Revered educator, leader remembered

December 23, 2014

HOUSTON — Bridget Reagins was in her second semester of her freshman year at Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School in Houston when she was ready to call it quits. It was Father T.J. Martinez, SJ, the founding president of the school, who talked her out of leaving.

“Father Martinez personally came to me and said, ‘you and your peers are my pride and joy. I will never give up on you, so please don’t give up on me!’” Reagins wrote in an email. “I made a promise that day. Looking back four years ago I’m glad I didn’t leave.”

When she graduates next May, Reagins said she will be able to say to herself, “I didn’t give up, because you believed in me, and I believe in you.” 

Father Martinez, who died Nov. 28 at the age of 44 of stomach cancer, helped many students like Reagins, who struggled at first to adapt to this new kind of school, not to mention graduates and current students who would not have had the opportunity to attend a rigorous college prep school were it not for his vision and energy.

“His legacy will live on in the lives of all the graduates and future graduates of Cristo Rey Jesuit,” Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza said. “Whatever they may do as good and productive citizens can be traced back to a young Jesuit with enormous love and zeal who gave them the priceless gift of a college education.” 

Archbishop Fiorenza said Father Martinez had a contagious enthusiasm and a spell-binding appeal for a new approach in education.
“He would speak to anyone and before any group about preparing the poor for a college education,” he said.

Senior Kelly Wright agreed with that sentiment.

“Father Martinez changed so many lives and always knew how to make someone’s day, even if it was just by walking into the room with that huge smile,” she said.

Senior Damahr Riggs recalls the last time he saw Father Martinez.

“That day I was stressed about an English paper, and I vented to him about it for while, and he basically told me to keep moving forward and that I was the future,” he said. “That gave me strength for the rest of the day.”

Father Martinez grew up in Brownsville and went on to Boston College, earning a degree in political science, before joining the Jesuit Order. During his training, he earned five more degrees, including a law degree from the University of Texas and a master’s in educational leadership from Harvard. 

Called to open a Cristo Rey school in Houston, he arrived in 2008 with a missionary zeal. Not only was he tasked with recruiting students and raising funds, he also had to recruit companies to partner with the school, which would offer a rigorous college prep program combined with work experience for economically disadvantaged students. 

Today the school counts almost 500 students, up from 80 who signed on when the school opened in 2009, making it the second largest of the Cristo Rey schools out of 28 across the country.

“He was an incredibly thoughtful guy — obviously passionate about education and finding ways to change the path of the system in the U.S.,” said Paul Posoli, the school’s interim president. “I think he would have gone on to do really great things. That’s part of the shame of his passing — we are not going to get to see that come to fruition.”

According to the dozens of postings on the school’s Web site, Father Martinez possessed great compassion and an insatiable intellect. He was charismatic, dynamic, warm, generous, motivating, inspiring and devoted to the school and students. And that smile — described as a “million dollar smile,” it bounces out of photos; it lit up rooms and picked up students having a bad day. 

All that wrapped up in his boundless energy, best described by Cristo Rey senior Samina Dunbar.

“From that first moment I thought, ‘Wow, this is a very energetic priest,’” Dunbar said about Father Martinez’ welcoming speech when she started at Cristo Rey. “There were even moments when his feet came off the floor.”

No question, Father Martinez was a unique and special person, an individual who touched the lives of so many in such a short time.
“He felt like God gave him an incredible 40-plus years on the planet,” Posoli said.