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Summer 2002
 
 
Baylor Alumni

Making Their Mark

The 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 their jobs."

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 other members.

"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
Rye, Texas


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 took him.

"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 two years.

"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 grandkids.

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
Waco, Texas


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 Seminary.

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 the tropics.

"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 right."

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 very much."

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 Houston.

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 Howard.

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 I am."


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