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Sam Navarro

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Beware of nuns bearing smiles and words of welcome. That’s what happened to Sam Navarro when he visited his alma matter — but he hasn’t regretted it for a moment.

“It’s about giving back,” says the affable business owner and parishioner of St. Andrew, Pasadena. “We may not be heavy hitters, but we give what we can.”

An alumnus of Santa Teresita School in East Los Angeles and Cathedral High School downtown, Sam has been a regular and passionate supporter of Catholic education, as has his wife of 55 years, Yvonne, an alumnus of Santa Teresita and Sacred Heart High School in Lincoln Heights.

Whether it’s hosting annual fundraisers at their Pasadena home or donating electrical service to a school in need, Sam is more than happy to contribute what he can for the good of the greater community, an attitude rooted in faith, culture and a solid belief in doing what is right.

Born in near the Lincoln Heights housing projects “in the family home,” Sam grew up in a fairly rugged area. “My parents were very important in helping my brother and I grow up the right way,” he recalls. “There were gangs all around us, but there were rules. We lived near Hazard Park, and we could walk around there, and people knew we were hands off.”

He attended the neighborhood public school until sixth grade, when Santa Teresita School opened. “My grandparents, who helped found the parish and school, sent me there,” he recalls. “The Dominican nuns taught grades 6-8 and I was in the first graduating class, 1955. That’s where I met Yvonne; I was in sixth grade playing basketball and thought, ‘She’s gonna be perfect for my younger brother.’”

It was, of course, Sam who dated Yvonne all during high school — she at Sacred Heart, he at Cathedral where he was on the football, track and basketball teams, having been recruited to Cathedral by Christian Brother Bertram Coleman, principal.

“I loved it and I liked the Christian Brothers,” notes Sam. “And Brother Bertram was very influential, a guiding light.”

Influential? Well, there was the day when Sam, then a sophomore, was pulled out of class by Brother Bertram who was concerned about Sam’s involvement with a “social club,” whose dances Sam others would advertise by cruising around with posters on the side of the car.

“Brother Bertram,” Sam recalls with a smile, “told us not to join gangs. And so we didn’t.”

When Sam graduated in June of 1959, he had several out-of-state scholarship offers to play football, but decided not to leave L.A. and instead got married that July 18, began working for his uncle (an electrician), and attended night classes at L.A. Trade Tech. He and Yvonne settled in Alhambra, raising their children Steve and Cynthia at All Souls Church and School (and later sending them to St. Francis and Ramona Convent high schools).

After 16 years working for his uncle, Sam founded his own business, Graphic Electric, and set up his office in his garage, where Yvonne handled the phones. The business grew steadily, and today the City of Commerce-based firm, specializing in commercial and industrial wiring, employs 38 people, including son Steve as president and grandson Chase as project manager.

About 25 years ago, with the business doing well, Sam and Yvonne returned one Sunday to Santa Teresita for Mass. “And afterwards,” he laughs, “here come the nuns running after us, saying we were welcome to come back anytime. And then they found out we were alumni, so we talked, and found out half the lights in the school didn’t work. We fixed them, and that began a relationship.”

A year later, “we heard the school might close and we thought, ‘That can’t happen. This is an oasis in a tough area.’ So we got out the phonebook, called our friends, hosted them on a Sunday afternoon and raised $25,000. And we’ve done it every year since.” The most recent event raised close to $95,000.

Over the ensuing years, Sam and Yvonne have served on various boards of their alma maters, supporting the economically-challenged kids who attend them, and the religious communities who administer them. Their children are also active in helping out, much to their parents’ delight.

“We’ve never hammered at them about getting involved,” Sam says. “We try to lead by example, invite them to attend our events, and they support us.”

He is proud of his family (including daughter-in-law Christine and seven grandkids), and gives credit for his own success and charitable involvement to his wife. “I’m very fortunate to have Yvonne,” he says proudly. “She’s the straw that stirs the drink.”

But both Navarros, in fact, do their share of stirring in the name of helping those who need it.

“We do what we can,” says Sam. “Part of it is our Hispanic culture, and a lot of these kids at these schools are Hispanic. My dad was a gardener and we didn’t have a lot of money as I was growing up, but our view was, if you have received, you give back in some way. So it’s a no-brainer for us to show our support.

“I remember years ago, when there was a fundraiser, and someone asked me when I seemed a little hesitant about giving, ‘Will $500 change your life if you don’t have it?’ And I thought, probably not, but it could help change someone else’s life if I gave it. And now I say it to other people like it was said to me.”

No chasing required, either.