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San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Sports Page 1C
Vision victorious
Blossom paved way for district's 50 years of athletic success
Publication Date : March 9, 2005
Joe Bill Fox had no idea where he was headed that steamy summer night in 1961 when he hopped into Virgil T. Blossom's blue-and-white Buick Electra.

Fox, 28 at the time, was in from Abilene to interview with the North East School District superintendent for the football-coaching job at MacArthur High School.

"After we drove around in the dark for awhile on an old two-lane road with the air-conditioning going full blast," Fox said, "Dr. Blossom stopped the car and pointed to this field of nothing but dirt and weeds and said, 'That's where I envision the stadium being built. This is the center of the district. The best place for it.'"

That field of "dirt and weeds" now contains a multimillion-dollar, 56-acre athletic complex that bears Blossom's name. Its centerpiece is an 11,000-seat football stadium that opened one year after Blossom told Fox of his plans.

Such was the vision of the man credited with setting into motion a transformation that resulted in a small, rural district with two high schools - MacArthur and Lee - becoming one celebrating 50 years as an independent district that has grown to include six Class 5A high schools, 57,000 students and some of the state's finest facilities.

A revered figure to many who worked with him, Blossom was the driving force in establishing a commitment to excellence in athletics that's a big reason NESD has won 36 state team championships in 10 sports.

"Virgil Blossom set the tone for the district just like a good general, and the troops all got behind him," said Kelly Horn, NESD's first athletic director. "He was the kind of fellow you'd want in your foxhole. You wanted him as your leader."

As former and current administrators, athletes and coaches gather at Littleton Gym on Thursday night to celebrate "50 Years of North East Athletics," some will remember that this year also marks the 40th anniversary of Blossom's death.

"It's hard to forget him because the district wouldn't have been as successful in athletics without Virgil Blossom," said Tom Mosely, a longtime San Antonio educator who gave NESD its first state champion when he guided Lee's boys golf team to the title in 1966. "He had high expectations, and those expectations brought out the best in people. He did not like to finish second in anything."

NESD began as the North East Rural School District in 1949. It became an independent district operating under the jurisdiction of the State Education Agency in 1955. As superintendent from 1959-65, Blossom oversaw NESD's greatest period of growth, one in which enrollment shot from 4,467 to 20,751.

"The district owes Dr. Blossom a lot," said Fox, NESD's athletic director from 1968-75 after seven years at MacArthur. "People started talking about how good the North East School District was because of him."

Athletics were never far from Blossom's thoughts. A high school and college football player in Missouri, Blossom believed a well-rounded education should include athletics.

"He believed meeting physical challenges and learning teamwork made for a strong person," said Blossom's daughter, Susie Streng, who lives in Golden, Colo. "Reaching his own goals in sports transferred to him reaching goals later in life. He liked the good feeling he had from being successful and wanted his students to feel that way."

Blossom put those beliefs into practice in 12 years as a teacher, coach and athletic director in such small Midwest towns as Okmulgee, Okla. In 1942, he became superintendent of schools in Fayetteville, Ark., where he gained recognition as a progressive, dynamic leader and for a stint as public-address announcer at Arkansas football games.

But whatever prominence Blossom achieved in Fayetteville paled in comparison to the notice he attained while superintendent of schools in Little Rock, Ark. In 1955, he devised a plan to gradually integrate Little Rock's Central High after the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional. For his work on desegregation, the Arkansas Democrat named Blossom "Man of the Year."

"My father believed it was important to follow the law of the land," Streng said, adding that Blossom often used this quote from Abraham Lincoln to support his stance: "Let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear that charter of his own and his children's liberty."

But after Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called in the National Guard in September 1957 to prevent nine black teen-agers from entering the school, the "Blossom Plan" was discarded. Although President Eisenhower eventually forced Central to accept the black students, Blossom was removed as superintendent in 1958. NESD hired him the next year.

"He did what he could, and then he looked forward," Streng said. "He was excited about coming to San Antonio."

The city's Northeast Side in 1959 was a far cry from the bustling residential and commercial area that exists today. Deer, small farms, wild oaks and industrial parks occupied most of the land north of Loop 410. That would soon change as young families moved into fledgling subdivisions with such names as Castle Hills, Regency Place and Shearer Hills.

