By Jill Harmacinski [email protected] –
Jill Harmacinski –
So, one day in 1986, while he and veteran Lawrence teacher Mary Jane Kowalski were sitting in the back of the classroom, Velazquez hit her up.
He and his friend Braulio Marte could totally pull off a school a radio show if they got a mixer and a couple of microphones. But they needed her blessing first.
“And she said, ‘Yes. Let’s give it a try,'” Velazquez recalled.
“That was the most intense and passionate time of my high school career. And none of that would have been possible if that woman didn’t take a chance on us,” he continued.
Thursday morning, standing in front of dozens of students in a U.S. Army uniform decorated with awards, emblems of rank and distinction, Sgt. Maj. Velazquez spoke about Kowalski’s influence on him as a Lawrence High student.
He graduated from Lawrence High in 1988 and joined the Army two years later.
“She changed my life and many others. She made a huge difference,” said Velazquez, 47.
Velazquez has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, Haiti, Japan and mostly recently in a high-ranking public affairs position at the Pentagon.
But Thursday morning, by choice and insistence, Velazquez was back at LHS with a strong and decisive message for dozens of students in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC).
He was selected to give a speech in Natick on Friday for Hispanic Heritage Month. But Velazquez said he was intent on returning to Lawrence High to talk to students there about his experiences and attaining their goals.
The students in JROTC uniform gathered standing room only in Kowalski’s classroom to hear him speak. He was frank with the students noting at times in their life they may have been judged for the color of their skin, their gender or gender identity perhaps.
“I have found in the military you are not judged by any of those things. I could be who I wanted to be and excel at the things I wanted to excel at,” he said.
Mentors, drive and determination
In 1988, after graduating from Lawrence High, Velazquez attended broadcasting school in Boston. But he couldn’t find a job in the field and he ended up working in a city factory in what he described as a “mind-numbing job.”
“I could feel my soul being pulled out of my body,” he said.
On Essex Street one day, Velazquez started talking with a Marine Corps veteran who encouraged him. He later enlisted in the Army at a recruiting office nearby.
He thought he’d do four years in the Army and be out. But it’s now been 27 years.
“I had really good mentors that pushed me to get through the ranks,” said Velazquez, who works in public affairs at the Pentagon. He was promoted to that post in July 2015 becoming the first Hispanic to hold the high-ranking position.
“Whatever you want to be in life, whatever you want to do, it’s possible,” he said.
Velazquez went around the room asking the students what the aspired to be. Dream your dream and then work at it every day, he stressed.
“I worked on the dream of becoming a sergeant major. There are few people who are lazy and happen to be self-made … Those of you who are coming up, you are going to have to put in the work,” he said.
“Every single day you have to work toward that goal,” he stressed.
Growing up in Lawrence, Velazquez lived for a short time in the Essex Street projects and longer on Willow Street.
His mother, Aguipina Bayas, who died in 1997 was a strong influence in his life. A lifelong factory worker, she never learned to read or write in any language. But she was hardworking and fiercely patriotic and insistent her son’s life would be better than hers, he said.
Velazquez admitted to the students “it was a rough environment where I grew up.” He could have ended up with a life working in a factory or selling drugs. But he’d likely be in jail or dead today, he said.
“I could have gone down that road,” he told the JROTC. And that’s why, he told the kids, it’s not enough to just dream of a better life.
“You have to act. Action is where it’s at,” he said. “Every minute you are not trying to push yourself toward your goal … is a lost minute.”
‘Right where you guys are sitting’
The students Velazquez was speaking to weren’t even born when he was in high school. Nonetheless, he stressed he connected with them “because I lived your story.”
He pointed to his high school friend and fellow 1988 Lawrence High graduate, Scott Proposki, as another example of a Lawrence success story.
He described Proposki, who now lives in Haverhill, as a “incredibly talented and successful” photographer who now works for major corporations and professional sports teams, inducing the Boston Celtics and New England Patriots.
“He travels all over the world. And he started right here. He started right where you guys are sitting,” Velazquez said.
He advised the students to lean on the teachers and staff at Lawrence High if they need help completing college and financial aid forms, noting “they are here to help you. They are here to pull you in the right direction.”
Velazquez met his wife, Belgica, when he was stationed in Panama. They have two grown sons, Jose III, 24, and Nathan, 20, who are now pursuing military careers of their own.
He was asked if he gets to see his family regularly. Velazquez explained that military life is much like having a regular career where he you go to work and come home and see your family. At times, you are required to deploy — travel — which separates you from loved ones.
“If you go in the military you have to accept you may need to deploy,” he said.
Another student asked Velazquez if he ever shot anyone. He thought for a moment and replied, “No one that didn’t deserve it.”
“Going to war is tough,” he adding, then noting “when the country calls on us, we have to go.”
“I have the right to say whatever I want because someone fought for that right,” he stressed.
Velazquez plans to retire from the military in early 2018. Some kind of a teaching gig may be in his future, he said.
Many of the JROTC students took selfie pictures with Velazquez. And after the students filed out, Kowalski and Velazquez were able to pose for some pictures together, too.
While Velazquez cited Kowalski as an inspiration, the teacher said it is she who is fortunate to see a former student influencing others in such a profound way.
“A goal without action is just a dream,” Velazquez said. “If you want it, act toward it.”
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.
U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Jose Antonio Velazquez, 47
– 1988 Lawrence High School graduate.
– Currently works at Pentagon in public affairs division.
– First Hispanic to hold the high-ranking position.
– He and wife, Belgica, have two grown sons, Jose III, 24, and Nathan, 20, now pursuing military careers.
– Retirement career may include teaching.