Time of My Life, Part 11: This banty rooster stood tall

There once was a time when public figures embraced the attention of newspaper editorial boards, of those who sought to help guide their communities’ future.

I was able to play a small part in that relationship. One such figure thrust himself onto the Texas public stage by popping off about what he saw as the abysmal quality of public education in the state.

I had the chance to meet this man up close. Man, what a time!

H. Ross Perot built a fortune in technology. In 1983, he sounded off publicly about his belief that Texas was more interested in turning out more “blue chip athletes” than “blue chip scholars.” He lamented the poor quality of public education in Texas.

Gov. Mark White picked up the challenge that Perot implied and said, in effect: OK, buster, if you think you can develop a better plan for educating our kids, I’ll appoint you to a commission to lead that effort.

Perot accepted the challenge and led the Perot Commission, a blue-ribbon panel of business and civic leaders and educators.

I arrived in Texas in the spring of 1984 to write editorials for the Beaumont Enterprise. Not long after I took my post, Perot issued his report to the public. His recommendation, in short, called for standardized testing of public school students; it set a minimum standard for passing before students could advance to the next grade. The plan included a provision known as “no pass-no play,” meaning that if a student didn’t maintain a 70 percent academic average he or she would be ineligible to participate in extracurricular activities.

Perot then launched a statewide barnstorming tour to sell the plan to a public that had never seen or heard such a thing. Perot came to Beaumont to speak to a group of civic leaders.

Let me just say this about H. Ross Perot: The man is able to totally command a room despite his short stature. I had never been in the presence of someone who had that kind of charisma. The room was mesmerized by his presentation. He made a tremendous pitch selling the merits of the plan he would propose to the Legislature.

Later, after his talk, I got invited to meet with Perot along with a handful of other media representatives. We gathered at the John Gray Institute on the Lamar University campus in south Beaumont. I wasn’t exactly star-struck by the man, but he certainly did impress me with the detail he was able to deliver with his pitch.

Gov. White called the Legislature into special session later that year and it approved House Bill 72, which enacted the public education reforms recommended by the Perot Commission.

Yes, indeed, those were the days when public officials didn’t view the press as the “enemy of the people.” They sought us out, answered our questions forthrightly and enabled us to report on — and comment on — the content of their ideas.

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