The complete comments by our speaker at the Jeff lunch on April 7 will take all of today’s space. Even if you heard these comments in person, I think they will still thrill you if you read them again. Dr. John Frederick is a Jeff alum, 1976, and it presently the Prevost and VP of Academic Affairs at UTSA (the University of Texas at San Antonio). Here goes:
Thomas Jefferson High School Class of 1954 Reunion
April 7, 2016
John H. Frederick ’76
Thank you for the kind introduction, and good afternoon. I am very honored to be with you today to share some reflections on the great legacy of Thomas Jefferson High School and the power of education. As a 1976 graduate of Jefferson, and as chief academic officer at UTSA, where we are striving to create a top-tier university, these are themes very close to my heart.
Although I am a chemist by training, I have always loved to read about history, so I would like to start by considering the historical context of Jefferson High School’s origins. From 1920 to 1930, the population of San Antonio grew by 43% to 230,000. At this time, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and San Antonio’s two public high schools, Main Avenue HS (now Fox Tech) and Brackenridge HS were experiencing acute overcrowding, particularly Main Avenue.
To address the school overcrowding and in an effort to stimulate the local economy, the City of San Antonio passed a $3.7 million school bond that year to create a third high school on the far north side. Ultimately, one-third of the bond issue was devoted to the construction of Thomas Jefferson High School, an extravagant expenditure in its day. The school’s Spanish-Moorish design by architects Adams and Adams includes elaborate stonework features carved by the Pianta family of artisans, a large 2000-seat auditorium (equivalent to the combined capacity of both venues within the Tobin Center), and many other decorative features in its interior. In short, San Antonio created a high school like no other in the country— and I think you will agree that it remains one of the most strikingly beautiful high school buildings that one will find anywhere in the world.
The initial group of 1,400 students chose the school’s name, its colors (blue and red), and the mustang mascot, as well as many other time-honored traditions that survive to this day (including the Lassos, band, ROTC, etc.). Within five years of its opening in 1932, Jefferson High School was named the most outstanding high school in America, and it was featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1938 (March 7 issue). For all of us who remember Life magazine, we can appreciate what a really big deal it was to appear on the cover!
Over the years, Jefferson High School has produced many notable alumni in a wide range of professions, including public servants, journalists, educators, scientists, athletes, musical artists, and military leaders. Rather than recite a long list of names, let’s make this fun! I will let you ponder for a few minutes the answers to the following Jefferson HS trivia questions:
- Which high school in San Antonio is named for a Jefferson HS graduate?
- Who is the biggest Grammy award winner from Jefferson since 2000?
- Which Jefferson graduate has participated in presidential debates in the greatest number of election years?
- What accomplishments by alumni give Jefferson HS a scientific distinction that is unique in the world?
- Can you name the alumnus of Jefferson who is among the top ten lawyers in the number of cases argued before the Supreme Court since 1900?
While you consider these brain-teasers, I would like to introduce you to a couple of individuals who attended Jefferson High School during its first decade of its existence, Lillian Dunlap and John Silber. They are lesser-known to the public, but giants in their respective professions.
Lillian Dunlap graduated from Jefferson in 1940, and by 1942 had earned a Nursing degree. Recall that this was only months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, so she enlisted in the Army as a nurse, and was stationed in New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands, and the Philippines, some of the most intense “hot spots” during the heart of the Pacific War. Later, after many years and a series of promotions and appointments to positions of greater and greater responsibility, she was named Chief of the Army Nurse Corps and promoted to Brigadier General, the rank she held at her retirement in 1975, one of the first women to hold the rank of general.
Lillian was decorated many times for her bravery, service, and devotion to the profession and education of nursing, including being named an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Nursing and induction into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. But perhaps the most interesting tribute to her life’s work is the fact that one of the San Antonio river barges is named for her: “The General Lil.”
John Silber was a couple of years younger than General Dunlap, but also achieved great distinction, some might say “notoriety,” in his chosen career. After his graduation from Jefferson in 1943, Silber studied Philosophy at Trinity University, then attended Yale University where he earned a Ph.D. in the late 1950’s. By 1960, he had returned to Texas and taught at UT Austin, ultimately becoming the Dean of Arts and Sciences there. In this position, he played a key role in recruiting high-caliber faculty and transforming the university into one of the top educational institutions in the world, while also advocating for liberal causes, not an easy thing to do in Texas!
In 1970, Dr. Silber became President of Boston University, a position he held for more than 25 years, an uncommonly long tenure, followed by six years as chancellor of BU. Silber continued to advocate for causes in Massachusetts, though his causes now reflected a more conservative outlook. As a result, Silber was known throughout his life for his combativeness and his strong advocacy for a variety of causes spanning the political spectrum. Like General Dunlap, his legacy is marked by a naming— in this case, a street on the BU campus is named for him. I should mention parenthetically, that the current president of Boston University, Robert Brown, is also a graduate of the SAISD, having attended Highlands HS.
So why do I bother to highlight these two individuals? Both Lillian Dunlap and John Silber made the most of the strong educational foundation that they received at Jefferson High School to leave the world a better place than they found it, despite coming from humble origins. In each case, their education extended beyond high school, and in each case, they advocated for improvements in education and for the power of individuals to make a difference. Their names are not household names, nor will you find them featured in any history books, but through their lives they were committed to helping others.
Let’s return now to our trivia quiz: which high school in San Antonio is named for a Jefferson HS alumnus? Most are named for famous American statesmen/presidents, judges, or for geographic districts. In this case, however, the answer is “Robert G. Cole HS,” named after General Cole, a commander in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and one of the earliest graduates of Jefferson.
How about the largest Grammy Award winner since 2000? A well-known Jefferson graduate with a Grammy win in 2000 is Chris Perez, who was also lead guitarist for Selena y Los Dinos and was married to Selena. And alumnus Gilbert Velasquez has won a half-dozen Grammys for albums he has engineered over the past 15 years. However, the biggest Grammy award winner (in the literal sense) was Jefferson HS itself, which won the Grammy Signature School Award winner in 2010 for the excellence of its music education programs.
And which graduate has participated in presidential debates? If you are thinking of a politician, you are on the wrong track— it is Jim Lehrer, who has moderated presidential debates for many years, most recently in 2012, and is also the former anchor of the PBS News Hour. Lehrer has been a long-time fixture as a national news reporter, and is also the author of several books of fiction, including my favorite, Viva Max!
What is the unique scientific distinction held by Jefferson HS? Jefferson is the only high school in the world that can boast two graduates who have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Robert Curl (Rice University) in 1996, and W.E. Moerner (Stanford University) in 2014. At one time, I dreamed of being the pre-eminent chemist to come from Jefferson, but I am afraid that now I cannot do any better than third best!
Finally, who is Jefferson’s distinguished Supreme Court advocate? I must confess that I had some inside information on this one, because you are not likely to find this bit of trivia listed anywhere. The answer is David Frederick, who has argued nearly 50 cases in the Court over the past 18 years, and had one argument 10 days ago representing Europe, and another next week. He also happens to be my little brother, and I am quite proud of him!
Thomas Jefferson High School has an enduring legacy of greatness, and a physical campus now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As a student, I felt drawn to the traditions and the history of the school, and inspired by its magnificent design— just walking down the main hallway made me want to live up to the expectations of excellence.
I close by observing, if we are to excel as a community and fulfill the dreams of those who first declared and then fought for independence, we need a first-class public system of education. We must continue to inspire our students to great acts, to generous deeds, and to courageous convictions. I believe the true lesson of Thomas Jefferson High School is that when talented students are given an opportunity to learn and to be inspired, they can do amazing things. Thank you!