The following speech was given by The Rt. Rev. Maurice M. Benitez on Founders Day, October 24, 2008:
The Story of EHS: Alleluia, Hot Dog and Hooray
That exuberant remark describes the excitement I feel in being able to stand in this pulpit and tell you the story of this Episcopal high school, and how it came to be. I was the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, and I have been given far too much credit as the person who founded this school.
Because I could give you the names of at least 30, or 40, or 50 persons, some here today, some could not make it, and some gone to glory, without whom, without their plain hard work, their generosity, and without their persistent fundraising, this school would not be.
But let’s face it; the real Founder behind this school was Almighty God! He wanted this school to be—I know, because over these past years, we saw one incredible miracle after another, and every student, every faculty member, every staff member over the past 25 years, and each of you today, has been a partaker in, and been blessed by that series of miracles. So let’s give God the glory! Give Him the glory!
Going back to 1981, a woman called my office, and said, “Bishop, many Episcopal parishes in the Houston area have day schools, with grades up to the middle grades. But where are our children going to go for high school? Will you start an Episcopal High School?” And I said, “No, but I am willing to meet with a group of persons and talk about it.” Two weeks later, I met with such a group.
In that meeting, it was obvious that such a school was needed, and that we would have no trouble assembling a large student body. BUT we had no money, no property, and no site for the school. That was our challenge.
We realized that it could not be located on the other side of Highway 6, nor on the other side of The Woodlands. It seemed we needed to locate it near the center of a circle that encompassed Rice University, West University, Bellaire, River Oaks, Tanglewood, and Memorial. The center of that area is the Galleria! I don’t know about now, but then it was the most expensive property in Houston Metroplex.
We looked in this area and discovered the abandoned buildings of a Roman Catholic convent and a high school called Marian High School that had closed two years before, with the property sold to a developer who planned to demolish the buildings. He had a project to build-- for 200 million dollars-- a high-rise hotel and a commercial office building on this property.
He was delayed in getting his project off the ground, so Sidney Val Smith, our real estate expert and who was a fine man, and I went to see the developer. I offered him 10 million dollars for the north 20 acres of his property, which essentially would give us the classrooms, the gym, the athletic field, the theatre/auditorium, and we gerrymandered the Chapel into it. We did not get the Convent building, and we had no baseball field, or room for one, no Ellipse out front, no practice field, no library, AND no room for expansion. He told me, “Make it 20 million and you have a deal.” Now, I have been known to be bold at times—some would even say foolhardy—but never at a price of 20 million dollars!
So, we had no deal with no other sites for the school in sight, so I wrote to our Committee that it looked like we were dead in the water, and if anyone gets an idea where we can get the land to call me. Until then, there would be no more meetings.
That was a Friday morning. That afternoon, I received a call from maybe the most remarkable man that I have ever met, named Jack Trotter. He said, “I understand you are trying to start an Episcopal high school.” I said, “Yes, but we’re having trouble finding the land.” He said, “I known the whole story. How would you like to meet with me, and talk about an idea that I have that would enable you to buy that property at your price, by me helping the developer to get a substantial tax advantage where he comes out fine, too.”
I said, “You bet I would!” And he said, “Come to my office this coming Monday afternoon and bring your real estate agent.”
We met with him and his staff. He outlined the plan and then asked if there was anything we hadn’t thought of. I suggested that maybe we ought to get a good tax lawyer to look at it. At that, the room erupted with laughter, coughing and sputtering. Jack cleared his throat and said, “Well, that’s sort of what I am supposed to be!” I later learned that many people in Houston regarded him as the finest tax lawyer in town, and maybe on this planet! That was obviously something I had not known.
Then he looked at me and said, “Bishop, what we need is for you, this week, to raise one million dollars.” I responded “What do I get to do, next week?” Jack then said, “Look, the key to our plan and to the developer accepting our offer is my going to him, next Friday, with a check in my pocket made out to him for a million dollars.” But then, Jack handed me a check and said, “Here is your first $100,000.”
