Archive for Sunday, November 15, 1998


November 15, 1998


A number of Liberty Memorial and Lawrence High alumni have gone on to national, even international, notoriety in a variety of fields.

Through the decades, hundreds of Liberty Memorial and Lawrence High School students have come and gone as household names here in River City.

The clean-cut National Merit Scholar who went on to an Ivy League school. The explosive tailback who rushed for 100 yards in a big playoff game. The class officer who started his or her own business.

Outside the area, they are perhaps known only to those they have befriended, married, extended their hand toward in charity, worked alongside, chatted with on an airplane or traded paint with in a busy intersection.

They live simply. They buy homes. They have children. They fail. They succeed. They move on.

But there is another level of recognition and notoriety that comes from someplace else -- a combination of hard work, luck, a masterful achievement or some unexplainable force such as fate, karma, kismet. The planets aligning. Whatever.

Andy Warhol's 15 minutes, and more.

We knew them when they were young and promising, but now they exist in another realm, where their work is read, seen, watched, heard or otherwise experienced by thousands, sometimes millions.

It is not the pantheon of paparazzi-laden fame occupied by astronauts like John Glenn, movie stars like Julia Roberts or media moguls like Ted Turner. But in some cases, it is not far.

Perhaps they prefer it that way.

Consider Sara Paretsky, Chicago, class of '64, prominent author of the V.I. Warshawski detective series and writer in residence at Northwestern University whose work was the basis of a major Hollywood film.

Or Karole Armitage, New York, who attended LHS in 1969 before leaving for the North Carolina School of the Arts.

Armitage studied with a former student of dance legend George Balanchine and went on to international fame as a ballet dancer and choreographer, eventually designing numbers for Mikhail Barishnikov, Michael Jackson and Madonna. More than a decade ago, she even appeared as the subject of a stylized ad for a well-known brand of vodka. It read: "Absolut Armitage."

Or baseball legend Ralph Houk, Winter Haven, Fla., class of '38, a catcher for the New York Yankees in the '40s who later guided the Yanks to World Series crowns as manager, in 1961 and 1962. Houk also managed the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox before taking over as Red Sox general manager.

Or advertising whiz Eric Tilford, class of '87, who was pictured on the June 9, 1997, cover of Time as the poster boy for a feature on the achievements of Generation X. Tilford is a managing partner of a St. Louis ad agency called Core, and his clients include the National Football League.

Or aerospace expert Alan Mulally, class of '63, president of Seattle-based Boeing Information, Space & Defense Systems.

Or the hat trick of first-round professional draft picks of the 1980s: Lee Stevens, class of '86 and a first baseman for the Texas Rangers, Keith DeLong, class of '85 and a former linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers, and Danny Manning, class of '84 and a power forward for the Phoenix Suns.

And don't forget fellow athletes Jeff Wright, recently retired from the Buffalo Bills, Bucky Scribner, former punter for the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, or former San Diego Chargers quarterback John Hadl.

This isn't meant to give all us regular folk a massive inferiority complex. Nor is the purpose to discount or dismiss all those who make substantial contributions to their family, friends, co-workers and the rest of humankind in less public ways every day of the year.

Rather, we at the Journal-World simply wanted to assemble a sort-of Lawrence high school all-star team, if for no other reason than to remind the rest of us that anything's possible if you put your mind to it. Said another way, one doesn't have to be born into Hollywood royalty or the cream of New York society to write a true American success story.

Requirements for making the team are somewhat subjective. Certainly a few names will slip under the radar. And we haven't even had time to consider the accomplishments of Free State High graduates, who aren't old enough to legally buy beer or rent a car.

But for a number of reasons, the aforementioned and about-to-be-mentioned Lawrencians have helped make that Chesty Lion look so darn proud.

Entertaining himself

Paul Coker Jr., class of '47, is literally why the Lawrence Lion looks the way it does. Coker, 69, drew the prominent figure as a promotional piece for the Red and Black yearbook, and a decal of it was given away with every copy.

"People have stayed pretty close to the original design," Coker said recently from his Lenexa home. "It's been a pretty long-lived image."

Since then, Coker has made his mark creating memorable images for Mad Magazine, Hallmark cards, Car & Driver, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Playboy and a host of other big-time publications and companies.

"If I'm so famous, why aren't I rich?" Coker joked.

His latest drawing for Mad: a depiction of reasons why President Clinton should be kicked out of the White House, other than Monica. An original work of his appears with this story.

Coker, who began sketching way back in Cordley School, said he was always encouraged by his teachers and peers to keep drawing. Suddenly, he realized he was a professional cartoonist. But recognition is not his motivation.

