You could say it was fate. You could say it was another example of truth being stranger than fiction. Or you could say it once again shows the Lord moves in mysterious ways.
Mike Orta, Thomas Jefferson Class of 1989, got laid off from a primo job with Jeff Watts Productions in Dallas the day after working the Texas-Oklahoma game. So did his good friend Bud Smith. Fallout from 9/11 hit the company hard, forcing Watts to eliminate some of his top-salaried personnel.
While pondering his next move, Orta got a call from classmates telling him about TJ's final homecoming celebration, and asking him to come and bring his camera to record the event for posterity. Orta said he would think about it, then began perusing a TJ web site.
The more he read, the more he realized this could be something well out of the ordinary. The emotion and nostalgia that literally dripped from words former grads were writing on the website captivated him. He talked to Smith, whom he had first gotten to known while both worked at KBMT (Channel 12) in Beaumont, and Smith agreed it was definitely worth the trip to Port Arthur. Four months, countless hours of research, at least as many hours of editing and $30,000 later, Orta returned last weekend with a video masterpiece titled: Thomas Jefferson- End of an Era. What began as something simple on Donna Worthington's homecoming extravaganza evolved into a 49-minute documentary that is a priceless slice of history.
Reviews have been glowing
The irony here is that if Orta hadn't had time on his hands due to being laid off there would have been no documentary . In that case, every TJ graduate who is proud of his/her school, its accomplishments over the years and its inordinate number of highly successful graduates, would have been the loser.
Those exes I've talked to who have seen the documentary have been blown away with its historical value, with the decade-by-decade highlights, with the interviews and ultimately, with the emotions that ebb and flow as they watch. Above all, they are taken by the quality and professional touch of Orta and Smith.
"I thought they did a terrific job of presenting a historically accurate documentary on Thomas Jefferson and Port Arthur." said Port Arthur Historical Society president Dr. Sam Monroe. "It was a wonderful effort of capturing our memories and the psyche of the people here. It's enthralling to watch. It's a treasure."
For Orta, the initial feedback has been gratifying and heartwarming. He felt he'd hit a creative home run through the feedback of friends in Dallas, friends who had absolutely no ties to Port Arthur or TJ. Some said the documentary brought tears to their eyes. Others said they felt a kinship with TJ and Port Arthur after watching it.
"I think I really knew it was something special when I saw the emotion in my mom and dad's eyes," says Orta. "My mom is not from here. My dad is not an emotional person. When I saw how they reacted, I began to believe this was magical."
Orta's inspiration came from the stores told to him in the parking lot before TJ's homecoming game with LC-M. As kickoff time neared, he looked at Smith and told him they were on to something far bigger and more important than a final homecoming. Smith agreed.
Learned about some roots
"I was hearing stories about Frank Eidom, the 1944 state championship win over Doak Walker's Highland Park team and Jimmy Johnson and Janis Joplin and Walter Umphrey and all the famous people." he said. "Everybody was so passionate when they told us their memories."
Ahead for Orta and Smith was tedious research, starting with trips to the library. They are deeply grateful to Yvonne Sutherlin for pointing them in the right direction. And to Monroe and Worthington for their assistance. Also to Michael Cate's Port Arthur Centennial publication. "
"I learned so much that I never knew about TJ and Port Arthur," Orta says. "I had no idea who Frank Eidom was. Now I know why people were so in awe of him. I had no clue that Port Arthur was the pioneer in extending high school to the 12th grade. There was a lot I didn't know."
Among the highlights for Orta were going to the Florida Keys to interview Jimmy Johnson, sitting across from his high school hero, Todd Dodge, to gather his TJ thoughts and a one-on-one with Walter Umphrey. Among his biggest headaches was squeezing 69 years into 49 minutes.
"We didn't get everything in. We couldn't," he said. "I really worried about offending anybody who might have been left out. Most of what was included was influenced by the memories of people we talked to from each decade."
Orta isn't glad he got laid off. He loved his job. He and his wife had their first child two weeks ago. Bills are mounting and loans he secured to do the video are coming due. But his faith tells him that God puts people in positions for special reasons, that it was his destiny to do a documentary that will mean so much to so many, that everything is going to be OK.
My guess is that Orta will be more than OK. With his talent, as underscored by the documentary, he could well become one of those distinguished TJ graduates others brag about.
Bob West is the Port Arthur News Sports Editor