Making Their MarkThe 2009 Distinguished Alumni Awards
By Dawn McMullan / Illustrations by Dennis Balogh
On Friday, January 16, 2009, four remarkable Baylor graduates--Paul
Foster, Dr. Jerry Marcontell, Alma Rohm, and John Lee Hancock--will
receive the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Baylor Alumni
Association during a black-tie banquet in the Cashion Academic Center
on the Baylor campus.
Presented annually since 1965, the award has honored governors and
scientists, artists and denominational leaders, and educators and
entrepreneurs. By earning the praise of their peers and colleagues,
this year's recipients--representing the fields of business, medicine,
mission work, and entertainment--have brought honor to their alma mater.
Join us as we, in turn, honor their achievements as members of the Baylor University alumni family.
Paul Foster '79
President and CEO of Western Refining
El Paso, Texas
Paul Foster got his first job, as a newspaper delivery boy, when he was ten years old.
Other jobs between that one and his current position as president and
CEO of Western Refining--with a net worth of about $1 billion--included
selling fireworks, bagging groceries, and selling homemade candles. One
constant, however, was that he was always, always around the oil patch.
Foster, now fifty-one, spent his teenage years doing the dirty work of
the oil business--digging ditches, cleaning tanks, and welding pipes.
Such work, he told Forbes
magazine, was "the single biggest motivation to get an education." He
did go on to higher education, and subsequently into higher and higher
income brackets. In 2008, he was number 1,062 on Forbes' list of the world's wealthiest people, and he was number 261 among America's wealthiest the year before.
Foster's interest in oil started with his father, who operated an oil
field service business in Lovington, New Mexico, where Foster grew up.
As a kid with asthma, he didn't play sports but did manage the
basketball team. Management, it seems, was in his DNA from the get-go.
Foster didn't start Baylor with the oil business in mind, beginning his
freshman year as a pre-med student. One semester changed that, and he
decided to study finance and accounting. As a CPA after graduation, he
worked his way up in refineries, finding his way to El Paso Refinery,
where he was vice president and general manager of marketing.
When the refinery went bankrupt in 1993, Foster was hired by Border
Refining in Dallas to manage El Paso Refinery's assets. Four years
later, Foster started his own company, Western Refining, and in 2000 he
purchased El Paso Refinery. In 2003, Western Refining bought Chevron
Texaco's El Paso refinery, and in 2007 the company acquired Giant
Industries, bringing the total number of refineries under Western's
ownership to four. And those refineries produce 238,000 barrels of
crude oil daily.
Certainly, this has been a challenging time to be in the oil business,
Foster said. "We have had to deal with unprecedented high costs for a
barrel of oil, and watched as the price at the pump rose to record
prices," he said. "Like all refineries, our margins for the most part
of the year were diminished because of those per-barrel prices and the
per-barrel cost of refining. That situation is still volatile, but we
see very encouraging signs for the future. As CEO, I've always seen
myself as simply a guide. We try to hire people who are just as
passionate about those principles as we are, and then we let them do
Something else Foster is passionate about is El Paso. Last year, he
purchased the city's seventy-seven-year-old Plaza Hotel, adding it to a
collection of buildings he plans to renovate. "Here is one of Texas's
oldest cities, with so much history and cultural importance--it has
meaning and relevance to this state and to the nation," he said. "I'd
like to see that history preserved, and much of it is in the downtown
area. The revitalization I envision is with that preservation in mind.
I hope to be a major part of those efforts."
Foster has also influenced Baylor's path, donating $3 million for the
Paul L. Foster Success Center. Dedicated in 2007, the center is devoted
to positioning Baylor students--from their freshman year to
graduation--for success in their academic and professional lives.
Such altruism doesn't surprise Dan Malone, an El Paso attorney who
pledged as a freshman with Sigma Alpha Epsilon when Foster was a
senior. He describes his fraternity brother as a "truly nice guy."
Malone elaborated: "While we were pledging, we had to go to each
member's apartment to get our 'assignments.' Several of the
upperclassmen enjoyed their power over the pledges and had us greet
them at their front door at 5 a.m. or clean their apartment."
