Wendell W. Echols, a humble high school janitor who was a revered leader and mentor in Del Paso Heights, died Oct. 20 of a stroke, his family said. He was 85.
A resident since 1953, Mr. Echols belonged to many Del Paso Heights civic groups and served on Sacramento mayoral and police advisory panels. He coached Little League baseball and was a co-founder of Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was active in Democratic politics and widely consulted by politicians and organizers.
"Throughout my political career, he was always someone I went to for guidance," said Grantland Johnson, a former Sacramento city councilman and county supervisor. "He was in tune with the community because he came from the community and knew the aspirations of the community."
Mr. Echols' greatest influence was in the halls of Grant Union High School, where he went to work in 1970 as a custodian and retired as building maintenance supervisor. For 21 years, he kept an aging physical plant humming as a place for young people to learn and grow.
"I cleaned the classrooms. I changed the light bulbs. I made sure the heat was on. I moved the furniture," he told The Bee in 2003. "I tried to do my best so the teachers could do their best."
Quietly pushing a broom, Mr. Echols taught important lessons about hard work, self-respect and serving others. He watched over youngsters who flooded into Grant for more than two decades. With a deep, resonant voice, he scolded troublemakers and swept tardy students to class.
He listened and offered encouragement to students who stopped to chat. He became a mentor and lifelong friend to Grant alumni who have spoken publicly about his positive influence on their lives including Johnson, developer Allen Warren and Roseville police Chief Daniel Hahn.
"He could be coming out of a bathroom after mopping floors and cleaning up, but he commanded respect without ever raising his voice," said Warren, who named a street in his Del Paso Nuevo housing project for Mr. Echols. "He taught me a lot about humility and strength."
Born in 1926 in Coolidge, Texas, Wendell Warrington Echols attended school through eighth grade and learned welding. He left home at 16 to work in an Oregon shipyard and served in the Army during World War II.
He married his wife, Elnora, in 1948 and moved to Sacramento. They bought a lot in Del Paso Heights for $650 in 1955, built a house and raised six children. He cleaned boxcars at the Southern Pacific railyard before joining the Grant school district.
Mr. Echols enjoyed fishing, gardening and "fixing anything with his hands," said his daughter Laurica. Besides his wife, who died in 1989, he was predeceased by two sons, Herman and Ralph, and a daughter, Vera.
"He had wisdom and practical sense," Del Paso Heights activist Fran Barker said. "He was warm and firm with kids, like a father figure. He raised so many children like that."