Remembering her ‘greatest gift,’ her dad

In this heartfelt interivew, Marita De Leon expresses the impact left behind by her father the late Manuel De Leon, a former Cerritos College arts professor.

Manuel+De+Leon+taught+at+Cerritos+College+for+about+40+years+before+retiring+in+1987.+According+to+his+daughter%2C+Marita%2C+the+campus+was+like+a+second+home+to+him.+Photo+credit%3A+Courtesy+of+Marita+De+Leon

Manuel De Leon taught at Cerritos College for about 40 years before retiring in 1987. According to his daughter, Marita, the campus was like a second home to him. Photo credit: Courtesy of Marita De Leon

Kianna Znika, Editor in Chief

According to his daughter’s heartfelt words, he was one of the greatest teachers of all time. His many art students around the world would agree, for he’s said to be “the greatest guy ever.”

“I think the best thing I can say is that I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like him. And unfortunately, I don’t think I ever will again,” Marita De Leon said of her father. “I truly, sincerely feel that he was the greatest of all of renaissance men of all time.”

Her father, the late Manuel De Leon, was said to be many things: an artist; a professor; an athlete; outdoorsman and adventurer.

Manuel De Leon loved all kinds of art. He is mostly known for his life drawing and landscapes. (Courtesy of Marita De Leon)

He worked as an arts professor at Cerritos College for about 40 years where he also worked as head of the Fine Arts department and won “Outstanding Advisor” in 1987.

He was so loved by his students, that about 100 of them from Cerritos College attended his retirement party.

But above all things, Manuel De Leon was his daughter’s teacher, guide and best friend.

When she was a child, Marita De Leon would accompany her father to his studio at Cerritos College, where she would sit beside him and occasionally take walks to the ceramics studio, arts studio and a vending machine that served chicken soup.

“The bulk of his life was Cerritos College,” she said. “It was like his other home.”

She recalls him being “a big figure” on campus, as he was often featured in the Daily Falcon and Talon Marks newspaper at the time.

This was partly due to the fact that De Leon would bring his many pets to campus. In fact, one of Marita’s favorite memories involved their pet cat.

She explains that when she lost her cat on campus as a child, Manuel halted his class and he, and all his students, helped with the search.

Fortunately, the cat was found in a mailbox.

Manuel retired around 1987 and moved to Arizona with his wife, Helga, a German teacher who taught German, French and Spanish. There, he continued to teach part-time, play the drums in a band and, of course, paint.

Marita De Leon with her family. (Courtesy of Marita De Leon)

According to Marita, Manuel worked mainly with oils and acrylics and was best known for his life drawing and landscapes.

The art professor loved to travel and would even take his daughter and students to different parts of the world such as Europe and Mexico, where they could study art and culture.

“I don’t know any children who grew up knowing as much of the world and of culture as I did by the time I was 10 years old,” Marita said. “I do know that people from my life would say ‘I never thought outside of California until I met your dad. Now I know so many countries thanks to him.'”

Manuel also taught and read to his two grandchildren, Marita’s daughters Liesl, 9, and Mila, 2.

Liesl would sit by her grandfather’s side while he painted and try to copy him, exactly like Marita would do when she was a child.

When Manuel developed dementia, a “very surreal” time for the family. Marita states her father never lost that positive, energetic glow to him.

“Absolutely glowing! Very outgoing, very friendly, very positive,” she said of Manuel. “Very, very uplifting to his family, friends and students.”

It was Thanksgiving 2019 when Marita had to catch a plane and told her father to stay strong.

It was then that he replied, “No, you stay strong.”

Manuel De Leon died on December 6, 2019, with his family by his side before his 94th birthday.

“Even though to the outside world we think it’s expected, it’s inevitable, it’s going to happen to all of us, it still felt very unexpected,” Marita said. “Because he’s still so present.”

Although Marita and the family miss Manuel, it is apparent that his legacy continues in the lives of all those he’s known.

All of his children went into the realm of performing arts.

His son, Andre, performed in theater while his other son, Marcus, works as a writer and director. Marita became an actress.

His grandchild, Liesl, has written a list of 18 things that Manuel has taught her that she will always remember.

She has not shared it just yet.

But perhaps most of all, his legacy lives on in the life of his daughter who continues to love and share his story to this day.

“You start to realize how lucky you are and that maybe that person in our life was your greatest gift,” Marita confessed. “Because I know more about the things that truly matter, like renaissance, art, poetry, foreign cultures … He left me thinking about things that really, truly matter.”

She states her father did not see the world like other people, he “saw the whole world through color and shadow and light and anatomy.”

“He saw things no one else could see,” she added, joking that he appeared to be in a constant state of meditation. “He used a part of his brain none of us used.”

According to Marita, Manuel was proud to teach at Cerritos Community College, stating he taught there with as much passion and vigor as he taught anywhere else, including Pepperdine.

“Be very proud of doing time at a junior college,” she said for the students of Cerritos College. “Sometimes that’s where you get the best education, and my dad is a representation of that.”

“He is a great representation of what we’re all capable of doing.”

Marita De Leon visited Cerritos College again earlier this year, where she walked through the ever-changing campus and remembered the great art professor that once taught there years ago.

She remembers the paintings. The students. The chicken soup and the cat.

Most importantly, she remembers sitting beside the greatest guy ever, her dad.