Jon McDowell was the teacher students expected to be in class one hour before school, one hour after and during lunch.

"When he didn't show up to work yesterday, I heard about it," said Ken Dyar, a former student of McDowell's turned 2006 California Teacher of the Year, Tuesday.

McDowell, 57, died unexpectedly Monday after planning to cap a 34-year teaching career at Delano High School the end of this school year.

James McDowell, the younger of the veteran teacher’s two children, said his mom (Mari McDowell) found her husband in an orange grove, where he was running with his dogs, Monday. His parents had been married 31 years, since April 1984. And both their children, James’ sister Christina McDowell included, are teachers.

“We’re holding up,” James said. “We’re strong.”

Most people knew his father as a dedicated teacher, but his son also knew him to be an avid runner, an animal lover and a fruit-tree-loving Giants and Niners fan who had a song for every occasion.

His two greatest passions in life were his family and his students.

April Gregerson, the former principal of Delano High, said her entire math department last year, which was composed of about six teachers, said they began teaching because of McDowell.

“It's a huge loss for this school," Gregerson said. "Our hearts are just broken."

McDowell started teaching math at Delano High in 1982, according to the school.

Dyar, a senior in McDowell's calculus class that year, said the McDowell he knew as a teenager was approachable, young and fun.

"We teased him about the sexy way he drew parabolas," Dyar said. "He started getting in on the joke with us, and that's where we really lost it."

Dyar, a physical education teacher at La Viña Middle School, said he learned from McDowell it was OK to have fun with students and necessary to do whatever it takes to teach them. 

The tried and true educator would teach, reteach and reteach subject matter until each student understood it, Dyar said.

If a student failed a test, McDowell let him take a reformatted version later.

His dedication usually meant beginning his day at 7 a.m. and ending it hours after his last course to help students who needed tutoring.

"If you were willing to put in the time, then he'd sit right next to you and put in the time with you," Dyar said.

That was the case for his daughter Samantha Dyar, now a senior at Delano High.

Samantha, whose GPA is upward of a 4.0, enrolled in McDowell's Calculus BC and Advanced Placement physics courses last year.

Even when she was out sick and missed six weeks of school, McDowell met with Samantha and both her parents to assure them he would do everything he could to help Samantha pass.

McDowell pointed at Ken during the meeting and said:

"I started my career with you, and I'm going to finish my career with your daughter."

Samantha went to the teacher's room, HM1, every lunch period everyday for extra help, and she ended up with a B in both McDowell's classes.

"There’s no way she gets that B without him," Ken Dyar said.

Delano High Principal Rene Ayon said Advanced Placement Calculus BC is one of the toughest math courses at the high school level to pass. Most local schools don't even offer it. But 72 percent of McDowell's students who took an AP test for the course last year, passed it with a score of 3 or better out of 5, Ayon said.

And 65 percent of kids who took the AP test for McDowell's Physics C: Mechanics course (an equally challenging class) passed with a 3 or better that same year.

Ayon said that was a norm for McDowell that persisted each year in large part because of his dedication to students.

Walter Fontejon, a former student turned protégé of McDowell's, said he remembers the teacher picking up the telephone receiver when it rang during class, only to slam it right back down.

He missed meetings, declined calls and dodged awards for the same reason — they didn't involve teaching students, and were therefore distractions.

School administrators tried their luck getting McDowell to publicly accept the school's Most Respected Teacher award more times than they had fingers.

"But he just refused to put that attention on him," Ayon said. "It was all about his kids at Delano High School."

Rosalina Rivera, then superintendent of the Delano Joint Union High School District, tried yearly (to no avail until this year) to convince McDowell to accept the district's Teacher of the Year nomination. He accepted the nomination only because it would have been his final year teaching.

"He was humble, intelligent and would give his heart and soul to every student that he served," Rivera said.

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