"I draw to entertain myself," Coker said. "If someone else sees it, that's fine.

Besides, he added, "I couldn't do much

See Lions' Pride, page 3D

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else. I was no good at sports and so forth, so drawing pictures seemed to be a reasonable substitute."

He still works with Hallmark, Mad and even Rankin/Bass productions, creators of legendary holiday specials such as "Frosty the Snowman."

"You have to enjoy it, and you have to be able to make some kind of a living at it," Coker said, adding that the secret to success is to avoid drudgery and stay excited about your work. "People understand when you're enthusiastic about something."

Wandering the river

In literature, many notable passages reveal a general skepticism and even disdain for fame. Examples: fame is ephemeral, the highest form of vanity is love of fame, fame makes something of nothing, and fame is nothing but an empty name.

To Paretsky, author of eight V.I. Warshawski novels, a collection of short stories and novels such as "Ghost Country," released in June, balancing the need for recognition with the need for faithfulness to an inner voice is a constant struggle for a writer.

"Fame is ephemeral, but it's human to want recognition," said Paretsky, who this year is teaching fiction writing at Northwestern. "The problem is, if you become dependent on it, writing for the market is not a very good way to make a living."

For Paretsky, whose own fame happened gradually and began with the publishing of "Indemnity Only" in 1982, the most satisfying work comes when she writes for herself.

In 1987, she was named one of Ms. magazine's women of the year. A year later, she had her first national best-seller -- "Burn Marks."

But the film "V.I. Warshawski," released in 1991 and starring Kathleen Turner, injected sophomoric humor and female objectification into her work, which for years made a point of grounding its main character outside of sexual stereotypes.

"It was not at all connected to my sensibility," Paretsky said, adding that the movie did bring her name into the spotlight.

Paretsky's early inspiration came at LHS, when she was influenced by teachers such as Gertrude Ruttan, Latin and English; Jayanne Angell, English; and Bill Mullins, history.

"They really encouraged me to think that writing was something that I did well," Paretsky said.

During a visit in September, however, Paretsky was disheartened by the suburban "strip-mall sprawl" that has chewed up the prairie to the west of the city.

"It's just not the same town that I used to know when I was young," said Paretsky, who grew up east of the city along old 15th Street. (Coincidentally, her childhood home is featured prominently in this weekend's CBS movie "Monday After the Miracle.")

Nevertheless, as a resident of a big city the past three decades, Paretsky said she often thinks about returning home someday and buying a home in Old West Lawrence.

"Gosh, wouldn't that be nice? You could just wander along the river in the morning," said Paretsky, who hopes someday to do a book about the Kaw River Valley.

`World's your oyster'

For internationally recognized artist Rob Seaver, studying with a master as a young boy first stirred his creative embers.

Seaver, class of '71, got his start at age 8 painting at the home of landscape legend Robert Sudlow. Friends with one of Sudlow's daughters, Seaver spent hours after school painting in the studio.

"I really have been painting my entire life," Seaver said. "Painting is the one thing that has always been a driving interest in my life."

In December, Seaver's work is expected to be all the rage in the New York art world. A 57th Street gallery, Associated American Artists, is planning to display his work.

Seaver, whose paintings cover a wide range of subjects, from still lifes to portraits to cityscapes, has a studio just outside Florence, Italy. As a humorous reference to his home, he often writes "Flawrence on the (river) Arno" at the top of his stationery.

"I always say that I'm from Lawrence," Seaver said, adding that he comes back to the states about four times a year, typically spending Christmas in Lawrence. "I don't think I ever stopped being from Lawrence."

After finishing at LHS, where he was a member of a state champion debate squad, Seaver attended Amherst College then traveled to Europe on a Watson Fellowship. Overseas, he practiced by copying a number of European masterpieces.

He also spent a decade working as an employee and later as a consultant for Christie's auction house, living in Geneva, London, New York and elsewhere.

Growing up, his father, Kansas University professor emeritus Jim Seaver, took the family all over the world. That helped expand his perspective at an early age.

"I feel comfortable wherever I go," Seaver said. "You kind of feel that the world's your oyster in a way."

He also recalled growing up watching foreign films outdoors on campus during the summer. They projected them onto the old Robinson Gymnasium, providing a salve to the typical young person's urge to vacate a claustrophobic hometown.

"Looking at the whole world from on top of Mount Oread," Seaver said. "I always felt like there was a very good vantage point of the world in Lawrence. I think that's very unusual. ... It's whatever you want it to be."

