Stephen Winkler, who shockingly won a school board election only to be removed because he lived outside the district’s boundaries, died April 1 of heart failure, his family said. He was 67 and had been in poor health.
According to his brother, Mike, and Mike’s wife, Deirdre, Winkler spent about $20,000 in what many considered a quixotic attempt to gain a seat on the Saugus Union School District board in 2011. He ran as a teacher, claiming he had more educational experience than most board members. He finished second, ahead of incumbent Rose Diaz by 264 votes, but the top two were elected.
“That was his moment in the sun,” Deirdre Winkler said of Stephen being a board member. “He loved it.”
Almost immediately, he set himself apart by voicing his disdain for unions and his support for charter schools. He also was censured and asked to resign after making statements about Adolf Hitler that the board found to be “expressing support for Nazism, slavery and segregation and enjoyment of cruelty towards animals,” according to a statement then-board member Paul De La Cerda read at a 2013 meeting. Winkler refused to resign, and the board couldn’t remove him.
“He did not do what I advised him: Shut up and play ball and don’t go against the grain,” Mike Winkler said.
Winkler was removed from his position in 2013 after it was found he lived in Sylmar and not on Rio Prado Drive in Valencia like he claimed. Mike Winkler said that his brother lived in Valencia, where he worked as a security guard at a townhome complex.
Part of his pay allowed him to live there, Mike Winkler said, so Stephen would live in a vacant townhome while it was being renovated, then move to another one once the fixes, upgrades and improvements were complete.
“They called him a squatter,” Winkler said, adding that his brother was unable to explain his living situation because “he was book-learned but not quick-thinking on his feet.”
Winkler was born Jan.13, 1952 in Florida to Hungarian immigrants, a year before Mike was born in New York. The family moved to California in 1955, Mike said.
Winkler was known for having a photographic memory in matters related to history, sports or the Bible.
“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Rain Man?’ ” Deirdre Winkler said. “Steve was like that but higher-functioning.” She acknowledged her brother-in-law never was diagnosed with any autism spectrum disorder, although Mike said he thought he should have been.
“He was very intelligent in certain areas, but had absolutely no common sense or social skills,” Mike said.
Stephen earned bachelor and master degrees in history and political science from California State University, Northridge, his brother said, and then got his teaching credential while working as a security guard. He substituted in districts such as William S. Hart, Los Angeles and Palmdale.
“He loved being a substitute teacher,” Deirdre Winkler said. “His students often referred to him as the Penguin,” after the Batman villain.
After his removal, Winkler “went on with his life,” his brother said, but had a difficult time supporting himself. He was never one to make a lot of money, and the election had put him deeper in debt. Being removed from a school board made it harder to get any teaching position. Mike said he told him that the demand for history and political science teachers is far less than for math, science and English.
His lack of finances caused him to seek low-cost or free meals, which was why he frequented various houses of worship: a Catholic church on Friday for fried fish or Tony Alamo’s church for 9 p.m. dinners (he was raised Catholic like his mother, his family said, although his father was Jewish).
Winkler also didn’t exercise and preferred to sit in a cart while shopping. He suffered from Type II diabetes for about 17 years. He had a heart attack in March and underwent quadruple bypass March 20 at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital. He was transferred to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center the next day, his brother said, and died there.
Winkler had been married once. He is survived by his brother, sister-in-law and four nieces and nephews. He was buried in California City in a plot next to Mike’s daughter.