Published in the February 1 – 14, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

Photo by Liza Garibaldi
George Chiala, Leadership Morgan Hill’s 2014 Leadership Excellence Award recipient

The South Valley honored in January two outstanding leaders we recently lost. Both transformed our region’s education system and worked hard to help students make the most of their lives by growing as leaders themselves.

Ellen “Elena” Oberg Moreno died Nov. 26 at age 95, and a memorial service was held for her on a rainy Jan. 7 afternoon, her birthday, at the Morgan Hill Community and Cultural Center. George Chiala died Jan. 2 at age 74. A Catholic mass at St. Catherine’s Church and a memorial reception at his Fountain Oaks estate home was held for him the following week.

After graduating from Live Oak Union High School in 1939, Elena worked in the cafe inside the Skeels Hotel in downtown Morgan Hill. She waited tables to help pay for her advanced education at Hartnell Community College and at San Jose State University where she earned her undergraduate degree and certification as a teacher. She spent 27 years instructing elementary and middle school students in the Morgan Hill Unified School District. Her creative, artistic and musical approach delighted three generations. Many remember her as one of their favorite teachers.

Elena loved inspiring kids to achieve success in life. This was especially so for Mexican-American students of farm-working families. She was engaged in early experiments in bilingual and bi-cultural education in the South Valley. Many students came into her classroom barely speaking English, but she gave them the confidence and resources they needed to progress in their academic endeavors.

Elena also served as a moral foundation for her family, raising with her husband, John Moreno, three children who grew up to be successful adults. Their lifelong marriage was a love story. John served as Morgan Hill police chief for many years as well as the city manager in later years.

George Chiala also was a local leader devoted to the education of young people. He and his wife, Alice Chiala, worked hard to build a successful South Valley-based farm business. George’s ingenuity brought state-of-the-art technology and advanced business practices to the local agriculture enterprises he was involved in. He was progressive in his farming work as a steward of the land in implementing environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient systems that enabled his operations to save money and fuel.

Running a farm business demands long hours in the fields and other areas of operations. Despite the arduous work, Chiala also generously gave much of his time and energy to the South Valley community. He supported local health care through his longtime support of St. Louise Regional Hospital, serving on the board as the chair of the hospital’s foundation. He worked for the benefit of numerous other charities in South Valley. He helped promote youth sports with the creation of the soccer fields on Condit Road that evolved into the Morgan Hill Outdoor Sports Center.

Like Moreno, enhancing local education opportunities for young people was a passion for Chiala. He worked diligently in spearheading the proposed St. John XXIII College Preparatory High School. The project is planned for construction on 38 acres owned by the Diocese of San Jose on the corner of Tennant and Murphy avenues. The Santa Clara Local Agency Formation Commission in June 2016 rejected requests to annex the farmland into city limits, putting up a barrier to Chiala’s dream. The organizers continue to persevere with the project, and with the courageous never-quit spirit of Chiala guiding them, perhaps they can break through the bureaucratic obstacles and eventually build the high school. It will benefit young people from not just Morgan Hill but also Gilroy, San Martin and other nearby communities.

Education transforms the world. When a child is inspired in the classroom to expand their mind to explore new ideas and develop an interest in new subjects of knowledge, who knows where that learning might lead a young boy or girl in life?

The leaders of the South Valley region for future decades will find their way in building their character and values through success in academic endeavors. With local leaders such as Elena Moreno and George Chiala building a solid bedrock for their education success, we know that there are now children in classrooms in Morgan Hill and Gilroy who will gain knowledge and skills to guide our region in the 21st century.