Thirty years after graduating from Jefferson High School, I turned in my final assignment. It was a project that required multiple trips to the library, copious online research, numerous interviews, and a phone call I’ll never forget.
In spring 2007, I got Jim Lehrer (Class of ’52) on the line. I had called to congratulate him. A selection committee, to which I (Class of ‘77) and my former history teacher (Class of ‘43) belonged, had chosen Jim as an inaugural member of the Jefferson High School Alumni Hall of Fame. I’d also called to ask how Jefferson had influenced his pursuit of journalism.
“I wanted to be a baseball player,” Lehrer told me. “I wanted to play shortstop for the [Brooklyn] Dodgers.”
The aspiration, Lehrer explained, did not last. Reality hit him like a 90 mile-per-hour fastball, and an English teacher helped him up. He received an “A” on an essay along with a note, “Jimmy, you’re a very good writer.” At 16, Lehrer found fresh ambition: sports journalism.
That conversation came to mind after that learning Lehrer, one of the most influential journalists of our time, had died on Thursday at 85. Thirteen years ago, we connected over the phone after learning we shared similar adolescent passions – sports and writing. We both grew up rooting for the Dodgers (my Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958). We both wanted to become athletes. We both learned, early, the closest we’d get to college or pro sports was the press box.
Lehrer got the writing itch as a sophomore at French High in Beaumont. When his family moved to San Antonio in 1950, he joined The Declaration, the school paper at Jefferson, and became a sports editor. I became The Declaration sports editor in 1975.
After my interview with Lehrer ended, I reported back to Mary Jo Klingeman, a retired teacher, mentor, friend, and fellow Hall of Fame selection committee member. Back in the day, I had her for two classes: U.S. history and independent studies. For the latter, I wrote a research paper on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which required reading a New York Times bestseller, Appointment In Dallas, and answering the question: Does the evidence support the Warren Commission finding that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK?
I spent a few months on that project. I spent almost a year on the next assignment: organizing an Alumni Hall of Fame with Mrs. Klingeman and two former Jefferson faculty members. So deep was the talent pool that our selection committee had to set the bar high: Only alumni with international or national stature would be considered. Those who made the cut included a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry (Robert Curl); a lawyer (Gus Garcia) who won a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court; a NASA engineer (Aaron Cohen) who helped put the first man on the moon; and a Hollywood producer (Marcia Nasatir) whose film, The Big Chill, was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
Other selections were not so easy. The committee debated for months about which alumni to include. To avoid an inaugural class of mostly older alumni, we created a separate wing in the Hall for younger or “distinguished alumni,” graduates who had not yet achieved international or national acclaim. The real challenge, though, centered on high-impact alumni. Should we include a Grammy-winning musician? What about an Emmy-winning television director? Neither made the cut.
There was no debate, however, about Lehrer. Beginning in 1988, he moderated presidential and vice presidential debates watched by tens of millions. His questions provoked answers that helped decide elections. One generation of viewers knew him as the journalist who refereed debates between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, George W. Bush and Al Gore. Another generation knew him as the understated co-anchor of the MacNeil-Lehrer Report on PBS.
Lehrer enjoyed an impossible career. He wrote novels, memoirs, and plays. He had one novel, Viva Max, made into a movie. He interviewed world leaders and reported on the Watergate hearings and 9-11. He survived a heart attack in 1983, heart valve surgery in 2008, and anchored the PBS News Hour, the successor to the MacNeil-Lehrer Report, for 36 years. He won two Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award.
What else? Seven years after graduating from the University of Missouri, Lehrer covered the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. He was present when police brought Oswald in for questioning. Years later, he recalled, “I’m one of those people who asked, ‘Hey, did you shoot the President?”
Lehrer never found his way into the press box, as he had dreamed. But he found his way into America’s living rooms – delivering news, shaping views, preparing a people for their next president. His journalistic legacy spanned more than half a century – from his first job at The Dallas Morning News in 1959 to the last presidential debate he moderated in 2012.
From the anchor chair, he adhered to guidelines known as “Jim Lehrer’s Rules of Journalism.”
Among them: “Do nothing I cannot defend. Do not distort, lie, slant, or hype. Do not falsify facts or make up quotes.” For a journalist in a visual medium, it was surprising he held to this one: “I am not in the entertainment business.”
Some critics dismissed his straight, no-nonsense delivery as bland. For most, it was endearing. So committed was Lehrer to political neutrality he refused to vote. He worked hard to earn and maintain viewer trust.
Trust comprises part of the Lehrer legacy. So does kindness. Lehrer was a gentleman, willing to help younger reporters. He took their calls, answered their questions, dispensed advice when it was solicited.
He returned my call 13 years ago. We discussed the Kennedy assassination, talked about his career, reminisced about Jefferson. I invited him to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony and told him about some inductees: Congressman Henry B. González, NFL All-Pros Kyle Rote and Tommy Nobis, Medal of Honor recipient Robert Cole. Lehrer thanked the committee for the honor and invitation but said another commitment prevented him from attending.
On May 17, 2007, 75 years after the school opened, students filled the 2,000-seat Jefferson auditorium. They heard speeches from Curl, the Nobel Prize winner; Nasatir, the Hollywood producer; and Cohen, the NASA engineer. They watched videos of Nobis and Rote. They listened to a presentation about Lehrer and gazed at his image on a large, overhead screen. Many recognized him from TV. But until that morning, they did not know he was one of them. A Jefferson Mustang. Students left in awe.
I left on a cloud. Thirty years after turning in my last research paper to Mrs. Klingeman, I had completed my final assignment: helping her bring history and inspiration to the student body. Showing a new generation the possibilities of achievement. Lehrer missed the roar and wonder that filled the auditorium. He did not forget, though, to acknowledge the honor and sent a handwritten thank-you note.
In 2017, Lehrer returned to Jefferson and visited with students in the library. He challenged them to improve their writing, to take risks. He answered questions, posed for pictures and signed an autograph or two. Then, 65 years after graduating, the journalist, author, and playwright left his alma mater for the last time.
What remains are a collection of old sports stories, perhaps buried in the school archives, and a framed photograph that sits on a glass shelf in the hallway. Lehrer wears a dark coat, a crisp white shirt, a colorful tie. He sports the look of an anchor – solemn, serious – who wanted viewers to hear only his voice. A steady voice that began each newscast with a simple declaration: “Good evening, I’m Jim Lehrer.”