MERCED — Cordell Randall is sorry he never got a chance to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For years Randall has admired the late civil rights leader and guides elementary school students in singing tributes to him.
Randall, 63, laughingly thinks he retired a little bit too soon from his teaching duties at John Muir School. He retired in 2011 after 25 years, but now spends two or three days a week at the school and helps produce musical programs throughout the year.
Forty to 50 second-graders at Muir will give a 15-minute presentation at midday Monday during the community's celebration of King's life in the Exhibit Building at the Merced County Fairgrounds. The Muir program covers the history of slavery, King's biography and a number of songs.
Randall said about 100 Muir second-graders have been working on the vocal tribute to King; about 40 to 50 of them will be featured at the fairgrounds' event. Monday's multi-ethnic unity program features schoolchildren, youth groups, choirs and speakers.
"I have always had a huge place in my heart for Martin Luther King," Randall said. "He basically gave his life for other people so all would have a better life. It's important kids understand how far we have come and how bad we used to be."
For his last 13 years, Randall taught second grade at Muir and before that, fourth and fifth grades. Muir School Principal Matt Johnston said Randall is dedicated and can always be counted on to help the school.
"He is just a wonderful guy," Johnston said. "We're thankful he's a part of Muir and for his support to help in any way we ask him."
Judy Tassey, a second-grade teacher who worked with Randall for 16 years, said he is an amazing teacher who truly loves children. "He is probably the nicest person I have ever known," Tassey said. "Music is his passion."
Randall, who plays the guitar, said he has been directing the Muir tribute to King for about 10 years. He also does school assembly programs on Johnny Appleseed, spring water cycles and Christmas.
"I love the kids, and I love the teachers I worked with," Randall said. "I may have retired a little too soon, but I enjoy what I'm doing. I can't quit; I have to keep going back. I always loved doing music with the kids, and I get to do the fun things."
Born in Westwood near Susanville, Randall got his bachelor's degree in education in 1972 from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. He spent four years as a maintenance foreman at a camp where workers were building the Alaska Pipeline.
He taught for five years in Alaska and was Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's basketball coach in high school when the team won the 1983 Alaska state championships.
Randall's family has a heavy educational background. His father was a school superintendent, and his mother a third-grade teacher. His oldest sister was a school nurse, and he followed his sister Karen Randall to Merced.
Jenny Hickman, also a second-grade teacher at Muir, said Randall has been doing the King program for years.
"He's really dedicated and still comes in two or three times a week," Hickman said. "He brings joy into their lives, just bringing music into their lives. He has been an inspiration throughout my teaching career. The kids love it and it's because of him."
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.