The meeting ended and I went across the street to see a good friend, told him my story, and what I was up to. He liked it and gave me $200,000.
Going back out on the street, I met another friend; he asked what I was doing. I told him. He said, “Come to my office,” and he gave me $50,000.
In that same building, I went to a man’s office, who I had heard was interested in the school project. I told him the story, and asked him for $100,000 and he gave me $300,000. I told you—this story is one miracle after another! I had worked a little more than an hour, and had been given $650,000. After that beginning, raising the rest in that week was easy. We went to the bank, borrowed the $10 million, Jack bought for us the north 20 acres. The school was in business. Our first big miracle.
However, we were $9 million in debt. So, I convened what I called the Higher Finance Committee, charged them with raising the money to pay off our debt, and to raise what we needed to get our run down buildings in shape to again be a school. Sitting abandoned with no locks or security for two years, they had been terribly vandalized and were in wretched condition.
Our Higher Finance Committee met, comprising eight men and two women. And I announced that we were convened to develop a plan to raise at least 10 million dollars. At that point, the two women on the committee stood and said, “Bishop, before we begin, could we say something?” I said “Certainly.” They said, “We foresee a time in the future, five or ten or twenty years from now, when the Board of this School is going to say, “What on earth were those jackasses thinking about, back in 1981, when they started this School without buying the south 20 acres of this property when it was available? They could have bought it then. How could they have been so stupid? And now here we are jammed in on this property, between a gigantic hotel on one side and an office building on the other, with no way to expand our growing school.”
Someone at our meeting said, “What do you propose we do about it?” The women said, “It’s easy. Go to the bank and borrow another 10 million dollars and buy the rest of the 40 acres!!” I said, “I think I will consider your suggestion to be a motion, and it’s open for discussion.” No one spoke…not a single word. Because all the rest of us knew they were absolutely right! I then said, “All in favor say “Aye,” and all said “Aye.”
I like to tell this story and especially to you young ladies in the Chapel, as it illustrated the role that women played in starting this school, as well as in the laborious and seemingly never-ending fundraising that followed, and also in those famous auctions held every year which have contributed so much to this school. But the Lord God gave us those two women, that day, to give us another miracle. We now had the whole 40 acres of this property!
Our next step was to hire a headmaster, but not just an educator who could run a fine school, but one who could start one from scratch, and hire an entire faculty, as well as guide us in the refurbishing of our buildings which had been empty and abandoned for two years, and were in bad shape, and with almost every window broken. Having been scheduled for demolition, no one had worried about security.
Well, we got just the headmaster we needed, by the name of Jesse Borg, who in Maryland had started an Episcopal high school from scratch. What sold our committee on him was when he said, “Yes, I started a new school from scratch, and after I did, I concluded if I ever started another one, I would do some things differently.”
That convinced us that he was our man.
I told him I had seen some schools with teachers who did not seem to like young people and like being around them. He said, “I try with all my might to hire good teachers, but also ones who love young people and enjoy being around them. That makes a school.”
But we were now 20 million dollars in debt, and although we did not know it, we had launched ourselves into the longest fundraising drive in Houston history. It took us fourteen years to get out of that debt.
We started by offering all of the Houston Foundations and many major corporations and everyone we knew, an opportunity to help us, and most joined in generously. But three things happened, and all of them bad! First, we had an economic downturn that lasted several years. Second, that meant our pledges came in very slowly. Third, interest rates soared like a skyrocket: 13 1/2 and 14 percent. And with a 20 million dollar debt, we were paying out almost 3 million dollars a year in interest and had nothing left for principal, and were unable to reduce our debt.
We scrambled and chased prospects for 13 years. Someone had a great idea and we declared that everyone who would give us $10,000 or more to be a founder of the school, and we put their names on a big plaque! We got 326 founders! We kept on and one, year after year after year, and those on our committee lost almost all of our friends, who when they saw us coming, turned and went the other way. The Houston foundations were so very generous with us, but after our second round with them, said, “Don’t come back.”