"We had a few kids on our early (MacArthur) teams that were from a long line of Bexar County people," Fox said. "We had kids from German stock that would go hunting before school on the first day of deer season and second- and third-generation kids whose parents had gone to Jefferson."

Blossom wanted all of his schools to win - in every sport. Finishing second was something he would not tolerate.

"Jefferson had the city's best football program back then, and he wanted to know how long it would take us to beat them," said Fox, now 73.

Kirk Drew, Lee's first football coach, said Blossom wanted more than just outstanding football teams.

"He would say, 'You've got your football and basketball programs going, but I don't want you to forget baseball or track or anything else,'" said Drew, now 75. "He said, 'It's not enough to just win in football. I want to win in every sport.'"

Blossom supported his coaches by regularly attending booster-club meetings. He also often met Fox and Drew for breakfast at Jim's Restaurant at Broadway and Loop 410, which was known as Blossom's second office.

"He was a man's man, but he was also a very tender person who loved people," Fox said. "You would do anything you could for him."

It wasn't just his coaches who fell under Blossom's spell. He convinced taxpayers in 1960 to pass a bond issue that paid for much of the athletic complex and two high schools, Churchill and Roosevelt, which opened in 1966.

"He sold taxpayers on what a great district this was when, at that time, it really wasn't," Mosely said. "He would meet with people in the district every night, and you couldn't pick up a paper without seeing North East mentioned. He was a super salesman."

Said Streng: "He built incredibly strong alliances, and that was one of his gifts to North East. He could get different constituencies - everyone from (blue-collar) workers to the community power base - to pull together to meet common goals."

Blossom's drive paid off when Lee reached the state championship game in football in 1965. Although the Volunteers lost 11-6 to Odessa Permian, it was the beginning of a brilliant run that included a state title in 1971 and appearances in the state semifinals in 1975 and 1977.

NESD gained its second state crown in football when Churchill won in 1976.

But Blossom didn't live to see the Volunteers or Chargers win the title. He died Jan. 15, 1965, at 58 from heart disease.

Fittingly, he's buried at Sunset Memorial Park within the NESD.

Famous firsts in NESD history


-First high school: MacArthur - opened in 1951 as North East High School; renamed MacArthur in 1958.

-First centralized athletic complex: Construction for North East Stadium (at 12002 Jones-Maltsberger) was funded from a 1960 bond issue that also provided funding for two high schools - Churchill and Roosevelt - that opened in 1966.

-First football game at North East Stadium: 1962 - Lee beat Fort Worth Pascal 21-14.

-First athletic complex additions: A bond issue provided funding for an aquatics center, which opened in 1964. NESD teams starting playing basketball in a new field house at the complex in 1966. The complex was named Blossom Athletic Center in 1967 for the late Virgil T. Blossom, the district's first superintendent. A baseball stadium was built in 1969-70, and eight tennis courts opened at Blossom in 1973. The soccer field opened in 1998, the stadium was renamed Comalander Stadium in 2000, and the Davis Natatorium was added in 2001 as part of a 1998 bond issue.


-First athletic director: Kelly Horn - from 1958 to 1968.

-First superintendent: Virgil T. Blossom - took office July 1, 1959, and held the position until his death in 1965.


-First All-State selection: Linus Baer, Lee football, 1963

-First individual state championships:

Cross country: Kathy Smith, Churchill, 1982

Golf: Steve Holmsley, Lee, 1966

Swimming and diving: Jamie Weiss, MacArthur, 1966

Tennis: Susan Mainz and Jenny Mainz, Churchill girls doubles, 1985

Track and field: Relay - Lee boys, mile relay, 1962. Individual - Maxwell Turner, MacArthur, shot put, 1965.

Wrestling: Brock Stratton, Roosevelt, 1999


-First team state championships:

Boys basketball: Lee, 1967

Boys golf: Lee, 1966

Girls golf: Churchill, 1996

Football: Lee, 1971

Boys soccer: Churchill, 1989

Girls soccer: Madison, 1991

Boys swimming: Churchill, 1987

Girls swimming: MacArthur, 1967

Team tennis: Churchill, 1985

Volleyball: Churchill, 1978

-The district has not had a school win a team state title in girls basketball, baseball, cross country, softball, track and field, and wrestling.

From NESD Web site and Express-News research

50 Years of North East Athletics

-When: 7 p.m. Thursday

-Where: Littleton Gymnasium