The transformative power of hard work — even for weak students — was a theme Friday when nine Amherst alumni were inducted into the district’s Gallery of Success.
“Is there really a singular definition of success?” asked student council advisor Russ Marty, who acknowledged the honorees followed very different paths after graduating from high school.
“Although their experiences are as diverse as they are individuals, they share a common thread,” said principal Michael May. “Every day they display Comet pride.”
This year’s inductees include J. Ross Baughman, Rita George, Mark Irwin, Darrell McCarty, Denise McCarty, Stephanie Smith-Pinsky, David Taylor, John Clark Williams, and Maryanne Zeleznik.
Some have achieved success at a national level, such as Baughman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who gained acclaim by infiltrating white nationalist groups in Cleveland and Chicago. His career found its start at The Record, the Steele High School student newspaper, then at the Lorain Journal, Associated Press, Newsweek, Life magazine, and Washington Times.
Another is Rita George, COO of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. As a teen she wanted to work either for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or Rolling Stone magazine, and after a year of interviews was hired at the newly-built Rock Hall.
Others, somewhat surprised to be ushered into the Gallery’s ranks, said they were not good students during their time in Amherst.
Among them is Smith-Pinskey, who joked that she was nominated for class clown during her senior year at Steele and after graduation lived for years with no real career goals.
Chance led her to take a criminal law class and she found the spark for which she’d long been searching. Today she is a successful defense attorney for the Lorain County Recovery Court, which hears felony drug charges.
“I want you to remember: Never stop learning new things. You never know where that spark is going to come from,” Smith-Pinsky told current seniors at the induction ceremony.
The Gallery of Success is a hall of fame for Amherst alumni of both Steele High and Central schools.
Nominations are accepted every two years. Student council members, under Marty’s direction, are tasked with vetting the nominees and organizing the biennial ceremony.
Marty told students Friday they’d do well to remember the faces of this year’s inductees as inspiration. By following their dreams and working hard, today’s seniors can find the same success, he said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Rita George, 1988
Chief operating officer of the Grammy Museum
Nominated by Olivia Sliman A student council member and class president at Steele, George said her most important life lessons came behind the counter while working at her parents’ Amherst restaurant. She was also inspired by Steele teachers who inspired her to dream. She went on to earn a journalism degree from Ohio State University. In 1995, she started working for the newly-minted Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, working her way up to director of visitor services. In 2008, she relocated to Los Angeles to become director of the Grammy Museum.
Darrell McCarty, 1979
Denise McCarty, 1976
Owners of Olde Town Pizza and Dairy Mart in Amherst
Nominated by Robert Games In introducing the McCarty’s, student council member Rhyan Opel said they have always looked for a way to give back to Amherst, and that’s often taken the shape of financial support for the Comets teams and clubs. “Denise and I came from families where we learned what it meant to work hard and take a chance on ourselves,” said Darrell, who described making the decision on their honeymoon to purchase the Cleveland Avenue pizzeria. Moved close to tears, Denise said they were humbled by the recognition.
Stephanie Smith-Pinsky, 1994
Lorain County defense attorney
Nominated by Denise Keane and Elizabeth Smith Smith-Pinsky’s studies went downhill when her father died of cancer in her junior year at Steele. “It was my teachers and my principals that surrounded me with love and understanding, and they did possible to help me graduate and walk the stage with my class and help remind me the student I was capable of being,” she said. “They never gave up on me, even when I wanted to give up on myself.” She left high school with no real plan, became a manager at McDonald’s, and eventually became a third generation Ford employee. After an educational buyout, she decided to go to law school. Be willing to continually learn and grow, she told current Amherst seniors.
David Taylor, 1958
Former mayor of Amherst
Nominated by Jami Anderson As a student at Central School, Taylor got to know principal Marion Steele quite well, since he was sent to her office often. He smiled and described himself as an average student who got A’s in being social, athletics, and having a good time — hardly the sort of boy people suspected would grow up to serve on Amherst city council, as city safety-service director, and then from 2004-2015 as mayor. Taylor praised the school system as a gem that realtors brag about when listing homes. “We’ve got to be thankful,” he said. “We’ve got to remember the fact that a lot of places don’t have what we have. We have a good, safe community. We have excellent schools. And we’ve got great people.”
John Clark Williams, 1978
Nominated by William Strohm Williams was not an outstanding scholar, but he was curious and loved to take things apart and put them back together. “I had teachers here who saw that I wasn’t performing to the level I should have. They took an interest in me,” he said — notably, teacher William Strohm. Those teachers nurtured him and sent him down a path of creativity, art, literature, and music. His best advice to today’s students: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, which is one of the best ways to learn; and don’t be afraid to ask for help. “Finally, and this is really important, especially in our times now — be kind and be truthful. Truth and science matter.”
Maryanne Zeleznik, 1979
News director at NPR
Nominated by David Cotton Brains and talent alone don’t always mean success — sometimes the greatest success comes from experience, hard work, and even from failure, said Zeleznik. She was willing to clean toilets to get her foot in the door at a radio station as a communications student, and she was willing to show up to the 5 a.m. shift at her college radio station, which landed her on the air while classmates were still doing grunt work. In 1985, she was hired by National Public Radio station WNKU in northern Kentucky, and in 2005 she moved to WVXU in Cincinnati to host “Morning Edition.” “Push the edge, celebrate failure as a way to learn, as a way to do better next time,” she advised. “Don’t rely only on your talents, but how you use them. Push yourself to be the best you can possibly be. Work as hard as you can and you will be successful.”