Distinguished Alumni honorees included Olympic gold medalist Kerron Clement, former pro football player Gene Washington and restaurateur Russell Ybarra. While Clement was unable to attend, he was represented by his sister, Kizzy Francis.
Jesse T. Garcia, founder of Las Hadas Restaurants, was recognized posthumously as the 2018 Distinguished Citizen. His granddaughter, Raigan Haas, accepted the award for the Garcia family.
The event was catered by La Porte High School culinary arts students under the direction of Chef Roy Rost. Adam J. Holland of the LPISD Communications Department served as master of ceremonies, and the colors were presented by LPHS JROTC cadets.
Superintendent Lloyd W. Graham greeted guests, and Dr. Linda Wadleigh, deputy superintendent and chairman of the Distinguished Alumni and Citizen Committee, presented the awards. Retired educator Martha Love also spoke following the presentations.
Honorees were also recognized prior to the Homecoming football game at Bulldog Stadium that evening. Superintendent Lloyd W. Graham presented Washington with a La Porte Bulldogs jersey bearing his number, 84, that he wore at Michigan State and with the Minnesota Vikings as he stepped onto the field at Bulldog Stadium for the first time.
Following are brief biographies of the 2018 honorees:
Jesse T. Garcia
Jesse T. Garcia is remembered by many people for his entrepreneurial prosperity as a restauranteur and real estate holdings investor. He also worked tirelessly to make La Porte a better place to live.
Garcia, who attended La Porte schools and founded Las Hadas Mexican Restaurants, began plying his trade early by working for the Ybarra family at El Toro. He and his brother eventually took a leap of faith and opened a restaurant in Texas City. Not long afterward, Garcia rooted in his hometown, where he debuted the first Las Hadas location.
While building on his business success – opening another restaurant, and acquiring and managing various rental properties – Garcia made it a point to continually reinvest his time and resources in his hometown. His generosity ran the gamut, from sponsoring and coaching many youth sports teams, to volunteering on just about every committee in La Porte. He was a member of the La Porte Optimist Club, La Porte-Bayshore Chamber of Commerce, as well as several other civic groups.
Perhaps Garcia’s greatest attribute was his humble nature, never wanting recognition for any of his countless good deeds. His real desire was to help make La Porte a better place to raise a family and call home. Mission accomplished.
Kerron Clement has said that he keeps running because it is his love. If his athletic accolades are any indication, he also loves winning.
Success on the track began early for Clement, a 2003 La Porte High School graduate. As the story goes, he cleared his first hurdle on the heels of a playground dare at La Porte Jr. High School. Little did he know that a coach had witnessed it, and it was not long before he was making daily treks to La Porte High School to learn from the older student-athletes.
Like anyone who owns great success, Clement had his share of early obstacles, including not even finishing his first race, and almost quitting athletics altogether because he had signed up for distance running – something that took a toll on his body – when he reached high school. But urging from his coach and his mother brought him back to the track, and to many first place finishes.
His awards are many, including two gold medals in the Olympic Games, most recently in 2016. Clement also owns multiple world outdoor championships, as well as three NCAA championships from his days at the University of Florida, where he was also an All-American six times. Before he built a heavy collection of college and professional medals, Clement twice won the state high school championship while wearing La Porte orange.
Though he was the man of the hour around the U.S. after his 2016 gold medal performance in Rio de Janeiro, Clement avoided the spotlight, instead choosing to come home to La Porte and help the district celebrate its 100th anniversary.
Any characterization of Gene Washington must include a description of his long journey of odds-defying triumphs during which hope served as his beacon.
Washington, a star student-athlete at Michigan State University and all-pro receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, was an unlikely success story, who helped break longstanding color barriers during the height of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-led civil rights movement. It all began here in La Porte, Washington’s hometown, and across the bridge in Baytown, where he graduated from the segregated George Washington Carver High School in 1963.
Though Texas universities thought highly of Gene Washington’s athletic prowess, he attended Michigan State, one of the few schools willing to admit African-American students. While there, he was twice named to the All-America first team, and won the NCAA indoor hurdling title, in addition to six Big Ten track championships. The pinnacle of his football career happened in Minnesota, where he played six years – including two All-Pro seasons – with the Vikings.
Gene has enjoyed just as much success beyond the gridiron, having been honored numerous times for his leadership. He holds a degree in education and a master’s in higher education and is retired from 3M, where he was the manager of workforce development for 22 years.
From the time Russell Ybarra was asked to take over a struggling restaurant in Pearland, he has hummed a tune of success, benevolence and humility.
Ybarra, a 1979 La Porte High School graduate, began his career as a restaurateur by washing dishes in his father’s company, El Toro Mexican Restaurants. He caught the entrepreneurial spirit early and started El Matador Foods in 1986, a tortilla factory in Baytown, Texas.
In 1993, Ybarra seized the opportunity to make something out of nothing with a failed restaurant property, and Gringo’s was born. The popular Tex-Mex restaurant has continued its growth in the Houston market to nine locations, including four franchises. Alongside Gringo’s, Ybarra and his team have developed two other popular Tex-Mex concepts, Bullritos and Jimmy Changas.
Ybarra has shared the fruits of his labor in a variety of ways through the years, but his many quiet acts of compassion best describe his true self. He has selflessly run the giving gamut, providing everything from funeral expenses to prosthetic limbs for those in need. Ybarra’s reach has also extended to children, veterans and flood victims – for whom he has paid a yearlong lease while they recovered.
Through all of his success in the restaurant world, Ybarra has not forgotten his La Porte roots. Rather, he continues to invest his resources in the town and its residents … where it all began for him more than 25 years ago.