`An incredible choice'

Prior to 1995, there was no such thing as Yahoo!, the Internet search engine that blazed onto the scene and has in the past three years experienced a rocketlike rise.

What started with five employees has now grown to 700. And the overnight success of the once-fledging company has placed Srinija Srinivasan, 27, president and editor in chief of Yahoo!, among America's millionaires.

A member of the class of '89, Srinivasan, who joined forces with Stanford University pals and Yahoo! founders David Filo and Jerry Yang, said she hasn't had much time to consider the implications of her success.

"It has just been a gradual shift, one thing leads to another," said Srinivasan, who is in charge of organizational classification at Yahoo! "... There never seems to be a moment or a point of radical change."

Her business card still jokingly reads "ontological Yahoo," but she's essentially in charge of organizing and classifying the material placed on Yahoo!

Newsweek has called her one of the most important people on the Internet and she was featured in a recent edition of USA Today.

A resident of Palo Alto these last nine years, Srinivasan -- like Seaver -- credits her childhood in Lawrence, where she lived a hop, skip and jump from a major university, with broadening her view of the world. She said she also now appreciates how "dynamite" Lawrence's public schools are.

"You don't really get a distant perspective of home until you leave it," Srinivasan said. "It has only made me appreciate even more Lawrence as a wonderful place to grow up."

As the net worth of the company grows into the billions, Srinivasan said her stable upbringing in Lawrence helped her feel free to take risks right after graduating from Stanford. And on the rare occasion when she does have a bad day, she can stop and ask herself, "Would I rather pack up and stop?"

"I really do feel just extremely fortunate and blessed to have this sort of freedom," Srinivasan said. "That's an incredible choice to have."

Dare to `Dream'

One former Lion has found himself on the cutting edge of a rapidly changing Hollywood subset.

Lance Williams, class of '67, was hired two years ago as head of software development at Dreamworks SKG, the studio founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

Williams has recently worked on projects such as "The Prince of Egypt," scheduled for release the week before Christmas. His tasks on the film, which tells the tale of Moses, included crafting the visuals surrounding the parting of the Red Sea and adding a process called motion blur -- which makes drawn animation seem more lifelike.

"We did a bunch of software for that picture that's really pretty unique," Williams said. "There will be some unusual effects in that film that haven't been seen in animation before."

Eventually, he added, animation will "look like Rembrandt paintings."

He first got his exposure to computer graphics at KU, in a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. After doing graduate work in a computer hotbed at the University of Utah, Williams spent several years with the New York Institute of Technology, where he worked with Ed Catmull, who eventually headed up Disney's "Toy Story."

Williams also consulted for Jim Henson Associates in New York and worked for Apple Computer's advanced technology group before getting a call from a friend at Dreamworks, based in Glendale, Calif.

"I overcame my antipathy to Los Angeles," Williams said. "It's a matter of suppression, I guess."

Spielberg pops in and out, and Williams has frequent conversations with Katzenberg, formerly with Disney and now head of the animation division for Dreamworks. And recently he's been doing work on a film starring Kevin Kline, Rosie Perez and Kenneth Brannagh.

Despite the glam factor out west, Williams hasn't forgotten his home.

"I have very warm feelings for Kansas and return to Lawrence quite frequently," Williams said. "I was inspired to follow this career in Lawrence, and I followed it to where the movie industry is."

Besides, he added, nothing compares to a Kansas fall.

"You don't get a blaze of color in California foliage until it actually bursts into flame," Williams said.

Home town, still

Ever taken a thin rock and skipped it more than 60 feet across a quiet pond?

Now take a 16-pound orb and try the same thing.

Bill Nieder, class of '52, was a high school football All-American and the first high school and college athlete to throw more than 60 feet in the shot put.

After nabbing a silver Olympic medal in 1956, Nieder, 65, of Mountain Ranch, Calif., grabbed the gold in the shot put during the 1960 games in Rome.

That year, he had an ongoing and rather public feud in the press with shot-put competitor Parry O'Brien, whom he once referred to as "the L.A. Dodger." O'Brien called him a "cow-pasture performer." Nieder responded, breaking the world record three times.

"It was probably the greatest experience of my life," recalled Nieder, who also suffered a severe knee injury and narrowly avoided losing his leg to gangrene before recovering and making the Olympic squad at the last minute.

"I was fortunate," Nieder added.

After years of selling artificial turf to football stadiums in Dallas, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and elsewhere, Nieder now spans the globe selling padded cell material to prisons.

Through all his travels, he considers his childhood city "my best spot. ... Lawrence is still my hometown."

-- Matt Gowen's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail address is

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