Thomas Jefferson High School Historical Preservation Society

Thomas Jefferson High School Alumni Hall of Fame | by Ken Rodriguez '77

Sat, December 21, 2013 8:04 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

In the orchestra pit, a driving ensemble of horns, bass and drums played the theme to "Rocky." On steps leading to the stage climbed an elderly woman, short, slightly stooped with gray hair and a look of wonder.

Sixty four years after graduating from Jefferson High School, Marcia Nasatir (nee: Birenberg) returned to her alma mater with a reception befitting a Hollywood star: a blast of trumpets, a video clip on an overhead screen, a thunderous ovation in an auditorium overflowing with people and history.

When the music ended and the screen went black, Nasatir settled in behind a podium to address a gathering of students, faculty and alumni. Nasatir left Jefferson in 1943 to pursue a degree in journalism at Northwestern. She returned as a behind-the-scenes giant in Hollywood: the producer of "The Big Chill" (three Oscar nominations) and "Ironweed" (two Oscar nominations), the former president of Johnny Carson Productions and the first female vice president of United Artists, which produced "Rocky," "Coming Home," and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," each film a winner of multiple Oscars.

Before she uttered a word, awe, thick and palpable, spread from stage to balcony, sweeping over seats and filling hearts. It was hard to tell who was moved more: the woman or her audience. Nasatir thanked everyone present, reflected briefly on her years at Jefferson and encouraged students to dream big.

Dream they did. On May 16, 2007, a parade of illustrious graduates took turns presenting stories and remarks to an astonished student body during Jefferson’s 75th anniversary. Who knew that in the distant and mostly forgotten past were former students -- newly enshrined in the Alumni Hall of Fame -- who had changed the world?

A Nobel Prize winner in chemistry (Robert Curl, Class of ‘50) recalled the Jefferson teacher -- the late Lorena Davis -- who inspired him to scientific discovery. A retired Johnson Space Center director (Aaron Cohen, Class of ‘49) recounted the high school classes that led him to a career in engineering, where he helped design the lunar module that carried the first man to the lunar surface.

“The courses I took at Jefferson High School enabled me and gave me the confidence and the capability to work on that project of sending me to the moon,” Cohen said.

The revelations overwhelmed. The unveiling of the Alumni Hall of Fame was, by design, like the unveiling of a dramatic surprise, one after another, until, at the end, the audience was emotionally spent.

Soft but audible “wows” filled the aisles. Also heard, echoing out the auditorium and down the hallway, from student to teacher and aid to administrator, was this: “I had no idea.” Then there was the grizzled coach who stamped a single word on the event: “awesome.”

And so it was. The Jefferson High School Alumni Hall of Fame was created six years ago to educate and inspire current students and to honor 16 from another generation. It was presented with fanfare, filmed for posterity, reported by local media and celebrated with raw emotion.

Perhaps no one was more touched than Bernard Rapoport (Class of ‘34), a philanthropist who has donated millions of dollars to charity and higher education. “This is the first time,” Rapoport said off stage, his eyes welling, “that anyone has honored me without asking for money.”

Two retired Jefferson teachers, a former librarian and a journalist -- yours truly -- selected the honored graduates from dozens of distinguished candidates. Overwhelmed by the volume of accomplished alumni -- two State Supreme Court Justices did not make the cut -- the selection committee set a lofty standard: Only graduates who had made an international or national impact would be considered for the Hall of Fame.

The teachers (Mary Jo Klingman and Betty Janert), the librarian (Sheila Acosta) and I met for months to research and narrow the field. We wanted students to learn about renowned alumni from previous generations. But we also wanted them to connect with more contemporary alumni. To strike that balance, we selected 12 alumni for the Hall of Fame and honored four  more as “distinguished alumni,” graduates who, in some cases, are still building their legacies and may lack international or national achievement.

Below are capsules of those inducted:

Hall of Fame Honorees

Robert Cole (Class of 1933) -- Military hero. Lt. Col. Cole received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the D-Day invasion of France in World War II. While commanding a battalion of paratroopers to capture heavily fortified bridges over the Douve River, his unit became pinned during intense enemy fire. Despite the loss of many lives, Lt. Cole inspired the rest of his men to follow him and led them to establish a bridgehead essential to the success of the invasion.

Aaron Cohen (Class of 1949) -- Spaceflight pioneer. In 1969, Cohen managed the computer guidance system for the Apollo 11 command and landing modules that carried the first man to the moon. In 33 years at NASA, he played critical roles in six lunar landings. A brilliant engineer, he also managed the Space Shuttle Orbiter and served as director of the Johnson Space Center for 13 years. At Jefferson, he was a state singles champion in tennis.

Robert Curl (Class of 1950) -- Nobel Prize winner. In 1996, Curl and two colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of fullerenes, molecules composed entirely of carbon in the form of a hollow sphere, also called “buckyballs.” Curl has been a professor of chemistry at Rice, his alma mater, since 1958. His research interests at Rice included developing DNA genotyping and sequencing instrumentation.