Foster, who lived quite a distance from campus, didn't even make the
pledges drive to his apartment. And his assignment: get to know the
"He always had a ready smile, and he has always been the kind of guy
that is just very pleasant to be around, the true gentlemen," Malone
said. "Nothing has changed in the last thirty years. That is still a
good description of him."
Despite his stature in the business world, Foster is still a
down-to-earth person, Malone noted. "You're just as likely to see Paul
in a pair of Levis as you are in a suit," he said. And while Foster
recently bought a $12.7 million condo in New York City, he also drives
a Ford F-150 pickup. He said he doesn't let his success go to his head:
"If it ever does, I know I'll hear about it from my wife," he said.
Foster is a newlywed, having married Alejandra de la Vega last year.
"She constantly reminds me that she's smarter than I am, and I think
she's correct," he said.
Dr. Jerry Marcontell '58, MD '63
Physician and Department Chief, Retired
If you Google Jerry Marcontell, you'll get a lot of hits concerning the 1957 Sugar Bowl.
It was New Year's Eve at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. Baylor, ranked
eleventh in the nation, was playing the Tennessee Volunteers, who were
undefeated that season, ranked second, and thought they deserved a
tougher opponent. During the second quarter, quarterback Bobby Jones
threw a twelve-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Marcontell. In the end,
Baylor won 13-7.
A well-respected obstetrician and gynecologist in Houston for
thirty-five years, Marcontell, who is now seventy-three, has retired to
a forest near Rye, Texas. When he takes time off from preserving the
Big Thicket, he enjoys his season tickets to the Bears' games and
admits he tells the Sugar Bowl story every now and then--"ad nauseam,"
his kids might say.
Marcontell grew up in Baytown, on the coast near Houston. In such a
small school district, everybody did everything. That was where
Marcontell started his football career and gave choir a try. "I
couldn't sing a lick," he said, "but I was in the choir because they
needed another warm body."
Baylor football drew Marcontell to Waco. The first football game he
ever went to was in Houston in 1948. Baylor played Rice, and his dad
"It was always a dream of mine to go to Baylor. I always thought it was
just beyond comprehension that I could ever be playing out there at
Baylor Stadium," he said.
Marcontell received a full football scholarship to Baylor and started
down the chemistry path, assuming he'd work for an oil company. In the
middle of his senior year, he switched to pre-med and then graduated in
1963 from Baylor Medical School, where he was the class president for
"Back then, the word was that to get into medical school you had to
have some 'in'--some member of your family who was a doctor or had
political influence, none of which I had," he said. "I also knew it was
very expensive. But when some of the guys I took chemistry with got
in--and I knew I had better grades than them--then I figured if they
could do it, I could do it."
When Marcontell got to the OB/GYN rotation, he knew he'd found his
passion: happy endings. He started his private practice in 1963 and
retired in 1998. In the early part of his career, he and his wife,
Mary, had four children in five years. The family often ate breakfast
together at 6 a.m., working around Marcontell's schedule because family
time was important. More than once they had "Happy Birthday" scrambled
eggs with their cake.
Professionally, he spent most of his career at Hermann and Park Plaza
hospitals, serving as chief of the OB/GYN department for almost a
decade. He also spent nine years with the U.S. Air Force Reserve, where
he went through flight surgeon training.
"He is really interested in people, and that makes a difference," his
wife says. "You can tell when someone really cares about you and is not
just being clinical. He had the same office manager throughout his
practice. She retired when he did."
Marcontell retired at the top of his game, before people at the
hospital started having meetings about how the old doctor should hang
up his scrubs, as he'd seen happen before, he said. He and Mary bought
almost twelve hundred acres of land in Rye, about seventy miles
northeast of Houston--and, importantly, close to most of his kids and
The land, located in the heart of the Big Thicket National Preserve, is
where Marcontell's father had grown up and taken him camping and
hunting. Marcontell preserves and plants native trees on eleven hundred
acres--working to regenerate the natural flora and fauna--and lives on
the other seventy-seven acres.
"We have just all kinds of different trees--oak, hickory, cypress. I'm
kind of watching them grow," Marcontell said. "I'm doing selective
thinning because they get to crowding each other. I do disease
prevention, fire prevention--just wanting to preserve a part of the Big
Thicket that I knew as a child."
