I have been a reporter all my working life, half of that time for daily newspapers, so who knows what volume of fish-wrap I must have ground out over the years, how many tens of thousands of interviews I've done. Yet in all that volume of chat, a very few conversations still ring clear. One of them was Glenn Straus talking to me about Adamson High School nine years ago.
We met in a Steak and Ale on the LBJ Freeway. Straus, a founder of the Adamson High School Alumni Association, was talking to me about another reporter who had asked him why a guy like him—white guy in a suit—cared so much about a school full of Mexican immigrant kids in Oak Cliff. Straus was offended by the question.
So I had to start off the lunch by saying that I had been on the verge of asking him the same thing. I already knew a lot of the back story, because my wife is an Adamson graduate and was active in the alumni association and the Adamson Foundation, which awards college scholarships.
In fact I was talking to Straus because I found my wife's stories so fascinating—a bunch of old white people, basically, who had established this deeply personal bond with their old high school's new, very different student population—94 percent Hispanic, 4.6 percent black, .9 percent white, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Nine years after I wrote a cover story about Adamson, the alumni now are locked in battle with DISD to protect their 94-year-old school building from the wrecker's ball. They say their motivation is still about the bond.
Straus says the day will come when kids at Adamson now will want to be connected with the school's long history. "It seems like it's some time in their late 40s before people start becoming aware of their history." He says preserving the school is as much for them as for the older alumni.
The alumni believe that the original Adamson building—preserved in appearance but improved inside to make it more functional—can be a powerful tool for passing on valuable traditions. They also believe a connection to the past is a connection to the larger world, beyond the confines of neighborhood.
Nine years ago when we met, Straus told me this story about himself:
"When I was a senior at Adamson in 1958, we didn't take SATs. We took the University of Texas entrance exam. It was given at Hillcrest High School. We were supposed to be there at 8 a.m. on a Saturday.
"So about five of us loaded into a friend's old Chevrolet and drove over there. We had never really been out of Oak Cliff. We didn't even know how long it would take to get there, so we left too early and got there about 7 a.m.
"To kill time, we just drove around in that area on Royal Lane and looked. Those were the biggest houses we had ever seen in our lives. We started driving up and down the east-west streets between Hillcrest and Preston.
"I am telling you, there was silence in that car the whole time. All five of us were speechless. That's when I realized what a sheltered life I had led."
I had breakfast with Straus last week to talk about the preservation battle, along with John Ruiz, current president of the alumni association. I reminded Straus of the story he told me nine years ago. He said he had repeated it recently to a kid from Adamson who had just finished up at UT in Austin on an Adamson Foundation scholarship. He said after he told his story of growing up in Oak Cliff in the 1950s, the kid told him his own story:
"He said, 'Mr. Straus, when I was growing up and living in Oak Cliff, I was living in a huge glass jar. The whole Oak Cliff was a huge glass jar. I didn't realize that glass was there until I got down to Austin and started seeing more of the world.'"
In March 2008, the alumni learned that DISD planned to tear down Adamson's stately 1915 building and replace it with a new school. They began exploring the possibility of seeking historic designation for the building—to see if it could be saved, in other words. I'm not sure they got the very best advice on historic preservation, but the advice they got was free.
At any rate, the district ran a scam on them. District officials asked the alumni to withdraw their application for historic designation while the district carried out an engineering study to see if the building was safe. DISD promised to share the report with the alumni as soon as it came in.
The clear understanding of the alums was that they would be able to re-apply for historic designation—perhaps with the district as their partner—if the report came back saying the building could be safely restored.
Well, the report did come back saying the building could be restored. I have a copy of it on my desk. The engineer who inspected the property said in a cover letter, "Furthermore, in its present condition, it is my opinion that the building is safe and can be used for classroom purposes."
But instead of sharing the letter with the alums as he had promised, Phil Jimerson, executive director of construction services for DISD, told the alums over a period of months that the report hadn't come in yet. Frustrated, the alumni finally resorted to a Public Information Act demand and forced DISD to produce the report.
When they did get a copy, they saw it was dated May 5, 2008. Straus told alumni in a newsletter, "This means that while we were meeting with [Superintendent Michael] Hinojosa three weeks earlier and during all the calls to Jimerson, DISD already had the report in hand."
Jimerson refused to talk to me, but district spokesman Jon Dahlander conceded that the engineering report had been received and was in district hands for some period of time while Jimerson was telling the alums that the engineer had not yet finished his work. Dahlander told me that Jimerson, who is in the construction department, didn't know the report was complete for a long time because it was delivered to another department. "Basically the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing," Dahlander said.
The problem with that story is that Jimerson was making repeated promises to produce the report and even told the alumni other stories about why it hadn't come in yet. Straus told me Jimerson said at one point that the engineer working on the report had flown the coop with all of his working papers.
I can guess, and you can guess, why Jimerson didn't want to get pinned down on any of this in an interview with me. You can also guess how much integrity the alumni felt they were dealing with at school district headquarters.
This comes down to a fairly unbelievable bottom line today. Even though the district's own reports show the Adamson building is safe, and even though the district just spent $5 million repairing the building and another $5 million on a brand-new addition, DISD still insists it's going to erect an entire new school and move the students to it within the next three years.
I guess that's what happens when you have a school board president who's in the school construction business and whose company does business with his own school district.
It's not that a case can't be made for building a new school. I spoke with Sonia Cabrales, a 1994 Adamson graduate, now an executive with Bank of America, who went to UT on an Adamson Foundation scholarship. She's a member of the scholarship committee now. She told me that when she went back to the school recently to interview scholarship candidates, she was shocked by the conditions she saw:
"I thought, 'Are they really having classes in this classroom as it is now?' The air conditioner was not running. The ceiling had spots where it looked like there had been leaks. The desks were not in good shape at all."
She wants to see the old school preserved if at all possible. "I'm for the preservation of the building," she said. "I really am. If they would do the renovation on the inside, I would love for them to keep the facade of the building."
But she would take a new building too. Anything but the deplorable conditions DISD has allowed to occur in the current building.
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I'm not sure where I stand on the issue of historic preservation, pure and simple. I'm more worried about the people. If you ask me, those Adamson alums have a lot more heart and soul in this school district than Jimerson or the rest of them will ever have. I hate to see them treated so dishonorably, because I don't want them to give up and go away.
Straus told me not to worry. "We're not going to take our marbles and go home over this. If there's a new building built, we will stay active."
If I were the Adamson alumni I wouldn't take my marbles and go home, either. I would take my marbles down to DISD headquarters on Ross Avenue, along with my slingshot, and I would break some glass. But that's the difference between them and me.
They're good people. Somehow in their involvement with the school, they have learned to see from heart to heart, beyond all the barriers that keep us apart. They believe the old building itself is the chalice in which that bond may be passed from generation to generation. At the very least, they deserve honorable treatment.