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L.A. Unified names school complex for RFK; Mexican food titan also honored

January 12, 2010 |  4:39 pm

The education complex at the site of the once-grand Ambassador Hotel will be named in honor of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was killed there by an assassin in 1968. The long-expected honor, approved by the Los Angeles Unified school board this afternoon, faced no opposition. The discussion quickly evolved into a tribute to the senator, who was cut down as he celebrated his win in the Democratic presidential primary at the storied Wilshire Boulevard hotel.

“We can now continue the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy,” said Kennedy friend Paul Schrade, who has worked with local allies for years to create a school as a fitting memorial for the senator.

The Ambassador school project has become “a symbol of hope for so many of us,” said board member Nury Martinez, who like others struggled to keep her composure.

The effort that resulted in the Kennedy complex began in the 1980s, when the school district battled over the decaying Ambassador Hotel with developer Donald Trump, who wanted to build the world’s tallest building on the site. That tug-of-war persisted for more than a decade, even after Trump ceded his interest to other developers.

Another round of contention ensued over whether the original hotel building should be preserved and converted into a school. Historic preservationists lost due to the high cost. Instead, the district has constructed a campus that recreates a look similar to the old Ambassador from the Wilshire Boulevard frontage. At a cost of more than $400 million, the school complex is one of the most expensive ever constructed for K-12 education.

The Kennedy family also noted the event.

“This new school will have at its core the values which my father stood for, and our peculiarly American concern for the well-being of all citizens,” said Max Kennedy, the son of Robert Kennedy. “He would be proud today knowing that the teachers there will continue to shine a light for untold numbers of children in the years ahead.”

An important local figure also was honored with a campus in his name. Island Elementary School will be renamed after George De La Torre Jr., who died in February 2009. De La Torre, a Wilmington native born to parents of Japanese and Mexican heritage, became a Mexican food titan and community benefactor. He converted his father’s small fish canning business into Juanita’s Foods, a powerhouse for ethnic products such as menudo.

“He was the founding father of Mexican food on the shelf versus from your mom’s kitchen,” said L.A. Unified spokeswoman Lydia Ramos.

He hired community members and supported one community project after another, especially if the effort benefited children, said school board member Richard Vladovic.

-- Howard Blume

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