by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — When Richard "Pete" Taylor made his way to the microphone inside the Lewiston-Porter High School auditorium Thursday, there was applause. As he spoke, there was silence, waiting to hear what the first of four Distinguished Alumni would pass on to the gathered crowd of students, fellow alumni and guests.
The member of Lewiston-Porter's class of 1959 explained his life growing up in Youngstown, how his baseball team as a youth pushed itself to defeat neighboring Lewiston each year. Then, when he was entering seventh grade, the world changed and suddenly he was in class sitting next to some of those bitter rivals after spending the summer hating them.
Those years in Lewiston-Porter helped develop in him a love and respect for education in general, something he spent a lifetime cultivating as he both pursued his own and provided youth with theirs.
"They developed in me a true value for eduction," said Taylor, a retired physical education teacher and former National Basketball Association assistant coach. "Lewiston-Porter meant a great deal to me. I think about it every time I think about my training, think about my family."
His message was echoed by each of the four honorees, including Youngstown historian and author Suzanne Simon Dietz, Sgt. Major Micheal Barrett and Daryl Johnston.
Taylor, who holds a doctorate from Springfield College in Massachusetts, has spent a lot of his adult life moving around from job to job as he ascended the ranks of high school, college and professional coaching and educating. He spent considerable time coaching for the New York Knicks, which he said was one accomplishment he is proud of.
He also served as an assistant coach under Bob Knight at West Point Military Academy, where he helped mold a young Mike Krzyzewski into what would become the winningest college basketball coach in history and the head coach of the country's national team since 2006, a tenure including two Olympic gold medals.
"I don't know how these things happen," Taylor said. "But they happen."
While the Army had a profound impact on Taylor, Barrett, a 1981 graduate, has made a living with the Marine Corps.
The highly decorated officer now spends his days testifying in front of congressional committees and walking the halls of the Pentagon, but he said none of his accomplishments would have been possible without his history at Lew-Port.
His awakenings, as he called them, came back as a fifth grade student, where as a 9 or 10 year old he was tasked with studying the Declaration of Independence and the constitution. Not just the documents, but the people who signed them, he said.
Learning about the various protections the country guarantees its citizens helped him better understand the sacrifices his colleagues and, later on, subordinates make when they enter combat, he said.
"I've seen the sacrifices and selflessness of young people," the Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran said. "I've seen them give all their talents and all their means, and in some cases, gave the ultimate sacrifice protecting free people who come and go about their lives. I've quickly learned over the last 30 years ... there are calls bigger than you. This is one of them but it started right here."
One of Barrett's friends growing up was also honored by the district. Daryl Johnston, valedictorian of the class of 1984, is by-and-large the most famous recent Lew-Port graduate, having won three Superbowls with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s.
Though he was unable to attend due to his job as a color commentator with Fox NFL Sunday, his mother, Ann Johnston, briefly relayed a message he wanted the current students to understand.
"When I talked to Daryl (Wednesday) night, he wanted me to tell you 'This is your foundation,' " Ann Johnston said. "So go do the best you can do here. Find something you love to do and work hard for it."
Johnston said via Twitter he's hoping to return to Lewiston-Porter to visit once football season is complete.
Dietz, a member of the class of 1969, shared an experience with the group about a time she found herself in a cafeteria filled with boys. At the time, she'd just arrived in the area after going to school in Canada and didn't realize boys and girls ate in separate cafeterias.
She said she ended up eating in the wrong cafeteria because she couldn't find a graceful way out.
She also told the story of her taking her first ride to school in a bus, which she said featured one particular stop along the route she dreaded.
"We always stopped for this one boy and he was never at the stop when we got there," she said. "The bus driver had the patience of a saint. She waited patiently for him to come up his driveway. I waited impatiently thinking I'd be late for school. She always greeted him with a smile, though."
The Distinguished Alumni honors are part of the district's homecoming celebration, which also includes the alumni association's gala, which will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Seneca-Niagara Casino.
The black tie optional event, which serves as the association's primary fundraiser for the year, will feature an open bar, live music, dinner and both a basket and silent auction.
Tickets are $100 per person and can be reserved by calling 754-2423.