There are times when we hit our stride and simply know it, when what was hidden underneath rises to the surface, erupting like a just-discovered oil well. For Justin Chapa, that time was probably the summer sandwiched between his junior and senior years at Sam Houston High School.
Chapa was chosen to represent Texas as one of the two “senators” at Boys Nation, the annual weeklong confab known for molding bigwigs of government and leadership; President Bill Clinton, former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw and a litany of governors and senators are alumni. It’s arguably the most selective educational gathering of teenage scholars anywhere.
Over a week, the boys are evenly split into fictional political parties. They draft platforms, elect officials, and nominate candidates for elections.
With 98 of the country’s top students reduced from 20,000, snagging the presidency is considered a coup of high order, and that’s exactly where Chapa found himself.
Or, as he put it recently, “I was simply the last man standing.”
Yeah, right. You might imagine that Boys Nation is wall-to-wall over-achievers. It’s not if they will ascend to Ivy League thrones, it’s when. Chapa, whose parents never attended college, had always been a curious kid, utterly content to devour a book on weekends instead of kicking around a ball.
Motivation wasn’t Chapa’s worry; some might call him the model child, although I get the feeling such a description would make him wildly uncomfortable. He’s humble, and if there’s a foible it might be that he’s an efficacious government enforcement and litigation lawyer with the good guy persona of Howdy Doody.
Boys Nation wasn’t necessarily Chapa’s world, but watching his mother work her way up from the loading docks at IBM to program manager taught him that your world is what you make it. So at Boys Nation he was matching the best of the best in debates, in speeches, in writings, in wit. Hmm. The boy from Sam didn’t seem all that different.
“Being able to hang with guys of that caliber, in my mind, I came back home thinking, hey, maybe I can apply and get in (Harvard) and do well,” he says.
He did get in, and he did do well, graduating with honors.
The fact that Chapa was recently appointed to Jamie Sullins’ vacant seat on the Arlington ISD School Board wasn’t at all shocking; being around to take the post is probably the revelation.
When Chapa left for Harvard and later Stanford Law School (a two-year stint with Teach for America fell in between), the bet was that the local boy making good would probably end up in the Bay Area or anywhere but Arlington. “It was actually an easy decision for my wife and I,” says Chapa, who works for the Dallas-based firm Morgan, Lewis and Backlus LLP, and is raising three children with wife Anna, whom he met at Sam Houston (Actually, at Atherton Elementary, although the running joke is that Anna doesn’t quite recall this.)
“The plan was always to return home. It’s a great place to live. Award-winning parks. Twenty minutes from the Children’s Museum in Fort Worth, 30 from Perot. Professional football, baseball. We’re not losing out being here.”
Arlington is better for it. The sleeves went up upon Chapa’s return. He’s served AISD dutifully on financial, bond and needs steering committees. He directed the Youth Leadership Arlington program for three years. He’s a Dad’s Club volunteer at Corey Fine Arts and Dual Language Academy, where two of his kids attend.
Looks as though Chapa will be around for a bit. Don’t be surprised if he re-ups for Sullins’ vacated seat next May and perhaps his own after that.
Columnist Kenneth Perkins has been a contributing writer for Arlington Today since it debuted. He is a freelance writer, editor and photographer.