On the evening of December 14, Southwestern College lost one of its most visible icons. Philip Lopez, English professor and longtime union crusader, died of a sudden, massive heart attack minutes after being admitted to Sharp Hospital in Chula Vista. It was the day before his 65th birthday.
By all accounts his death was unexpected. He had spent the afternoon in what were described as successful negotiations between the faculty union and the college administration.
Kathleen Canney Lopez, professor of computer information systems who describes herself as “Phil’s former wife and his comrade,” said Lopez sat down at his Chula Vista home with a stack of paperwork. Feeling chest pains, he took aspirin and called 911. It took only minutes for the paramedics to arrive. He was rushed into the hospital and died there less than two minutes later.
“It was quick,” Canney Lopez said. “It was painless.”
Lopez was a fixture on campus. He taught English since 1974, first as an adjunct and later as a tenured professor. He was a stalwart in the faculty union, the Southwestern College Educators’ Association (SCEA). Every year for the past 27 years, he has been either the union president, vice president or secretary.
Known for his toughness, fairness and his frequent sparring with SWC administration in negotiations and meetings, his sudden absence from the landscape leaves a vacancy that many describe as a hole in the college campus.
“It leaves a void, particularly on budgetary issues,” said Tim Nader, governing board trustee. “Phil identified the questions that needed to be asked, made sure they got asked, then pressed for answers. Because he’s been with the school for so long, he has an institutional memory that’s not going to be easy to replace.”
With 38 years of teaching under his belt, Lopez is one of the longest-serving professors at the college – possibly the longest. Joel Levine, dean of the School of Language and Literature where Lopez taught, called the loss “tremendous.”
“One of the great supports and forces for justice at this college is gone,” he said. “The best we can do is take up that baton and keep the spirit going. Phil would want us to keep fighting for what’s right, just and fair, and in the best interest of the students. That spirit will not go away.”
Canney Lopez said the faculty has taken a major blow.
“SWC faculty has lost the most important resource they’ve ever had,” she said. “Phil single-handedly wrote every word in their contracts and every addition to it for 27 years. He was our expert, our watchdog and our protector.”
Andrew Rempt, professor of English, agreed.
“Even faculty members that hated Phil will benefit from his work in ways they’ll never even appreciate,” he said.
Eric Maag, president of the SCEA, said that Lopez represented a lot of different things.
“A lot of history, a lot of perspectives, for a lot of different people,” he said.
Known for his blunt, straightforward, honest way of speaking to people, Lopez offended and alienated some. Leslie Yoder, chair of the English department, said she had no issue with it.
“Phil gives everybody grief, which is one of his most endearing qualities,” she said. “He was one of those people who I felt comfortable disagreeing with because I knew he wouldn’t take it personally. He would just deal with the issue at hand.”
What made him seem prickly to some was the same drive that impressed others when he stood up for those who needed it. Andrew MacNeill, former SCEA president and currently dean of humanities at Mesa College, called him “an advocate for the little guy.”
“Phil was always fighting and he was willing to stand up for anybody,” he said.
Angelina Stuart, ESL professor and former president of the Academic Senate, agreed.
“He was a fiery advocate for the faculty and for what he knew was right,” she said.
Reading Professor Robert Unger worked with Lopez for about 10 years as a union officer and member of the grievance committee. He said Lopez believed in the right to speak out and speak up.
“Phil had absolute belief in free speech,” he said. “Not just for faculty, but for everybody. Phil would fight to the death to defend someone who was maligning him. It wouldn’t matter if they were attacking him or attacking a cause he was interested in.”
In 2009, Lopez, along with Rempt and professors Janet Mazzarella and Dinorah Guadiana-Costa, were targeted and suspended by former SWC Superintendent Raj K. Chopra, following a student-led free speech rally that ended with a march on Chopra’s office. Though many fretted about the futures of the professors’ jobs, Lopez refused to worry. Canney Lopez said that was because he preferred to worry about and help others keep their jobs, not his own. He had a unique way of showing it, one that spotlighted a soft side that not many knew he possessed.
“Every time Philip saved somebody’s job,” she said, “they’d ask, ‘What can I do to thank you? Can I give you a check? Take you out to dinner?’ Phil would say, ‘Buy me a rose.’ He planted those roses out front [of his home] in the rose garden. Every one of those flowers is from a person whose job was saved. He tended those roses every day.”
Canney Lopez said that Lopez arrived as a part-time adjunct faculty member at SWC in 1974 fully politicized and ready to fight the good fight.
“He was a member of SCEA from day one,” she said. “Even though they didn’t represent part-timers. He worked for about 10 years to get the union to represent [them].”
Eventually they did. But a few years later, he realized further changes would have to be made.
