The hallways of Thomas Jefferson High School echo. They echo with sound and stories, with the footsteps of students moving across hallowed space and time. The campus listed in the National Register of Historic Places turns 90 Tuesday, and I can hear the pride of alumni swelling into song: “There is a school we all love well, ‘tis Thomas Jefferson. … “
The song takes flight, rising from the lips of graduates scattered around the world: “Her glories we will always tell, our Thomas Jefferson. … “
David Frederick (Class of ‘79), an old friend from Jeff, as we call it, remembers every word. He approached Jim Lehrer (Class of ‘52) at a party a few years ago in Washington, D.C., with a question: Was it true that he remembered the song after all these years? Lehrer hummed a few bars. Frederick nodded. Soon, a Supreme Court appellate lawyer and an Emmy Award-winning news anchor began putting lyrics to melody:
“On field and campus winning boys and girls all ready stand
for Dear old Thomas Jefferson, our alma mater grand. …”
Two men, born 26 years apart, connected more than 1,600 miles from a San Antonio landmark, a school that molded them and others. On the national championship debate team at Jefferson, Frederick developed oratory skills that prepared him to argue 57 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He has won 60 percent of them, including landmark decisions for consumers against pharmaceutical and technological companies.
At Jefferson, Lehrer wrote and edited sports for the school paper, The Declaration, a start for a future as one of the country’s most influential journalists. From 1988 through 2012, he moderated 12 presidential debates, helping an electorate measure candidates to lead the free world. After Lehrer’s death in 2020, the New York Times wrote, “He was an oasis of civility in a news media that thrived on excited headlines, gotcha questions and noisy confrontations.”
Lehrer and Frederick make up the tip of the school’s golden legacy. The building itself is a Spanish Moorish jewel, an architectural wonder of silver domed towers, ornate columns and wrought-iron balconies. Beyond the beauty, however, lies a greater treasure, a collection of alumni whose contributions to humanity extend from molecular science to outer space. W.E. Moerner (‘71) was the first to detect a single molecule in condensed matter with light. The discovery earned him the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Aaron Cohen (‘49) helped engineer Apollo 11, which carried the first man to the moon. Upon his death in 2010, Cohen was celebrated as a pioneer in human space exploration, a NASA legend who directed the Johnson Space Center and played critical roles in six lunar landings.
The breadth of alumni accomplishment is staggering. Since the school opened on Feb. 1, 1932, Jefferson graduates have earned two Nobel Prizes, six Emmy Awards, six Grammy Awards, one Medal of Honor, one Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody Award, the radio and television equivalent of a Pulitzer. Two alumni have served in Congress. Two served as U.S. Army brigadier generals. Two served as federal judges. Two were selected as No. 1 overall picks in the NFL draft. One produced a film nominated for a best picture Oscar. One served as the 16th U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development and ran for president in 2020.
“For a long time Jefferson has been a special place where talent, hard work and opportunity meet,” Frederick said. “It’s not surprising that it has produced so many leaders in their fields because the school fostered a community of learning that promoted opportunity at formative times in students’ lives. I’m proud to have graduated from Jefferson.”
New school an attention-getter
If social media had been around in pre-World War II America, Thomas Jefferson High would have trended on Twitter. The school rose from weeds like the Taj Mahal during the Great Depression. A $1.25 million sprawl of red tile and hand-carved stone gleamed on the rural edge of San Antonio. In the urban core, the hungry waited in lines for food. The contrasting images would have provoked a storm of tweets.
Texas Gov. Ross S. Sterling came to campus for the dedication, declaring Jefferson “the most beautiful school” in the state. Before a gathering of 1,000 in the Jefferson auditorium, the governor lamented his own school. He recalled “a one-room building with cracks in it so big you could throw a cat through them. And I was forced to quit school when I was 12 years old.” The remarks, published in the San Antonio Express, may have cost the governor a vote or two. Months later, Sterling lost the Democratic primary to Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, a college-educated rival who served two nonconsecutive terms as governor.