Here’s a good story. This Chapel had also been badly vandalized. Big bonfires had been built in the middle of the floor. It needed much refurbishment. We announced that anyone who would give us one million dollars could name the Chapel in honor of their parents or a loved one of their choosing. The next week, a close friend came to see me and said “I will give you the million for the Chapel.”
I said, “That’s great! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” But then, he said, “I have one caveat…it has to be named in honor of you and your wife, Joanne!” I said, “No! No! No! I’d be embarrassed. Besides you name churches after people who are dead. And I am not dead yet.” He said, “Those are my terms.” I said “Wait a minute! You can’t be serious!” He said, “Do you want my million dollars or not?” And I knew him and knew him well and that he meant it! And we needed the money desperately. We had an interest payment coming due the next week, and we did not have the money to pay it!
I told him, “You have taught me something about myself that I did not know. I had thought I could never be bought, but now I know otherwise. You can name that Chapel after anyone you like!” That’s how this chapel got named.
Also, we thought about selling the stained-glass windows that we wanted to install. However, they were so beautiful that I drew a line and asked that we not sell them. Instead, we simply named them in honor of a number of people who played an extra special role in starting this school. The windows are installed in their honor.
Incidentally, my wife Joanne is not well and could not be here, today. Many of you know that she was a marvelous Bible teacher, and you were in her class. When planning to have these windows designed, I put Joanne in charge of selecting the Biblical scenes in the windows, and guiding the artist to give us just what we wanted. He knew his art, but Joanne knew the Bible! Together they did a great job!
Back to the fundraising! There were a number of times when we were very discouraged, never knowing where the next dollar was coming from. My line—that I repeated to the Committee at least 25 times, and they were tired of hearing it—was, “If you decide to swim across the Atlantic Ocean, when you’re half way and worn out and feel like giving up, then stopping will not do you any good.”
Finally, in 1993, the bank gave us the word that we had just two more years to pay off our mortgage of 20 million. In two years they were calling the loan. Needless to say, we intensified our fundraising. Those were two very, very busy years. Someone—I forget who—came up with a brilliant idea that enabled us to raise most of what we had to bring in. We asked the foundations and other significant prospects to whom we had been many time to give us pledges that would not be payable to us until we could tell them that we had solid pledges for the entire amount. They all liked it because it meant we would not be coming back.
We got our balance down to one million, the last million. And for some reason, it seemed the hardest to raise. To use an old Air Force expression, we were “fresh out of air speed, altitude, and ideas.”
At our regular breakfast meeting, Jack Trotter took over, saying, “I know each one of you over the past 13 years has given over and over again to this school, given more than anyone could ask of you…”
“…but no one gets to leave this room until we here among us have pledged the last million.” He said, “I am passing out a piece of paper to each of you on which to make your pledge, and until they come back to me totaling a million, no one gets to leave this room.” Now, here I get personal. I was not remotely in their giving category, and no one expected me to give at their level. But I was truly inspired by what Jack and these great folk were doing. And I could see that they were truly struggling.
So I took a piece of paper and made a pledge of $100,000 which I did not remotely have, but I decided that one way or another I would have to raise it! And although normally I did not keep secrets from my wife, then I went home that night, I did not dare tell her what I had done. In the next two days, I made some visits to people trying to solicit gifts for this school, but I struck out completely. I had worn out my welcome. I had been to them too many times.
But about four years earlier, I had gone to see a man and asked him for a million dollars for the school. He made no response, and he never did. Two years later, the man died, and I had almost forgotten about my visit to him. A few days after our breakfast meeting, where I made my big pledge, a lawyer called me. He was probating the will of the man that I had gone to see. The lawyer told me that the man must have liked me very much because in his will he had given me a bequest of one million dollars for me to pass on to any charitable institution which I designated!
I told you it was God who founded this school and this was just one more of His miracles!
