NISD announces the 2012 Pillars of Character

August 10, 2012

A news anchor, bank founder, prosecutor, entrepreneur, cancer researcher, and teen parent advocate typically don’t have much in common. But these six outstanding NISD graduates will be recognized as Pillars of Character together at the Northside Education Foundation’s annual gala.

Tickets are still available. The event will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 5 at the Westin La Cantera Resort, beginning with a reception and silent auction at 5:30 p.m. For ticket information, contact the NISD Partnerships Office at 397-8599.

Almost 700 business partners, community members, and educators will attend the event, which is expected to raise more than $150,000.  Funds raised at the event support NEF’s Classroom Innovation Grants-to-Teachers Program, which awarded more than $350,000 to 200-plus teachers last year.

New this year is the use of wireless technology to enter silent auction bids through an i-Pod touch device provided by BidPal or through the users own smartphone.  In place of traditional paper bid sheets, participants will be able to bid from anywhere at any time during the event. They also receive outbid alerts and have the option to set a maximum bid amount to let BidPal automatically increase their bid if necessary.

“We’re very excited about using this new fundraising technology at the Gala this year,” said Dave Gannon, a Gala tri-chair. “We think it will help increase revenues while also being a lot of fun to use.”

Each year, Pillars are selected from the nearly 100,000 Northside ISD alumni who have graduated from NISD high schools since 1951. The Pillars represent the six character traits taught to NISD students that are part of the Josephson Institute’s Character Counts program. The Pillars of Character are: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship.

“The Pillar Program is a perfect opportunity to recognize outstanding NISD graduates, and it has become the foundation of NISD’s character education program,” says Dr. Deborah Healy, director of Guidance and Counseling. “It is a powerful experience when students actually meet the people (many of whom may have attended the same schools and sat at the same desks) whose traits of responsibility, fairness, caring, trustworthiness, respect, and citizenship make them successful people.”

The 2012 Pillars of Character are:

Uma Pemmaraju, a 1976 graduate of Holmes High School, is the 2012 Pillar of Responsibility. Currently an anchor and host for the Fox News Channel’s “America’s News HQ,” she has interviewed numerous newsmakers in the world of politics and business. For the series “Secrets of Success,” she highlighted famous Americans who have overcome incredible odds, such as Buzz Aldrin, Carly Simon, Donald Trump, and Whoopi Goldberg. Born in India and raised in San Antonio, she attended Glass Elementary and Neff Middle School before graduating from Holmes. She earned a political science degree from Trinity University, and spent a year at American University in Washington, D.C. as part of an exchange program her junior year. Prior to joining Fox News, she worked at a CBS affiliate station in Dallas, an NBC station in Boston, the San Antonio Express-News, and KENS-TV. She has also taught journalism at Emerson College and Harvard University. Her accolades include being named Best Anchor by Boston Magazine, the Texas AP award for reporting, and several Emmy awards for her reporting and investigative journalism.


Wade Cleary, a 1988 graduate of Clark High School, is the 2012 Pillar of Trustworthiness. Cleary, who is the managing principal with Cleary Zimmermann Engineers, was selected by the San Antonio Business Journal as a 2004 “40 Under 40 Rising Star,” which recognizes individuals under the age of 40 who are making a positive impact on their community.  Cleary comes from a family of engineers – his father and brother are electrical engineers, and his mother was a mechanical engineer – but he also credits his high school physics teacher as an inspiring force in those early years. When he was a freshman, he moved from Pleasanton to San Antonio, and joined the football team at Clark, “where I learned a lot about teamwork,” and then went on to graduate from Texas A&M University.  As a mechanical engineer at Marmon Mok Architects, he quickly became the firm’s youngest partner. Cleary Zimmermann Engineers, founded in 2006, is among the nation’s 100-largest MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) firms and has been named one of the “best places to work in San Antonio” two years in a row. Cleary is Chairman of the Small Business Council of the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and is President-Elect of the Northside Education Foundation (NEF).


Eric G. Burns, a 1990 graduate of Clark High School, is the 2012 Pillar of Caring. One of 12 attorneys in the Prosecution Division of the City Attorney’s Office, Burns represents Code Enforcement, specializes in public nuisances, and is a key member of the Dangerous Assessment Response Team (DART) inspections. Knowing how to negotiate is a key in his job responsibilities, and he shares that skill set as he teaches young African-American men in the Brothers Helping Brothers program at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church. Before graduating from Clark, he attended Boone Elementary School and Hobby Middle School. Burns earned his bachelor’s degree from St. Edwards University and his law degree from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston. Prior to being hired by the City of San Antonio, he was an associate with the in-house counsel for the Texas Dental Board. A high school soccer player, he regularly returns to his alma mater to play in the alumni games. In addition, his daughters attend Wanke Elementary, and he coaches his daughter’s soccer team.


Monica Velasquez McIlwain, a 1989 graduate of Clark High School, is the 2012 Pillar of Respect. Inspired to help others, in 2006 McIlwain founded the Texas nonprofit for single teen moms, TYME to emPower (Teaching Young Mothers to Excel). She leads the Board of Directors of the Texas organization which encourages pregnant or new teen parents to finish high school, and serves as emotional and motivational support for the teen parents and their families. She attended Hobby and Rudder middle schools and graduated from Clark High School on time, despite her own pregnancy at age 17. She credits her experience with giving her impetus to start TYME to emPower explaining that, “women can accomplish their lifelong goals even with unanticipated responsibilities.” McIlwain went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Incarnate Word, and a master’s in business from the University of Phoenix.  She has been married to Randy for 17 years, and has three children and four grandchildren (two of which she deems “honorary.”)


Giancarlo “John” Ortega, a 1996 graduate of Taft High School, is the 2012 Pillar of Fairness. He came to San Antonio with his family at the age of 4 from Panama City, Panama. By 2008, he founded Houston Business Bank, one of four new charters awarded by Texas that year and one of the last nationally-approved by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FCID). Ortega has more than 12 years of experience in banking and previously worked with JP Morgan Chase. Upon graduation from Taft High School, where he played football for four years, Ortega attended Northern State University in South Dakota on a football scholarship. He ultimately earned a finance degree from Baylor University, where highlights include an exchange semester at Hong Kong Baptist University and an internship with Gov. George W. Bush. Time with family has replaced marathon running, now that he and his wife have a 2-year-old and 3-year-old twins.


Dr. Martha Pritchett Mims, a 1974 graduate of Holmes High School, is the 2012 Pillar of Citizenship. Fascination with math and science led Dr. Mims to pursue dual careers in medicine and research. Mims began her schooling in NISD at Ross Middle School when her family moved to San Antonio and is now Associate Professor and Hematology/Oncology Section Chief at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. With a doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University and a medical degree from Baylor, Dr. Mims helped start clinical trials at Dan L. Duncan Cancer Center. She currently conducts research in lymphoma and prostate cancer and supervises residents and sees patients at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston as well as other sites staffed by Baylor College of Medicine. A consummate volunteer, she cared for hurricane refugees who fled to the Houston Astrodome from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. She is an Elder at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church and active volunteer for Women of Vision, a Christian charity dedicated to raising money for women and children in underdeveloped countries such as El Salvador.