Lives Lived in the Best of Times
In famous verses written upon the death of his father, fifteenth-century Spanish poet Jorge Manrique, reflecting upon the brevity of human life, observes how “qualquiera tiempo passado/ fue mejor.” All times past seem better. For Jorge Manrique, the heroism of his father’s generation and the great deeds of Spain’s epic past cast their lovely light on the dismal landscape of his own time. It is hard to imagine anyone living today in Laredo voicing a similar lament.
We Laredoans, don’t we surely now live in the best of times?
In 1970, when Billy Cowart was sent from Kingsville to begin an extension campus for Texas A&I University, Laredo boasted one bridge and an airbase thought to be the lifeblood of our economy. “North Laredo” was anything north of Clark Boulevard. Laredo’s population stood at 72,859; fewer than 1000 trucks rolled daily across our one bridge. Today 225,000 people call Laredo home, with more than twice that number living in our sister city across the river. More than 9000 trucks daily make their way over one or another of our four bridges. Today few in this city, the largest landport in the nation, remember the horror its citizens felt when in 1973 the Laredo Air Force Base closed. Today what began in one library carrel at Laredo Junior College has become a magnificent new institution, a book center second to none in beauty and design.
To build their dreams, students choose from among 78 programs, leading to bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. We have recruited a truly international faculty, with 39 percent holding doctorates from outside the United States. With the dedication of the Lamar Bruni Vergara Science Center and Planetarium on April 16th, 2005, the campus as originally conceived reached fruition. Senator Judith Zaffirini, noting that fact, insisted, lest anyone misunderstand: “The first stage is complete, and we move forward. We will never stop nor be slowed.”
The wide scope of projects aligned for the next five years surely honors Senator Zaffirini’s pledge. We will complete the kinesiology facilities and explore a partnership with the City of Laredo to create a major regional baseball park; add a Student Success building; expand our outreach to Laredo schoolchildren, utilizing fully the planetarium; enter into an agreement to create a partnership with the Laredo Children’s Museum on the campus; begin a school of engineering; increase our inventory of collaborative PhD programs; dedicate a new pipe organ; organize a marching band. We will increase the partnerships we now have with our two school districts, exploring the possibility of establishing a laboratory school on campus and perhaps creating with the Vidal M. Treviño School for the Fine and Performing Arts an Early College High School at the University. Finally, we will continue to explore means to bring National Public Radio to Laredo.
Because Texas A&M International University arose from the relentless efforts of our citizens and elected officials, it is appropriate that our mission be intimately joined to the growth and development of the City of Laredo. Indeed, the challenges we now face are truly Laredo’s challenges, opportunities for prosperity and growth that we can only achieve in concert with our community.
First, we must, together, confront and combat the wretchedly low participation in higher education among our citizens. Only about 25 percent of the freshmen finish in Laredo high schools and continue to any form of higher education. We know that our enrollment stops when scholarship monies are exhausted. Generous community support must continue for students seeking an education.
Second, we must together with our school districts and our sister institution, Laredo Community College, align our curricula better to prepare our students for college study. At present, fewer than 10 percent of graduating seniors from our high schools score “college readiness” on either the SAT or the ACT.
Third, we must work with the City of Laredo to identify adequate recreational facilities and green spaces for our citizens, and bring to fruition the many good proposals for revitalizing our historic downtown. The presence of students attracted to Laredo from outside Webb County will enhance the educational experience of students native to the area. Young people and their parents looking at possible college choices will consider the surrounding community as they make their plans. The more attractive our city, the more appealing it becomes as a place to spend the college years.
Radcliffe Killam has often commented that when the history of the twentieth century is written for Laredo, it will be said that the founding of Texas A&M International University was the most significant, far-reaching event of its time. Our University is the work of many hands, trailblazers, the founders were called. Their beacon, our beacon, provides the enlightenment sorely missed by Jorge Manrique in his day. For South Texas, ours is the best of times.
Ray M. Keck III