Trailblazer Remembered

Irene West taught a lifetime of lessons

By Seth Sandronsky
October 2021

Irene B. West was a trailblazer on many levels. As Elk Grove’s first Black classroom educator in what was a rural community, she enjoyed a long career as a teacher and principal.

The Elk Grove Unified School District named an elementary school after her in 2002. West died in April at age 88.

Brian MacNeill is principal at Irene B. West Elementary School. “Thankfully, I had the opportunity to meet Mrs. West and wanted all in the community to know her,” he says. “In January 2018, we had an evening with Mrs. West and a couple of hundred folks attended. I wanted them to know her. So I interviewed Mrs. West about teaching in Elk Grove.”

While educating scores of youth, West also reared four children: Clifton, Cornel, Cheryl and Cynthia. The apples did not fall far from this sturdy tree.

Consider Cornel, a track and field star with Clifton at Kennedy High School in the early 1970s. He went to Harvard and Princeton and became a progressive activist, philosopher, author and professor. Today he teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

The matriarch of the West family left a lasting impression on Sacramento neighbors before and after becoming an educator in Elk Grove. Gail Norris Brooks-Gary is a Sacramento nurse who grew up in the Glen Elder neighborhood where the West family lived.

“Mrs. West was a beautiful lady,” Brooks-Gary says. “She and her husband were very active in the parent teacher associations at Elder Creek and Camellia Elementary schools, then at Will C. Wood Middle School. Later, I used to see Mrs. West at the Shiloh Baptist Church in the Oak Park neighborhood.”

Calvin Mason sounds a similar note. He grew up three houses away from the Wests on the same side of the street, and was a classmate of Clifton, the family’s oldest child.

“Mrs. West was the prettiest mom in the neighborhood,” Mason says. “She was an educated woman with a college degree who also reminded me of Dorothy Dandridge, the actress, dancer and singer who starred in films such as ‘Carmen Jones’ and ‘Porgy and Bess.’” West and her husband were also active in the Glen Elder Little League, according to Mason.

West graduated from Fisk University in Tennessee, a historically Black institution. She came from a family of educators. It’s fair to say West had learning and teaching in her DNA. She kept this link strong after retiring.

“Every December, Mrs. West would deliver candy to the school staff,” MacNeill says. “She was very encouraging to me and grateful to stay connected with the Irene B. West Elementary School community.”

Lifting up youth to achieve their full potential was West’s calling in life. Just ask Wanda F. Williams. She met West around 2004 at the community house of Eta Gamma Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the first intercollegiate historically African American sorority.

“She was leading the community service project, Annual Debutante Ball—Introductory Tea,” Williams says. “Which over the years positively impacted over 500 young ladies. Mrs. Irene B. West was an incredible woman who always encouraged others, including myself. She helped transform the educational system, as well as hundreds of individual lives. A true icon who will be sorely missed.”

The school now showcases a stunning memorial mural of West and her favorite saying: “If you can’t be a highway, then just be a trail. If you can’t be the sun, be a star. It isn’t by size that you win or you fail, be the best of whatever you are.”

Seth Sandronsky can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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