Update, 5:50 p.m. Friday, with new details throughout.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox made time Friday to speak to Coronado Middle School students, encouraging them to value their educational opportunities, but also to be flexible enough to pursue what makes them happy.
Fox, 69, emphasized education and how fortunate students are who have access to it, but he did so in a relaxed manner, declining to take the stage in the campus' Granzer Hall. Instead, he held a microphone and walked among the large group of mostly eighth graders assembled before him.
“You here are very privileged kids,” he said, “You are in a school of excellence, a school that is a state-of-the-art school.
“This is a big responsibility upon your shoulders, each one of you,” he said.
He contrasted that access with opportunities in his country, where he says only 22 percent of young people finish high school.
In all, the visit lasted less than an hour, and was capped by Fox exchanging high fives with some teens on his way out of the hall.
A handful of city dignitaries also attended, including school Superintendent Jeffrey Felix, school board member Doug Metz, city manager Blair King and police chief Lou Scanlon.
It can't be said that the visit was much anticipated: in a surprise that he said came together “all of a sudden.”
Joette Seniff, a parent of two middle school students, has been trying to draw Fox to the campus. The former president, who served from 2000-2006, was driven from Los Angeles, where he had been in meetings, and arrived shortly before 1:30 p.m. He was accompanied by his wife, Marta.
“He's magnetic with children,” Seniff said before his arrival. “He's gentle. He's real.”
Fox's appearance, which required rapid coordination with Coronado police – officers and plainclothesmen patrolled at the school – could be a harbinger of things to come.
Marquand had been working on what he hoped would be a teleconfering opportunity with Fox and his presidential library in San Cristobal, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato.
For American citizens, presidential libraries might be commonplace, but Centro Fox is the first such organization in Mexico.
Part of the library's focus is educating young people about government, and Marquand says Fox is interested in partnering with U.S. schools. The principal hopes Friday's visit is just the beginning of an association that could lead to student exchanges.
Before he was president, Fox was the top executive at Coca-Cola's Latin American division. He rose through the ranks, beginning as a truck driver with the company.
He often speaks at schools and to youth groups; at times, with adult audiences, he discusses his support for the legalization of drugs, which apparently caused a San Diego university to rescind an invitation to him last year.
Given the age of his audience, however, Fox kept to safer topics, opening up by asking which students spoke Spanish or were Mexican or Latino. He followed up by introducing Marta and declaring the 21st century, “the century of women.” Some students were comfortable enough to ask him questions in Spanish, including Luisa Valles, 14, a native of Mexico.
Fox moved through his biography and U.S. connections – his grandfather was born in Ohio, he faced prejudice at the Wisconsin high school he attended, then ultimately made it to Harvard Business School – but focused tightly on the theme of education and the importance of setting goals.
He did address a couple of hot topics though, criticizing Arizona for passing an anti-immigration law that has been stricken down, but is set for review by the Supreme Court.
He has moved from being called “a greasy Mexican” as a teen in Wisconsin, to being part of expanded business and government partnerships with the U.S., and Fox said the country's leaders should focus on “understanding, friendship, partnership and knowledge,” not divisive laws.
“We don't like that happening, he said, “We don't like in Mexico to see walls being built between the United States and Mexico.”