Now those who had the dream, the vision for this school, were not just seeking to start “a” school, but rather a special kind of school having as a principle—or Pillar as we put it—first a commitment to academic excellence, but not meaning academic elitism wherein we would take as students only those of high IQ and academic potential. (Some years ago, the President of Harvard University was asked to what did he attribute the outstanding brilliance of his student body. He responded, “Well, primarily I attribute it to the Admissions Office.”)
Certainly we want our share of gifted students, but we also want students of average ability. Our goal is to enable each one that comes to us—the gifted and the average, as well—to fulfill their God-given potential to develop his or her intellect, to develop skills in all academic disciplines, to appreciate and participate in a strong fine arts program, to participate in a strong athletic program, and in all of this, to gather a storehouse of knowledge, enabling each to live the fullest kind of life.
And to us, education also involves learning self-discipline, leadership, responsibility, integrity, and respect for others. The next Pillar, we unashamedly teach and profess our Christian religion, the Holy Scriptures, and the moral values that issue from our faith, doing so, not in a doctrinaire way, trying to compel anyone to believe what we believe, but rather, trying to present our Christian Faith in its most winsome form! And we could hope that their experience here might offer each student an opportunity to know Jesus Christ if they have not already come to know Him, and to pattern their lives according to His teachings.
The next Pillar of the dream—and maybe the most important if the first ones are to be reached—is that this school be a Christian Community where every member, each student, each faculty and staff member, be treated as a beloved child of God. And, for that reason, from the first day since our doors were opened, you could walk the halls of this school and see smiles on the faces of the students, and see smiling faculty members who love this school. This describes the vision we have sought to uphold.
I close with a story, a true story that affirms what this school is all about. Some years ago, a minister, a pastor, was taking his family on vacation in the Tennessee Mountains. As he passed through Gatlinburg, he stopped at a restaurant for dinner. After they had ordered their dinner, the proprietor, the owner, came to the table, greeted the minister and his family, and asked where they were from. The friendly proprietor then asked the minister what he did for a living. When he told the man he was a pastor, the proprietor got excited, and pulled up a chair at their table and said:
“Let me tell you my favorite preacher story.”
Not waiting for the minister to say anything, the man sat down and started telling his story. The man said, “I was born in a small town down the road, and as a child I had a very unhappy life, a miserable one. My mother was not married, and never had been. And in a small town, everyone knew it. Other children called me a nasty name. On the playground I always played alone.
“On Saturday mornings, my mother went to town and she made me go with her. I hated it because I could hear the men sitting along the sidewalk saying things like, ‘I wonder who his daddy is? Who does he favor?’
“Well, the one church in our town got a new pastor and everyone was raving about his great sermons. I wanted to go and hear him, but I would go late and leave early. I stood in a corner in the back so I wouldn’t have to hear someone say, ‘What’s a boy like him doing here in this church?’ I hid back in that corner.
“Well, one Sunday, the minister fooled me. He walked to the back of the church before he announced the last hymn. He stood in the door. I was caught! I tried to wiggle by him, but he grabbed me and said, ‘Wait a minute, son. Who are you? Whose boy are you?’ I thought ‘Oh no, and here in front of all these people.’ And then the pastor said, ‘Hey, I know who you are! Boy, I can see the family resemblance! You are a son of God!’ He turned me toward the door and said, ‘Look out there! Boy, you’ve got a great inheritance in that world. Now you go out and CLAIM IT!’”
The man telling the story said, “That one experience changed my whole life.”
The minister at the table was fascinated and said to the man in the restaurant, “Hey, who are you? What’s your name?” The restaurant owner said, “I am Ben Hooper.” The minister traveling with his family recognized that as the name of the man who was born of illegitimate birth, who twice was elected governor of the State of Tennessee.
I hope and pray that each student, boy and girl, who passes through this school, goes out with this message in their hearts and minds:
“You are a child of the Living God! You have a great inheritance in this world. YOU GO OUT AND CLAIM IT!!”