Danny Lopez, noted Tohono O'odham storyteller, was born beneath a mesquite tree in the Tohono O'odham village of Gu Oidak (Big Field).

As a boy, he helped his family water the fields by damming the arroyos as monsoon season approached.

As a young man, he moved to Tucson to work in the mines.

As an adult, he pursued his education and moved home to learn and teach his culture to a new generation.

As he lay dying in St. Mary's Hospital, his wife, Florence, held her cell phone to his ear as his students at Tohono O'odham Community College sang songs to him in the traditional tongue he had taught them.

Lopez died early Tuesday of stomach cancer. He was 71.

Lopez was a teacher, singer and storyteller who inspired his students with his own lifelong quest for knowledge.

Friend and colleague Ofelia Zepeda said Lopez, who held a master's degree in linguistics from Prescott College, was enrolled this semester in a linguistics course at the University of Arizona.

He continued to attend the UA's summer linguistics institute even as his eyesight deteriorated, said Zepeda, a noted poet and compiler of an O'odham dictionary, who is a Regents professor of linguistics at the UA.

It was part of his method of teaching, said friend Tristan Reader, co-director of Tohono O'odham Community Action.

"He felt it was one of the greatest things you can teach, that learning lasts through your life. It was his way of teaching. He didn't talk about the values . . . he lived them," said Reader.

Ethnohistorian Bunny Fontana devoted a chapter of his 1981 book, "Of Earth and Little Rain," to Danny Lopez. He called him an "exemplar of O'odham Himdag (the O'odham way of life)."

"He embodies all of those wonderful qualities that make up a traditional O'odham person," said Fontana.

"He was born under a mesquite tree in Big Field. He once pointed out the space, and I thought to myself: 'Most of us are born in a hospital or whatnot, but you talk about attachment to the earth, there it was.' "

Fontana visited Lopez in the hospital shortly before his death as he received a call from his students at the community college. Florence Lopez, Danny's wife, held up her cell phone so he could hear.

"They'd been practicing this song for two days. They wanted to sing a traditional song in O'odham to Danny. It went on for five minutes or more, and there was this angelic expression on Danny's face."

Lopez "could have run entire schools, he was such a competent educator," said naturalist and author Gary Paul Nabhan, a friend and sometime collaborator.

Instead, after he got his master's, he went back to teaching first- and second-graders because, "He thought if this language is going to keep among our people, we have to make sure the kids are comfortable with it.

"He cared so deeply about his culture and its traditions."

When he first met him, said Nabhan, Lopez was a dedicated student of his culture, interviewing elders and learning stories, songs and dances from the "great people" in the community who are considered important because of their knowledge of the culture.

Years ago, said Nabhan, he encouraged Lopez to write his own songs. "He said to me, 'The people that composed these songs aren't around anymore. You can't just pick it up. You have to dream your songs.' "

"He immersed himself so much in that tradition that he did become a singer and composer. . . . He became the 'great people,' " Nabhan said.

"He was a pretty extraordinary, wonderful, great guy," said fellow storyteller Jim Griffith.

Lopez formed a children's dance troupe that performed regularly at the San Xavier Festival, said Griffith. "His kids would always dance and he'd give a little talk."

Griffith said Lopez would tell the audience that O'odham culture had been devastated, their language was disappearing, their land was mostly occupied, and then say, "But we're very happy to have you here and we hope you enjoy the dance and the music."

There was no rancor in it, no bitterness at all in the man, Griffith said.

"He was a man who moved into Tucson, worked for the mine and apparently woke up one morning to realize he was in the process of losing something terribly important, and devoted the rest of his life to making sure that as little as possible of those important things disappeared.

"He worked very hard to make sure the kids, especially, had a chance to know who they are."

Lopez taught in the O'odham primary and middle schools and also at the community college level.

In addition, he had many students in the community.

Ronald Geronimo said he first approached Lopez when he wanted to enhance his knowledge of his culture.

"He said, 'Come back the next day' and he had a group of singers in his house. I read books and other things, but I realized that to really know, you have to live it. You can't just read it."

Geronimo, who is finishing up his master's thesis on Native American linguistics at the UA, is taking over one of Lopez's courses at the community college and plans to return when his studies are done "to pass on the knowledge I've gained and whatever I've learned and to try to keep the culture part of people's lives."

A viewing will be held at the San Xavier Elderly Center on Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m.

A wake and funeral will be held in the village of Gu Oidak, beginning with a 5 p.m. Mass Sunday. The funeral is scheduled for dawn on Monday.

Danny is survived by Florence, his wife of 46 years; his three children, Monica, Michael and Mark Lopez, all of Gu Oidak; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

"He felt it was one of the greatest things you can teach, that learning lasts through your life. It was his way of teaching. He didn't talk about the values . . . he lived them."

Tristan Reader, co-director of Tohono O'odham Community Action

● Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or tbeal@azstarnet.com.