Thomas Jefferson High School Historical Preservation Society

Shining Lights: Alumni Who Changed the World | by Ken Rodriguez '77

Tue, August 16, 2011 9:20 AM | Deleted user

To measure the reach and impact of one Jefferson High School graduate, you must travel into space, to an orbiting sphere, 238,000 miles away. It is there, on crusty terrain, that the story of Aaron Cohen ('49) turns. In 1969, Cohen helped put the first man on the moon.

Cohen left a distinct imprint on the Apollo 11 landing, a feat considered the greatest in human history. He directed the design and development of the Apollo Command and Service Module, the craft that reconnected with the lunar module and carried Neil Armstrong to the lunar surface.

In 31 years at NASA, Cohen played critical roles in six lunar landings, developed the space shuttle, directed the Johnson Space Center and retired as a pioneer in human spaceflight. He died in 2010.

While visiting his alma mater in 2007, he told students: "When I attended Jefferson in the late '40s, not this country, or any country, had the thoughts, ideas of sending humans to the moon. The courses I took at Jefferson … enabled me and gave me the confidence and the capability to be able to work on that project of sending men to the moon."

In Cohen's day, students at Jefferson glowed with super nova-like promise. Emerging from one classroom was Franklin Spears ('48), a future State Representative, State Senator and Texas Supreme Court Justice. Brushing past Spears, Rose Spector ('50), a brilliant brunette who would become the first woman elected to the Texas Supreme Court.

Stepping out of the auditorium, Robert Easton Burke ('48), a tall redhead who would succeed as a radio, TV and film actor, establish himself as the leading dialect coach in Hollywood and become known as "The Man of a Thousand Voices."

Sauntering to the gym, Pat Knight ('48), a football and basketball star who would play for the New York Giants and officiate a Super Bowl. Strolling through the hallway, football players who led the Mustang to their only state championship in 1949. Moving among the giants was a bookish boy with a love for science, Robert Floyd Curl ('50).

Curl did not date. He did not participate in sports. He conducted chemistry experiments on his mother's stove. "I think it's fairly accurate to say I was a nerd," he once told the San Antonio Express-News.

As a professor at Rice University, Curl and two other researchers discovered a new cluster of soccer-shaped molecules that led to a new branch of chemistry. In 1996, Curl and his colleagues won the Nobel Prize.

Curl and Cohen walked the same hallways, learned under the same teachers and blazed new trails in science and space. That pioneering spirit began with the school's first valedictorian, Gus Garcia ('32). A lawyer, Garcia won a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, a ruling that prevented the exclusion of Hispanics from juries.

Other pioneers:

Henry B. Gonzalez ('35), the first Mexican-American from Texas elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Betty Jameson ('37), a founder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), who won 13 tournaments and paved the way for women golfers to earn millions of dollars.

Lillian Dunlap ('38), the first Texas woman promoted to Brigadier General in the U.S. Army.

Marcia Nasatir ('43), the first female vice president of a Hollywood film studio, United Artists, and an acclaimed movie producer.

Kyle Rote ('47), the founder of the NFL Players Association who became pro football's first renaissance man. Pianist. Composer. Poet. Author. Coach. Broadcaster. Artist.

Tommy Nobis ('61), an All Pro linebacker who founded a training and development center in Atlanta that has helped more than 12,000 people find jobs.

Today, Jefferson graduates shape the world of music (guitarist Chris Perez owns a Grammy Award), television (director Glenn Jordan owns two Emmy Awards) philanthropy (Bernard Rapoport has given away $54 million) and law (David Frederick has argued more than 20 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court). One alumnus shapes the White House. Jim Lehrer ('52) has moderated 11 presidential debates.

Almost 80 years after it opened, Jefferson is now known for its alumni in public service: San Antonio mayor Julian Castro ('92); State Representative Joaquin Castro ('92); State Senator Leticia Van de Putte ('73); San Antonio Independent School District trustee Ed Garza ('86), who also served as mayor and City Councilman.

In another era, Jefferson was known for its military heroes. The most celebrated soldier was Lt. Col. Robert Cole ('33), who earned the Medal of Honor for bravery during the D-Day invasion of France. The best war story, though, may belong to Blair Reeves ('42) and Weldon Odell Stautzenberger ('42), Marines who fought side by side in World War II.

In Okinawa, Reeves took a bullet to the spine. Under heavy fire, Stautenzberger lifted and carried him to safety. Reeves was paralyzed. Stautzenberger suffered two wounds, kept fighting and wiped out Japanese machine gun cave emplacements. He earned a Bronze Star.

From a wheelchair, Reeves rose to Chief Justice of the 4th Court of Appeals. But his greatest achievement came as Bexar County Judge. In the late 1960s, voters rejected a tax increase for the Bexar County Hospital District. In the face of strong opposition, Reeves cast the deciding vote to double the tax. That led to the creation of the University of Texas Health Science Center.

The legacy of two Marines reaches from Okinawa to San Antonio. On the battlefield, in the chemistry lab, on the surface of the moon, the spirit of Jefferson shines on.

About Ken Rodriguez: An Alamo City native and graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School, Ken Rodriguez is a former sports and Metro columnist at the San Antonio Express-News. In 1999, Ken was a member of a Miami Herald team that won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. In 2006, the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors awarded him first place in the state for general column writing. He has worked as a marketer at Our Lady of the Lake University since 2009. Ken also writes freelance stories for a number of magazines and Web sites.

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  • Wed, March 06, 2013 9:29 AM | Constance Barasch Sullivan
    How could you leave out current Federal Judge Fred Biery? Fred was our class president.
    Link  •  Reply

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