Doesn't a forest just grow on its own? Yes, but it grows better with
Marcontell's care and knowledge. "It reminds me of the story of the
fellow who had this beautiful garden near his house," he said. "His
neighbor came over and said, 'Gosh, that's a beautiful garden. It's
just wonderful what God can do.' The man said, 'You should've seen what
it looked like when God was doing it by himself.'"
With a laugh and an accent he surely didn't acquire in a Houston
high-rise, the Sugar Bowl football hero describes himself as a
pragmatic optimist. "Here I am at seventy-three, and I'm still planting
little seedling trees."
Alma Rohm '47
Southern Baptist Missionary, Retired
After fifty-four years as a missionary, Alma Rohm left her mark on Nigeria. And Nigeria, certainly, left its mark on her.
Rohm, now eighty-three, is a chief--an official government title in
Nigeria--twice-fold. Her first title is "Iya Nisin Ilu," or "mother in
service of the whole community." Her second, "chief doctor mama."
A statue of her sits in front of the Baptist College library. The
former church primary school building where she taught, which is now
used by the university, is called Alma Rohm Hall. There's the Alma Rohm
Baptist School and the Alma Rohm Baptist Church. In 2002, she was given
an honorary doctorate of divinity from the Nigerian Baptist Theological
Only three Southern Baptist missionaries have served longer tenures
than Rohm. She never married. Never had children. From the age of ten,
she knew how her life was going to play out.
"The Lord called me to be a missionary in Africa," she remembered. "I
didn't know the name of the country in Africa where we had missionaries
then, but I was going to be a missionary."
She told her parents about her calling, and they suggested she tell her
pastor. She wasn't too keen on that. And, although she faithfully
followed directions, she honestly wasn't too keen on God's whole idea.
"I didn't want to tell [my pastor] because I thought he would tell the
church. And I really didn't want the church to be told because I
thought if he did that, the people would say, 'Oh well, she's just a
little girl. Next month she'll want to be a movie star or a pilot.' And
I had really struggled before I surrendered. I felt like I would weep
if they laughed, and I was pretty sure they would laugh."
Her pastor didn't tell the congregation. But he did suggest she contact
the Baptist Foreign Mission Board, which she did. She wrote to them
that year and every year until she was sent to Nigeria.
Rohm's father worked on the Katy Railroad, which is why they lived in
Bellmead, near Waco, where train engines came for repair. Once the
Depression hit, though, her father was out of a job. One year, she
remembers, he worked just nine days. If she were going to go to Baylor,
she would have to pay for it.
As valedictorian of her high school, she received a one-year
scholarship. After that, she worked as a lab assistant in the biology
department and led Vacation Bible School for various churches in the
summer to make a little money. She was determined on her path, although
she still knew little about where it would take her. Somewhere along
the way, she looked up Nigeria in an encyclopedia and learned it was in
"People in those days didn't know much about Africa. I learned as much as I could, which was almost nothing."
Rohm graduated from Baylor, then went on to seminary. She couldn't
become a missionary until she was twenty-four, so she spent a year
teaching at the Buckner Orphan's Home in Dallas. Vernon Horsley was a
senior the year Rohm taught at the school.
"She didn't take any bull," he recounted. "Hers was the only class I
ever made a C in. She expected us to toe the line and do what was
David Bleakley came to Buckner when he was four years old. He remembers
Rohm forming a boys' choir, something that had never been done before
at the home, to reach a few boys who were having troubles.
"She was one of the most valued teachers we had," he said. "She's just
such a living sermon for everyone to see. Every Christian needs an Alma
Rohm in their lives."
Once Rohm arrived in Nigeria--after a month-long sea voyage, which
included stops along West Africa and up the Congo River--this young
lady from Bellmead started teaching. Rohm taught teacher training at a
men's college (now Bowen University, the first Baptist university in
Africa), as well as at primary and secondary schools in the towns of
Iwo and Oluponna. She also taught English literature and directed her
students in many Shakespearean plays.
