Arlene Cortez Leonhardt ’55

With a Drama Degree, She Became a Star Teacher

By Donna Parker

When Arlene Cortez Leonhardt ’55, received her BA in drama, she never dreamed her theatrical stage would be a rural Texas GED classroom with parts being played by Hispanic parents, eagerly learning English to help their children through school.

“We teach parents through role-play, in which they practice calling the schools. Unfortunately, there is no one in our three school offices who is bilingual, even though we’re 25 percent Hispanic,” continues Leonhardt.

It’s a far cry from the script Arlene thought she’d act out—one in which she’d graduate with a drama degree and become a star in the theater. She wasn’t afraid of the struggle – she’d worked her way through college with five on-campus jobs, accepting a temporary teaching position upon graduation while awaiting acceptance into Stanford. It was then she discovered her passion for teaching and spent her professional life inspiring young lives. It was more than that, though. Devotion was her gift to her students.

Fast forward a half-century and Arlene is planning her 50th Trinity reunion, lamenting, “The years have gone by awfully quickly!” When she and her 40 classmates from the class of 1955 arrive for Alumni Weekend, it won’t be on their old Woodlawn Avenue campus, from whence they were bused three times daily to an Austin Highway restaurant, because there was no campus cafeteria. They also can’t visit the old barn where long hours were spent hammering theatrical sets for transport to the only theater in town, the San Pedro Playhouse.

The new campus boasts spectacular classrooms, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a real theater, but for Arlene, one aspect will never change and that is her belief in a faculty that dedicates itself to the students.

“Had it not been for the people at Trinity,” she says, tearing up, “I never would have made it through college. My dad went bankrupt my senior year of high school, but the faculty wives awarded me a scholarship and Mrs. Higgins, the Dean of Women, promised me, ‘We will take care of you.’ ’’

In return, Arlene devoted her life to her students, including one who’s just now realizing her acting dreams on Broadway.

Arlene, star teacher, spent her life “paying it forward.” You might say it’s her best performance.