Bob Fonda Still Going Strong After Two Decades of Substituting

It seems everyone knows, or at least has heard, of the famous Bob Fonda. The substitute teacher’s ubiquitous presence in the school district and in the community for the past two decades has made experiencing one of his classes a rite of passage among many students.
So what is it that’s so special about Fonda? It’s Fonda’s attitude and approach to interacting with students that makes being in one of his classes a special experience.

Though Fonda has jokingly informed students he is 29 years old, he grew up here in the Bay Area during the Great Depression. Born in Oakland in the 1920’s, Fonda was a studious child. He was taught to read and write by the age of four, and would constantly help his classmates when in grade school.

“I would help my neighbors, and helping my neighbors meant doing their homework for them,” Fonda said. “That would really irritate teachers, and I had about half a dozen report cards during elementary school…in which the teacher wrote something like ‘Robert’s work is good but he really is a pest with his neighbors.’ I got it in writing.”

Fonda attended San Jose High School and graduated in 1943. That same year, following a close cousin, he enlisted in the Coast Guard, during the height of World War II.

“[I spent] three undistinguished years in the service.” Fonda said. “As somebody said, ‘They wouldn’t let me in until they knew they were winning,’ so that I couldn’t do any damage.”

After exiting the military, Fonda briefly attended the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, before leaving to go to San Jose State University for pre-engineering. Next he attended Stanford for both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in engineering, finishing his schooling in 1951.

As Fonda matured, he developed an adventure-seeking attitude that’s taken him all across the globe. He’s worked a remarkable number of jobs in even more remarkable places —a civil engineer, park ranger, radio technician and translator in addition to substitute teaching. While on business, he’s visited the USSR and many Eastern Bloc countries: former communist states in Eastern Europe that were allied with the Soviet Union. He was also one of the first Americans in Shanghai, China, arriving in 1979 when the country had just been opened up to Western trade. He spent several years living in Thailand and Japan, where he met his wife, with whom he currently lives here in Los Altos.

“We met in 1953 but we didn’t marry until 1978,” Fonda said. “I was 52 and a half to the exact day we married. As somebody said, why didn’t Bob get married sooner… ‘Of course I had to get somebody outside the country to marry me because they didn’t know me, they didn’t know what they were getting into.’”

Over the course of his travels and studies, Fonda has grown competent in nine languages: English, Japanese, Russian, French, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Turkish and Indonesian.

But no matter where he’s been or what language he’s been speaking, Fonda has always found something to appreciate in what he was doing.

“Every job that I’ve had I’ve made to enjoy and every job that I got after that I enjoyed even more,” Fonda said. “So I’m very lucky – maybe there hasn’t been anything wrong with [them] but I was fortunate to have that.”

Here in Los Altos, Fonda continues to stay active and pursue his passions, whether he’s playing the harp, seeking out extra knowledge at the local community college or substitute teaching.

Fonda first took on substituting at the advice of his brother, who is a teacher. Initially he was unsure if it would be right for him, but his first class at Berryessa High School in 1994 was a success. He quickly grew to love his job, drawing on his vast wealth of experience and knowledge. Though he had never been a teacher before, the position came naturally.

“I’ve probably almost been a teacher in all the jobs I’ve had,” Fonda said.

Fonda’s energy and drive for purpose originates in his world view. As a Biblical Christian, he dedicates himself to adhering to the tenet of “love thy neighbor as you love thyself” as well as acting as a role model for his students.

“I would like [students] to not only pick good role models, but to become good role models themselves, to their younger brothers and sisters,” he said. “All of the students have value, and I want them to reach their highest potential.”

One of of Fonda’s favorite aspects of teaching is watching students progress and mature. He recalls a particular moment a few years ago when he met one of his former students working at Fry’s Electronics. Though Fonda remembered him as a troublesome student, the teen’s composure and manners soon made it clear he’d become a responsible young adult.

“There’s hope for a lot of people,” Fonda said. “You just have to be patient.”

For this reason he loves teaching Special Education and younger grades, as he can watch the students grow. Though he stays lively with the joy he receives from teaching, Fonda’s ultimate goal is to enlighten students with his own experiences.

“Doing this brightens me up,” he said. “I come in feeling very brightened up [with] a quick step…I feel I’m composting…recycling myself in a sense…My greatest desire is that after I have left the class, I hope and pray that students have been enriched by…my “composting”, [that it] is really helping provide good soil for them to grow and mature.”

But he also has a word of advice for those of us who are still young on the outside as well as the inside.

“Don’t grow up too fast,” Fonda said. “You grow old, and then you stay old.”