Although she never had children of her own, she had countless children
in Nigeria who thought of her as their mother or grandmother. In
December of 2003, Rohm retired, moving back to Waco. "It was hard to
leave," said Rohm, who has visited Nigeria twice since then. "I miss it
If her health holds through her eighty-fourth birthday, she plans to visit her true home country again later this year.
John Lee Hancock '79, JD '82
Screenwriter and Film Director
Los Angeles, California
The road from middle-class Texas City boy to Hollywood screenwriter and
director once seemed insurmountable to John Lee Hancock. So much so, he
didn't even speak about it.
"I remember my mother reading Mark Twain to us and being swept away to
another world," he said. "The thought that I might one day write
stories for a living was a dream I dared not say out loud as I knew no
one who wrote for a living."
Growing up in small-town Texas, Hancock played sports, wrote stories,
and re-enacted the Alamo siege in his backyard. Both his parents were
teachers. He came to Baylor as an English major and great storyteller,
according to his friends. After graduating from Baylor Law School, he
dabbled in writing and directing a bit while working as an attorney in
That dabbling led him to give up his first career for his first love.
He moved to L.A., starved for a few years, and now he's working with
folks like Clint Eastwood, Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, and Ron
Hancock has written the screenplays for and directed most of his movies--The Alamo, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, A Perfect World, and Hard Time Romance. In addition, he directed The Rookie, and he wrote and directed the TV series Falcone. He also produced My Dog Skip.
Baylor fraternity brother Cary Gray's first impression of Hancock was
that he was another family jock. (Hancock's father had played and
coached football at Baylor, and his brothers both played college
football.) But Gray isn't surprised that Hancock now makes a living
with his stories.
"He was always a hugely entertaining storyteller," says Gray, who lives
in Houston. "He would embellish facts in just the right way to keep
everyone in stitches. We used to call it the 'Hancock exaggeration
factor' or just the 'Hancock factor.' He would defend himself, saying
he tells stories the way 'they should have happened.' However, I later
realized he would do an unusually perceptive job of capturing the
emotional truth of a story, whether he exaggerated or not."
Gray says his old friend is an unusual Hollywood story of the happy,
stable marriage with well-adjusted kids. Hancock lives in Pasadena,
California, with his wife, Holly, and their eight-year-old twins, John
Henry and Willa Grace--children their father describes as bright,
sensitive, and compassionate. "Traits they got from their mother," he
said. "I married well."
Hancock's favorite movies include Badlands, The Candidate, The Conversation, The Conformist, Network, Jaws, The Verdict, and the original Bad News Bears. But that list is written in pencil, not pen, he said. "Next week, I might answer differently."
Hancock said he doesn't have a favorite movie from his own body of
work--he described the question as being akin to "asking which are your
favorite children; you love them all for different reasons." But he
said that The Rookie was the most fun to shoot.
"It came about quickly, and we were budgeted low enough that we were
under the radar, so the studio didn't mess with us too much," he said.
"Every movie is different from a process standpoint. Some, like A Perfect World, are originals. Others, like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or The Blind Side,
are adaptations. They each present their own set of obstacles. With
originals, you have to make up the whole story, but there are no
creative limitations placed on you since it is your story. With
adaptations, you have the benefit of a story and characters in place,
but you are sometimes limited in how far afield of the book or article
you can stray."
Hancock recently completed writing adaptations of The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis, and Dead I Well May Be, by Adrian McKinty. Both are in the planning and casting stages, and one should start shooting this summer.
And this career he once couldn't even verbalize--is it difficult? Of
course, he admitted. "The hardest part is staring at a blank page and
everything that happens before that," he said. "You outline and
research and fight to find the themes of the story or the inner
character of the people involved. It takes awhile."
Is it fun? Of course.
"The most enjoyable part of writing is that point when the characters
start to speak and act for themselves through you. It doesn't happen
immediately, but at some point they grab the pen or keyboard from you
and tell their story," Hancock said.
"I am truly blessed. Though I work very hard, I get paid to do
something I have gladly done and would do for free. It is an adored
hobby that I, fortunately, call a profession. Every time I begin to
gripe about any part of the process, I have to remind myself how lucky