They Share the Same School and the American Dream

Disclaimer: This initiative initially was launched and coordinated by the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation, which in 2022 merged with and became the Charles Butt Foundation.

After 70 years, Dan Rather Returns to His Alma Mater, Heights High School in Houston, Texas.

Dan Rather poses with Emily Ramirez the current Valedictorian of Heights High where he attended high school more than 70 years ago.

By Lauren Cook & Laura Mellett

Photography by Anne Bannister & Brian Diggs

He has covered wars, Watergate, and the White House. He has interviewed famous athletes, world leaders, and celebrities. He anchored the CBS Evening News for 24 years.

And recently, legendary television newsman Dan Rather met with Texas high school students to talk about one of his greatest passions and concerns: public education.

“Try to imagine a United States of America where you don’t have a public school system, and indeed a strong public school system,” he told students during his visit to his alma matter, Heights High School in Houston, Texas.

“I think it’s unimaginable that we could have that kind of country.”

Produced by Laura Mellett; edited by Brian Diggs; cinematography by Anne Bannister & Brian Diggs; production assistance by Lauren Cook, Petri Darby, & Cassandra Jones

A Candid Conversation about Public Education

In addition to touring the school, listening to the school’s marching band play the school fight song, and meeting with current media arts students, Rather sat down with Emily Ramirez, the current valedictorian at Heights, a stately three-story brick public high school in the Houston Independent School District.

Perched atop stools in an American history classroom, the pair discussed Rather’s illustrious career, including his coverage of the Vietnam war and JFK assassination, and his tenure as anchor of the CBS Evening News after replacing the legendary Walter Cronkite.

“You’ve been able to see so many movements, so many people bring about change,” Emily said. “What advice would you give to teenagers nowadays that are trying to enact that change? What would you say is the value that they need to have to keep moving forward?”

Rather discussed the importance of doing your homework, being persistent, and having an appreciation for history.

A sweeping drone shot of heights high school in Houston ISD

Heights High School in Houston ISD

The Lasting Impact of Teachers

The pair also acknowledged the important role teachers have played in each of their lives.

“The “B team” football coach…he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Danny, I believe in you. I hope great things for you, and I will always care for you, care about you,’” Rather said, recalling a moment that has always stayed with him.

Rather said more needs to be done to raise the status of teachers in society.

“I think that definitely resonates with some of the experiences that I’ve had with my teachers,” Emily responded. “I have loved being a student because of my teachers.”

When you look at public education as everyone’s way of preparing themselves to be great American citizens, I think you realize the power that public education has.

Emily ramirez, senior, heights high school

Public Education and the Future of Our Democracy

They also discussed things that could improve.

“Let’s pretend that we’re in the state capitol, and you’re talking to maybe a member of the Texas House, maybe a member of the Texas Senate. Talk to me as you might talk to that person about public schools,” Rather said.

“I think that when you have these institutions of learning and you treat them as secondary or you treat them as something that is not at the top of your agenda, you’ve lost the sense of what it means to believe in the American dream,” Emily said. “As idealistic as that sounds, education is at the core of what we believe in as people.”

Emily added that there’s a need to make sure the public education system is preparing students for the new challenges her generation will face. She believes students need to be discerning of the information they consume and learn how to be effective advocates for themselves and others.

“When you look at public education as everyone’s way of preparing themselves to be great American citizens, I think you realize the power that public education has,” she said. “Public schools are this state’s, this country’s breeding ground for the next generation of leaders. I don’t say that lightly. The students that will be… in those [elected official] seats will come from these schools.”

Legendary News Anchor Dan Rather meets with students at his alma mater in Houston ISD. He poses questions to the current student body about the importance of public schools. In this photo he leans closer to the desk of a student to better hear hear their thoughts.

The Profound Impact of One Public Library on Two Americans, 50 Years Apart

Dan Rather’s earliest memories of reading and investigating the world around him stem from his neighborhood public library. Emily’s journey to becoming valedictorian of Heights High School began in this same place, around 50 years later.  

Emily grew up in a neighborhood across town from the Heights, but her mother, an immigrant to the US with high hopes for her children, took Emily and her sister to public libraries throughout Houston. Their family’s favorite was Heights Neighborhood Library. It was there that Emily’s mom overheard other mothers talking about the best local public schools. She learned about the open enrollment policy at Houston ISD and how she could transfer her daughters to the elementary and middle schools that are part of the feeder pattern for Heights High School. Emily and her sister attended these schools and both became valedictorians at Heights High. Emily’s sister now attends Harvard University, and Emily hopes to join her in the fall of 2020. There is no doubt that the public library inspired Emily to “explore a world greater than the one [she] knew,” a sentiment shared by Dan Rather (see below).

Featured is an old library building with a sign out from that reads: "The Heights Library"

Rather feels strongly about public libraries and their place in our democracy. “I love libraries. Always have and always will. They shaped my life from childhood onward,” he said. 

In his book, What Unites Us, he dedicated a large section of the essay to books and libraries. Here is an excerpt:

“I recognize a quaintness in waxing nostalgic about libraries in an age when we have instantaneous access to more information than was contained in all the combined library collections of my youth. Still, libraries represent an aspirational notion of democracy. They were, and still are, civic institutions that welcome anyone who wishes to become a more informed and independent citizen. In books we can find expert and trustworthy scholarship on any subject imaginable. By reading books, we can continually challenge our own biases and learn beyond our level of formal education. These are qualities that are needed now more than ever…

Book cover "What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism" by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

Growing up in a working-class Houston, I had never heard of the Library of Congress but my local branch of the Houston Public Library showed me that books were not only important, they were also objects of beauty. The stone building had high ceilings, big windows, and a red tile roof; its Italian-style architecture made the library seem worlds away from my hardscrabble neighborhood. I was pleased that it later became a recognized historic landmark. Even as a high school student, I would often prolong my walk home from school to go by the library. It may sound sappy, but the building inspired me to dream of exploring a world greater than the one I knew. 

But while the library’s physical charm was impressive, it was what was inside that made it truly magical. I was a voracious reader and spent countless hours in what became a sort of second home. I was following, in my own small way, the path laid out by Jefferson, Carnegie, and all the others who believed in the power of books…

Our nation was born in a spirit of fierce debate. Our Founding Fathers had sharp political differences, but they were almost all deep readers, writers, and thinkers. When they set about to create a modern republic, they went into their libraries and pulled out the works of philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. They consulted the Greeks, the Romans, the philosophers of Europe, and the Bible. They revered the power of the written word and how it enabled a nation free from the whims of a king. As John Adams wrote, a republic “is a government of laws, and not of men.” A government of laws is a government of reason, and a government of books. That was true at our founding, and we must ensure that it remains a hallmark of our future.”

Passing the Torch to the Next Generation of Leaders

Rather and Emily both agree that a strong education is essential for preparing our country’s future citizens. “I think as leaders for the students and as the representative of some people who cannot vote and who don’t have a voice, you have to be able to preserve the one thing that will teach them how to use that voice, and that’s public education,” Emily said.