“He fell and broke his arm,” Canney Lopez said. “He had no health insurance. They weren’t going to do anything about it, so he ran for president and that was his agenda. He won. Now they have pro-rated health insurance.”
She said that, given the choice, he would have remained at Southwestern forever.
“Philip’s life was SWC and the union,” Canney Lopez said. “He had been eligible for retirement and he’d say, I’ll just stay one more year. But he would not have left. He did this until he died.”
Francisco Bustos, professor of English and a musician who jammed with the accordion-playing Lopez several times a year, agreed.
“Phil worked because he loved to work,” he said. “I think he wasn’t a guy who wanted to go out slowly. He wanted to work until the end. This was his life.”
Rempt said Lopez was one of the most courageous people he’d ever known.
“He seemed fearless when he would rail against the injustices of these various administrations,” he said. “He was remarkably smart. He always had his numbers and facts in line. When he was hammering on a point, he was hammering on it because he was right.”
Rempt said one of Lopez’s biggest battles was with former vice president of business and finance Nicholas Alioto, who recommended cutting 429 classes from the schedule in 2009 to pay for a deficit he predicted. Alioto claimed that the school would have an end-of-year balance of $8.5 million and SWC would lose more than $5 million. In doing so, he justified the cuts to classes – classes that were never returned to the schedule. Lopez, using what he often called “back of the envelope math,” said SWC would end up with a $15 million balance. When Alioto realized that Lopez was right, he began a surreptitious spend-down meant to dispose of millions of dollars to keep the final balance low. Former SWC comptroller Laura Sales blew the whistle on Alioto and told The Sun how he had reacted.
“Mr. Alioto spent all that money because he didn’t want to admit that Phil Lopez was right,” she said.
Alioto dumped almost $5 million that SWC never recovered. The final balance was $13.9 million – much closer to Lopez’s calculations than Alioto’s.
Humberto Peraza, governing board president who recently celebrated his election victory at an event at Lopez’s house, said he came up with a nickname for the watchdog.
“I had started calling him Nostradamus,” he said, “because he’d been right about the budget so many times – even better than some of the vice presidents in the past.”
Despite his reputation as a David taking on all Goliaths, Lopez was a professor first, said philosophy professor Peter Bolland.
“He was incredibly intelligent,” Bolland said. “Able to read budgets and understand union negotiations, and have the institutional memory. He was a perfect combination of characteristics. Then, above all that, he was a passionate educator who really understood the reason why we all show up at this place every day.”
Canney Lopez said he was destined to be a professor.
“He always wanted to teach English,” she said. “He loved literature, writing and reading. And with enthusiasm, he always shared them with anybody he ever met.”
“He had this remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge,” Rempt said. “I never saw him when he wasn’t reading something.”
Elisa Hedrick, professor of English, said she was still dealing with the news of Lopez’s death.
“It’s a cliché, but I’m still in complete shock,” she said. “He’s got this calloused, weathered, brazenly honest exterior, but inside he had a big heart and he fought for what is right. To just lose that suddenly leaves you speechless.”
Peraza said he felt much the same.
“Phil is someone you thought would live forever,” he said. “You just can’t imagine him not being here.”
Bustos said that SWC will feel different now.
“The college isn’t going to be the same without him,” he said. “But we have to keep working hard, the way he did. Those are big shoes to fill.”
Nader said the change was even more basic than that.
“He’s just a big wonderful presence at the Southwestern community that we’re going to miss,” he said.
Rempt said there will be no one else like Lopez.
“I love that man. He was difficult. He was challenging. But he was honest, courageous and smart, and we could do with a hell of a lot more of him.”
Canney Lopez said Lopez was a “wonderful teacher, a wonderful man and a great father.”
“He spent his life in service to others and he never asked for anything. There was no reward he asked for. He had a moral compass. He knew what was right.”
Because the rally in 2009 that got him suspended began at the patio outside the cafeteria, Rempt said he had considered renaming the “free speech patio” the Philip Lopez Arena of Democracy, but he’d begun to have second thoughts.
“It’s a cute idea and it makes me laugh,” he said, “but I was talking to Rob Unger and he said, ‘That’s too small and I don’t know if there’s anything at school large enough to commemorate him.’ I think he’s right.”
SWC Superintendent Dr. Melinda Nish said she was shocked and saddened by the death of Lopez.
“Phil gave many years of service to Southwestern College students and tirelessly fought to defend the rights of faculty members and others,” she wrote in a statement to staff. “He will be greatly missed.”
A memorial for Lopez will be held Sunday, December 23, at 3 p.m. at his home, 20 2nd Ave. in Chula Vista. All members of the Southwestern College community are welcomed to attend.