.org.
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