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At Elsie Allen High School, a surprise visit from runners depicted in 'McFarland, USA'

Ninth graders at Elsie Allen High couldn’t figure what was up Wednesday morning as teachers led them into the theater at the school southwest of Santa Rosa.

Movie time, they were told. On beamed Disney’s “McFarland, USA,” the truth-based film starring Kevin Costner about the transformations of seven Hispanic boys, three of them brothers, who expected little from life beyond back-breaking farm labor when, in 1987, a new coach led them to the first of McFarland High’s nine state cross-country track titles.

As the movie highlighting the Diaz brothers - Danny, Damacio and David - concluded, many of the Elsie freshmen clapped and cheered. The theater lights came on and Bill Friedman, chairman and co-owner of the Friedman Home Improvement stores, stepped out with a microphone in his hand.

His voice cracked as he said, “Every time I see this movie, it hits my heart.” He told the students, most from Latino and low-income families, that when he and his wife, Suzie, saw “McFarland, USA” for the first time earlier this year, they knew they wanted to do something for young people who might be motivated by it.

“We hope you will be inspired by what you can do with your life,” Friedman said. “You live in a community and attend a school that care about you and want you to succeed. You are the future of our community.”

Then he introduced his friend Willie Tamayo, a member of the La Tortilla Factory family and a co-founder of the Elsie Allen High School Foundation.

“I saw so much emotion today,” Tamayo, the son of a farmworker, said to the kids. “It hit home for a lot of people.

“It hit home for me. There are so many dreams in that movie.”

Tamayo said he wished he could speak with the real Diaz brothers. Then he asked them to step forward.

From high up at the back of the theater stepped Damacio Diaz, now 43 and a homicide detective with the Bakersfield Police Department, 45-year-old David Diaz, a high-school vice principal in Delano, and Danny Diaz, now 44 and an at-risk counselor at McFarland High.

The Elsie students gave them a hero’s welcome. No one mentioned that the Friedmans paid to bring the brothers to Santa Rosa and Tamayo made all arrangements.

“Had anybody heard of McFarland before today?” asked Damacio Diaz to a great many shaking heads.

He said he and his six siblings grew up there working the fields before and after school and expecting to work the fields their entire lives. New cross-country coach Jim White offered them new possibilities, he said, but the primary force in all seven Diaz kids completing college was their mother and father.

““The credit goes 100 percent to our parents,” the former cross-country champion said.

He continued, “There’s nothing different between you and us. It was just expected for Hispanics like us to be just field workers.”

Damacio Diaz assured the ninth-graders that no one would give them an education and a good job. “You have to pay the price. You have to sacrifice.”

His brother Danny, portrayed as the most surprising of the film’s underdog champions, rephrased the theme by urging the youngest Lobos, “You need to have a goal, No. 1. No. 2, work your butt off.”

He assured his listeners, “We’re average Joes.” But average Joes who stopped believing they were destined to toil in poverty as field workers.

“We were destined to be champions,” said the former cross-country title holder from McFarland. “Champions can come from anywhere.”

Elsie Allen’s sophomores were treated to the same film screening and encounter with the Diaz brothers on Wednesday afternoon. Thursday morning it will be the juniors’ turn and Thursday afternoon, the seniors’.

David Diaz told me he and Danny and Damacio have made a great many appearances since “McFarland, USA” premiered early this year, a lot of them at schools. He said they are impressed that at Elsie Allen, the staff is following up the screening and talks with a curriculum.

All the students will receive a listing of campus and community resources committed to helping them succeed. And, in their English classes, Elsie kids will talk about the “McFarland, USA” and the Diaz brothers’ presentation and they’ll put to paper their dreams and goals, their potential obstacles and the support systems they might look to for counsel and encouragement.

“This is the first time we’ve seen this follow-through,” David Diaz said. “It’s not just that they’re going to watch a movie, end of story.”

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THE HUNT IS ON: Kids into their 80s and perhaps older will have a blast while learning about Santa Rosa’s roots at Saturday morning’s 2nd Annual History Hunt.

Registration is at 9:30 a.m. at Santa Rosa Middle School. Members of the Historical Society of Santa Rosa will pass out 10 clues to participants, who’ll strike out on foot, on bicycles or in cars to match the clues to 10 nearby city landmarks.

At each location, volunteers in period dress will give participants a collectible Historic Site Card. The first player to return to the middle school with all 10 cards wins $50.

But everyone taking part in this all-family event, mark my word, will return smiling and feeling more connected to Santa Rosa.

The cost is $10 for everyone 10 and older. To pre-register, go to historicalsocietysantarosa.org. Happy hunting.

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HOT CARS & HOTCAKES: One of the sweetest car shows in Sonoma Valley, hosted by Bear Flag Post 1943 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, starts at 9 a.m. Saturday at the vets’ building in Sonoma.

Checking out all the pre-1974 American cars, pickups and custom motorcycles will take some energy. Valley Girl Scouts will help out with a 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. breakfast of pancakes, eggs, sausage, juice and coffee.

It’s a must to set out with a full tank.

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UP WITH SMOKEY: Forgive Sharon Symons if her toe’s still tapping, her head’s still bobbing and she can stop singing Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’”.

Symons, a retired Hewlett-Packard/Agilent production worker, was one of the two women Robinson picked to join him on stage at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall last week. The King of Motown split the audience into two and urged each woman to fire up her half to belt out “Cruisin’” louder than the other half.

Jack Symons watched in amazement as his normally reserved wife, a huge Smokey Robinson fan, transformed into a showman. It was frosting on the cake for Robinson to declare that her side won.

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COCO’S CO-CLOSES: The Coco’s bakery and coffee shop bustled at Santa Rosa’s Farmers Lane and Highway 12 for as far back as I can remember. I’d drop in for breakfast on occasion just to test if I could resist finishing with a slice of pie.

Regulars are heartbroken that the Coco’s has shut down. The new, San Antonio-based owners of the Coco’s and Carrows chains have said it makes their stomachs hurt to shutter dozens of what they call under-performing restaurants in California, Arizona and Nevada, but business is business.

At the Carrows on north Cleveland Avenue, a manager said Wednesday he expects to keep on cookin’.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CJSPD.

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