Military Academies Tap Eight Sanger Students : Capt. Nick and the ROTC Stars

Times Staff Writer

Capt. Nick and his students made this small San Joaquin Valley farm town proud last week. Thirteen appointments to the nation’s military academies were offered to eight Sanger High School students.

“No other high school in America has ever done anything like this before,” according to Navy Cmdr. Ed Parker at Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps national headquarters in Pensacola, Fla.

“These kinds of numbers are incredible. If a high school has one graduate appointed to one of the military academies, that school considers itself very fortunate. Thirteen is unheard of.”

Moniker for Retired Captain


Capt. Nick is the moniker that students and townspeople have affectionately given to retired Navy Capt. John Nicholson, 55, who came to Sanger High School in 1976 to start a Junior Naval ROTC program with 23 boys and girls.

This year, 270 of the 1,562 students in the school are in ROTC classes. With 220 of the 792 boys--or better than one in four--and 50 of the 770 girls enrolled, it is one of the largest per-capita ROTC programs in the country.

In the last five years, four of Capt. Nick’s students have received appointments to Annapolis. This year, applications for eight of his top students were sent to Annapolis, West Point and the Air Force Academy.

The eight students were offered seven appointments to Annapolis, three to West Point, two to the Air Force Academy and one to the Naval Academy Prep School. Nominations were made by U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), Reps. Charles Pashayan Jr. (R-Fresno) and Richard H. Lehman (D-Sanger) and Nicholson.


Sanger High is in a low-income area southeast of Fresno. Most of the students are sons and daughters of farm workers; 65% of the student body is Latino.

Named Citizen of the Year

Even before his latest achievement, Capt. Nick was so popular in Sanger that the town this year named him its Citizen of the Year. And, he doesn’t even live in Sanger.

Nicholson’s home is 50 miles away in Lemoore, where there is a naval air station.


He spent 26 years as a Navy jet pilot, his last assignment as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Ranger. He flew 113 missions during the Vietnam War.

When he retired to his home in Lemoore, the Navy asked him if he would mind getting an ROTC program started at Sanger High, which had expressed a strong interest in having the military science classes on campus.

Why has he been so successful?

“This class happens to be made up of an extremely talented group of youngsters. The support we get from parents and the community is tremendous,” Nicholson said.


He said there is a wealth of quality and talent in high school students in general.

“All you have to do is get their energies and directions set early on in their freshman or sophomore years,” he said. “Give them a goal to shoot for, offer them guidelines, work closely with them, and they will succeed.”

Letter From Reagan

His students succeeded so well this year that President Reagan and Rear Adm. C. R. Larson, superintendent of the Naval Academy, wrote letters of congratulations to the rural high school.


“Capt. Nick is putting Sanger on the map,” said Mayor Tom Olson, 44, who runs an electrical shop. The mayor’s son, Ole, 16, is in the school’s ROTC program.

Police Chief Charles Crestman, 52, whose daughter, Cassy, 17, is also in ROTC, praised Nicholson for “putting together the finest ROTC program in the nation. When you look at our kids, you don’t have to worry about the future of this country.”

Five of Capt. Nick’s students will be going to Annapolis this fall. They are John Uyemura, 18; Lance Westerlund, 17; Kevin Katuin, 18; Duane Carr, 18, and Sammy Nava, 17.

Rudy Flores, 17, will be going to the Naval Academy Prep School at Newport, R.I.


Mia Weber, 17, was offered appointments to the Naval and Air Force academies but decided to accept an ROTC scholarship to USC. Michael Quintana, 18, turned down appointments to the Naval Academy and West Point to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a ROTC scholarship.

“When Capt. Nick first brought the ROTC program to Sanger High, students were reluctant to wear uniforms and show interest in the military on campus,” said Katuin, who maintained a perfect 4.0 average through his four years of high school.

“But times have changed,” Katuin said. “Patriotism is popular with teen-agers. We’re proud to be Americans. It gives students a good feeling to be part of the ROTC program.”

Katuin was one of 10 finalists as California Athletic Scholar of the Year. He is captain of the school’s wrestling team and a linebacker on the football team.


Change of Life Style

For some, the appointments mean a drastic change of life style. Nava has supported himself and his grandmother the last four years working eight hours a night at a Taco Bell, in addition to carrying a full load of high school subjects and ROTC classes. This fall he will enter Annapolis on a four-year, $145,000 all-expense-paid scholarship.

Carr, whose mother works in a packing shed in Sanger, is the second in his family so honored. His older brother won an appointment to the Naval Academy five years ago and is now in flight training at Pensacola.

Flores and Uyemura also hope to become Navy pilots, and Westerlund hopes to join the astronaut program.


“You cannot imagine how proud we are of these young people,” said Sanger High Principal Ralph Vandro, 35. “The community is extremely excited about this.

“Last year Sanger High was selected by the state superintendent of public instruction’s office as one of the top nine high schools in the state. Not bad, eh, for a small-town, rural high school in a low-income area.”