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Iconic LA teacher Sal Castro, who led East LA walkouts in the 1960s, dies

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Sal Castro, the Lincoln High School social studies teacher who inspired students to stage mass walkouts from classes to demand better school in 1968, died in his Silver Lake home on Monday. He was 79.

Castro was an educator for decades -- and for years he ran an empowerment group for latino youth. A middle school is named after him. But few events were as important to him as the walkouts, said UC Santa Barbara historian Mario T. Garcia.

"He always believed that that was one of the highlights of his life. That he could help the students think for themselves, that something had to be done, and that they could make history," said Garcia, who interviewed Castro for the book "Blowout!: Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice."

His wife, Charlotte Lerchenmuller, said Castro died in his sleep. He'd been diagnosed with cancer last year, she said.

Castro was a Mexican American public school teacher in Eastside schools at a time when such a combination was very rare. He'd grown up in Los Angeles, spoke Spanish, knew Mexican history well, and had lived in Mexico during part of his childhood. He also had a warm, encouraging, charismatic personality that endeared him to many Chicano youth looking for role models who looked like them. 

Castro retired in 2005 after 43 years as a teacher and counselor. 

News of Castro's death spread fast among Chicanos and Mexican Americans. Some Facebook users replaced their avatars with photos of Castro.

Luis Torres was one of Castro's students at Lincoln High School in 1968 and kept in touch with his mentor. When he saw him last year, he said Castro was trying to raise money and revive the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference he'd founded in 1963.

"What I do remember clearly was the fire in his eye was still there. The commitment to the community was still there. And he was still fighting the fight. I got the sense in talking to him that he would fight that fight until his last breath," Torres said.

Imelda Padilla, 25, met Castro at a four day leadership conference at a Malibu campground in 2004. Castro inspired Padilla to organize her own youth leadership conferences. She suggested that a park be named after Castro. 

"When I met him there it was like hugging a grandpa. You just knew that it was one of your elders who doesn't give up on motivating and educating young people, that the future could be better," she said.

The years after the 1968 walkouts were tough on Castro.

The school district came down hard on him and the student leaders of the protest. So did prosecutors. Castro and 12 others faced felony criminal charges for instigating the high school walkouts. Castro was removed from his teaching post.

He was reinstated after charges were dropped.

Some recognition came in 1996, with the airing of "Chicano!" a documentary about the 1960s Chicano civil rights movement, on public television. One of the series's four parts was devoted to the 1968 East Los Angeles walkouts, Castro's role, and the struggle to improve education in Mexican American neighborhoods.

In 2006 Castro made it to the big screen in the drama "Walkout!" in which Latino heartthrob Michael Peña played Castro. 

Los Angeles city councilman Jose Huizar said Castro leaves a legacy of greater equality in Los Angeles schools education, but there's still much work left to be done.

"I remember him vividly walking into my school board office when I was school board member," he said. "It was a real honor to meet him at the time because I'd read about him in my classes at U.C. Berkeley and to me his always been a historic figure that has done so much for education."

Funeral services are pending.