Lillian Dunlap (Class of 1938) -- Brigadier General. Dunlap began her nursing career as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1942 and became the second woman promoted to Brigadier General in the U.S. Army. She also served as Chief of the Army Nurse Corps. Her military awards include the Distinguished Service Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal. Gen. Dunlap was a founding member of the Army Medical Department Museum Foundation and served as its president.

Gus Garcia (Class of 1932) -- Civil rights lawyer. The first valedictorian of Jefferson, Garcia was an assistant Bexar County District Attorney and served in World War II. In 1954, he won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in the murder trial of Pete Hernandez. The high court ruled that Hispanics could not be excluded from juries and ordered a new trial. The decision enabled Hispanics to successfully fight discrimination in housing and employment.

Henry B. Gonzalez (Class of 1935) -- Congressman. Before he became the first Hispanic from Texas elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Henry B. served on the San Antonio City Council, in the Texas House of Representatives and in the Texas Senate. His 36-hour filibuster in the Texas Legislature succeeded in killing eight racial segregation bills. He served in Congress from 1961-1998, longer than any other Hispanic.

Jim Lehrer (Class of 1952) -- Television journalist. A former sports editor of The Declaration,  Lehrer has become one of the most recognized and honored journalists in the U.S. A winner of two Emmy Awards, he co-anchored The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour for years, anchored the PBS NewsHour and has moderated 12 presidential debates. A former newspaper reporter,  Lehrer has written several novels and is a member of the Television Hall of Fame.

Marcia Nasatir (Class of 1943) -- Film executive, producer. As a literary agent, Nasatir sold the movie rights to “All The President’s Men” and “The Exorcist.” She became the first female vice president at United Artists, which produced “Rocky” and “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” -- all multiple Academy Award winners. She produced “The Big Chill,” which received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and served as President of Johnny Carson Productions.

Tommy Nobis (Class of 1962) -- NFL star. The Atlanta Falcons selected Nobis, a linebacker, with the first pick of the 1966 NFL draft. He earned Rookie Of The Year honors and was voted to five Pro Bowls. In college, he starred on Texas’ 1963 national championship team and won All-America honors. Sports Illustrated called him the best linebacker in college football history and named him to its All-Century team. Nobis is in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Bernard Rapoport (Class of 1935) -- Philanthropist. The son of a father who sold blankets for 10 cents, Rapoport became one of America’s great rags-to-riches stories. He borrowed $25,000 to start American Income Life and sold the insurance company for $563 million. He  donated $46 million to start a foundation that benefitted education and the arts. He donated millions to the University of Texas and is a former Chairman of the UT Board of Regents.

Blair Reeves (Class of 1942) -- Judge, war hero. Paralyzed from gunfire on Okinawa in World War II, Reeves returned to the U.S., completed law school and became a distinguished jurist. He served as a Bexar County judge and Chief Justice of the 4th Court of Appeals. In 1967, he cast the deciding vote to double the local hospital tax, which led to the University of Texas Health Science Center, an internationally known research center.

Kyle Rote (Class of 1947) -- NFL star. As a receiver, Kyle led the New York Giants to the 1956 NFL championship and played in four Pro Bowls. As a halfback at SMU, he finished second in the Heisman Trophy, threw the discus and pole vaulted. He led Jefferson to the state finals in football (1946) and basketball (1947). He hit .347 as a minor league baseball player. Mickey Mantle once said, “Kyle Rote is the greatest natural athlete I ever saw.”

Distinguished Graduates

Holly Dunn (Class of 1975) -- Country music star. Dunn was named among the Top 100 country music artists in history. She earned three Grammy Award nominations and recorded four No. 1 hits and several Top 10 singles. Dunn was named Top New Female Vocalist in 1986, Country Songwriter of the Year in 1988 and was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. She has performed for Presidents Reagan, Clinton and both Bush’s.

Ed Garza (Class of 1986) -- Mayor, city councilman. Garza served two terms on the City  Council, representing the Jefferson neighborhood in District 7, before becoming the youngest mayor -- at age 32 -- in San Antonio history in 2001. Garza served two terms as mayor. He has served as President of the San Antonio Independent District School Board and has served as an adjunct professor at UTSA and St. Mary’s University.

Laura Groff (Class of 1982) -- Volleyball star, coach. After winning the Tommy Nobis award as a three-sport star at Jefferson, Laura captained the University of Texas to four Southwest Conference volleyball championships. She earned All-America honors and was named to the SWC All-Decade team. After playing pro volleyball, Laura became a championship coach at St. Mary’s and the winningest coach in history at UTSA.

Alfredo Valenzuela (Class of 1966) -- Major General. After graduating with a C average from Jefferson, Valenzuela served 33 years in the U.S. Army and earned four degrees from St. Mary’s University. He rose to become commanding general of the U.S. Army South -- an area that covers Central and South America and the Caribbean. Before he retired in 2004 with numerous medals and two stars. Maj. Gen. Valenzuela served in posts around the world.


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