If Sterling gave launch to Jefferson’s statewide reputation, the pep squad brought the school national attention. On March 7, 1938, two Lassos graced the cover of Life Magazine, twirling ropes. A spread inside told of a colorful drill team — wearing blue flannel skirts, red Western-style blouses, pearl gray Stetson hats — that dazzled with rope tricks and marched in parades. The following year, 150 Lassos embarked on a 13-day goodwill tour with stops in Philadelphia, Washington, and New York City, where they performed at the world’s fair. The Lassos enjoyed tea with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House. They toured the U.S. Capitol and sang “The Eyes of Texas.”
The tour generated sensational coverage. According to one newspaper story, Vice President John Garner was lassoed by “some pretty girls today but he said Mrs. Garner wouldn’t mind.” Another story offered: “Traffic was stopped for several blocks as the red-and-blue garbed girls paraded through downtown Philadelphia.” Video would have gone viral on YouTube. Facebook and Instagram would have blown up with selfies.
And yet, with no smartphones or computers in pre-color-television America, Jefferson’s fame spread abroad. In 1946, the Lassos were featured in Le Patriote Illustré, a Belgian French-language magazine. “The Lassos,” said Joe Beth Kirkpatrick (‘71), a proud roper in her day, “were the face of Thomas Jefferson.”
In 1947, the school appeared in a National Geographic spread. The caption below a photo of students relaxing on the front lawn read, “Thomas Jefferson, which teaches modern living, prepares youngsters to be good Texans. Its curriculum includes classes in journalism, broadcasting, sewing, dancing, roping and military drill. Few colleges inspire more ‘pep.’”
It was not uncommon then, nor is it now, for passing motorists to mistake the school for a university campus. The breadth and beauty stun. Alumni stories add to the lore, reaching around the world. Consider Lt. Col. Robert Cole (‘33). Following the D-Day Invasion in 1944, he received a posthumous Medal of Honor for leading a bayonet assault across enemy lines to capture a German stronghold. It came to be known as “Cole’s Charge.”
Outstanding athletes, Hollywood ties
When I arrived as a sophomore in the fall of 1974, a large trophy case in the main corridor caught my attention. I peered through the glass, marveling at the array of athletic treasure. Pigskins from bygone championships. Basketballs from a distant era. Engraved hardware from tennis and track. Lots of gold losing its shine. I thought of my mother, Blanche (‘50), and the story she never tired of telling: She twirled a Lasso when the Mustangs won the 1949 state championship in football.
Jefferson has produced a number of professional athletes, men and women who have impacted sports. Consider Betty Jameson (‘37). In 1950, she and 12 others co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour. Jameson won 12 professional tournaments, including the U.S. Women’s Open and two other majors. According to the New York Times, “The golf historian Herbert Warren Wind compared Jameson to Ben Hogan in her ability to hit the ball straight.” In 1998, she was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Consider Kyle Rote (‘47). In 1956, he helped found the National Football League Players Association and served as its first president. He took the New York Giants to four NFL championship games, made four Pro Bowls as a wide receiver, wrote the Giants’ fight song and served as team captain 10 years.
The roll call of Mustangs in professional sports is long and distinguished. Twelve have played in the NFL or American Football League. Three — Rote, Tommy Nobis (‘62) and Gabriel Rivera (‘79) — were first-round picks. Six have competed in professional tennis and golf, the NBA, Major League Baseball and pro volleyball. One played a pivotal role in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s. Ruth Lessing (‘43) was a standout catcher in the AAGPBL. She made three all-star teams and set league records for her defensive prowess. Lessing and the league belong to a display at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. The AAGPBL inspired the 1992 film A League of Their Own. The technical advisor on the set to director Penny Marshall? Lessing.
Across from the trophy case were massive doors that opened to a 2,000 seat auditorium, a grand space with a proscenium arch and an inclined floor leading to an orchestra pit. Our principal assembled the student body here to watch High School, a 1940 film that used exterior shots of the campus. A 20th Century Fox producer cast Jane Withers as a ranch girl sent to learn at Thomas Jefferson High. A Lasso, Marion Reese, served as Withers’ double.
Jefferson’s connection to Hollywood grew after High School. Marcia Nasatir (‘43) produced The Big Chill, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and Ironweed, which received Oscar nominations for Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Glenn Jordan (‘53) won four Emmys for directing television movies.
Filmed at locations around San Antonio and South Texas, The Sugarland Express marked Steven Spielberg’s major directorial debut. Jefferson alumnus Peter Michael Curry (‘34), a flamboyant judge, played himself in a courtroom scene. According to the San Antonio Express-News, Curry complained about the script and Spielberg allowed him to rewrite a scene. When Curry complained about the performance of other actors, Spielberg stormed off, telling Curry to direct the scene himself. Curry obliged.
Alumni make their marks amid suburban flight
My mother wanted me to be a Mustang. She taught me the school song when I was 4 years old. The very same year, 1963, she persuaded my father to sell our house in North East Independent School District, not far from Lee High School, and buy a home near Jefferson in San Antonio ISD. Our family moved in the opposite direction of a developing trend known as white flight.
Mom became a counselor at Jefferson in 1969. She took me to football games and regaled me with stories about her brilliant students. One was tall and lanky and wore horn-rimmed glasses. He came to our house once to practice for a TV quiz show called On The Spot, a current events competition between two teams of high school students. Mom coached him and encouraged him to pursue a Langsdorf Engineering Fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis. W.E. Moerner made an impression. In 2014, he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
In the mid-to-late 1970s, Jefferson kept losing students to the suburbs. Its reputation slipped. I wondered if the school’s best days were behind it. My contemporaries didn’t think so. Gilbert Velasquez (‘74) would win five Grammy Awards and four Latin Grammys as a producer. Holly Dunn (‘75) would earn multiple Grammy nominations, record two No. 1 hits and become a country star in the 1980s and early ’90s. Bob Van Sice (‘79) would become a world-class performer of contemporary music for marimba and a renowned lecturer in percussion at Yale.
Two decades later, test scores and attendance plummeted and the dropout rate rose. Students died in shootings off campus. The campus was divided into four schools. In a swirl of confusion and anger, alumni leaders emerged. Julián Castro (‘92) became a city councilman, the youngest mayor of a major U.S. city, HUD secretary and ran for president. His twin brother, Joaquin Castro (‘92), served in the Texas House of Representatives and is a five-term congressman. Diego Bernal (‘95) represented District 1 on the City Council and serves in the Texas House. Ana Sandoval (‘93) earned degrees from MIT, Stanford and the Harvard School of Public Health. Today, she represents District 7 on the City Council.
Jefferson pride abides
In 2018, Jefferson became an International Baccalaureate School. The designation allows it access to higher-quality programs and professional development. Head of School Ralf Halderman rattles off success stories: The ROTC finished second in the nation in unarmed drill and third in armed drill. Bella Moreno, a senior, became the school’s first QuestBridge Scholar and is going to Boston University. The boys cross country team won district and qualified for the state meet. The Lassos are heading to Disney World in the spring.
Halderman enjoys sharing the accomplishments with alumni. “I cannot go anywhere — Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth — without running into someone from Jefferson,” he said. “I have never met a group of people that have such pride in their school. Everyone has a Jefferson story.”
David Frederick has a few. He learned the school song in middle school when his older brother, John (‘76), marched in the Jefferson band. In Washington, he’s met with a former debate partner who’s now a prominent lawyer, Todd Wong, outside the Supreme Court. He has chatted with the Castro brothers. He’s run into a famous news anchor at a party.
“I saw Jim Lehrer not long before he died,” Frederick said. “I said, ‘Rumor has it you’ve held onto the memory of the Jefferson school song.’ He started humming. I helped fill in the words and we were singing to each other.”
Almost no one has more history with Jefferson than Dorothy Hughes (‘41). A former Lasso, she performed at the 1939 World’s Fair, visited with Eleanor Roosevelt and appeared in the film High School. Some 20 years later, Hughes taught the school song to her three children, all of whom would graduate from Jefferson. Linda Lowman (‘67), a former Lasso herself, recently invited me to her mother’s home for an interview. Hughes, 98, offered details from events that occurred more than 70 years ago. I asked if she remembered the school song, at which point, she and Lowman belted it, word for word, loud and proud. “It comes from the heart,” Hughes explained. “I’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Every so often, I drive by the old house in Monticello Park. If I time it just right on a fall morning, I can hear trumpets and drums, a sound that carries four blocks from the campus all the way to the front yard. Memories float with melody.
“Thomas Jefferson! (cymbal crash) Thomas Jefferson! (cymbal crash). Dear old school of mine, I’ll sing thy praises everywhere, Dear Thomas Jefferson.”