As a teenager in Beaumont, Jim Lehrer wanted to be a professional baseball player, but a coach discouraged him at the same time that an English teacher praised his essay on Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”

In the top corner, the teacher wrote, “Jimmy, you’re a very good writer.” Shortly after, in 1950, his family moved to San Antonio and he signed up for The Declaration, the student newspaper at Jefferson High School.

“It essentially started right here,” Lehrer, 83, told about 50 students in Jefferson’s library Wednesday, 65 years after he graduated.

He remembered telling a classmate there, “I want to be a big-time national reporter and I want to write novels.” He fulfilled both dreams. Nicknamed “the Dean of Moderators,” the retired longtime anchor of The PBS NewsHour has questioned candidates in 12 presidential debates and has written 24 novels and three plays.

Lehrer said he came back to Jefferson about 15 years ago to look around, but Wednesday was his first time speaking to students at his alma mater. He gave them two main pieces of advice: Polish your writing no matter your career path and be willing to take risks.

“I’m living proof that it can happen,” Lehrer said. “I was a student at Jefferson just like you are.”

Lehrer attended Victoria Junior College and the University of Missouri, served in the U.S. Marine Corps and got his career start at the Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times Herald. He reported on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy before moving to Washington, D.C., to work for PBS, where he and Robert MacNeil won an Emmy Award for their coverage of the the Senate Watergate hearings. The pair launched a nightly news show that came to be called the NewsHour.

Some Jefferson students said they remembered Lehrer moderating his last debate, the 2012 matchup between then-President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney. Students said they watched it before voting in mock elections at school.

Xavier Salazar, 17, a senior and current editor of The Declaration, said Lehrer’s talk was inspiring.

“We have a chance,” Salazar said. “If he can graduate from Jefferson and go as far as he did, maybe we can, too.”

In some ways, Lehrer said, journalism hasn’t changed since he was a student. Facts and six basic questions — who, what, when, where, why and how — are still every story’s backbone. But the technology is different. In high school, he wrote on upright manual typewriters and set type for newspaper pages from hot metal.

There was no internet for quick research — “If you wanted to know somebody’s middle name, you could spend three days trying to find it,” Lehrer said.

Cable television networks and increased competition among news outlets also have allowed more opinion in what should be straight news coverage, Lehrer said. He told students that true objectivity is impossible but that reporters can be fair if they approach every story as if they themselves were the subjects.

On Tuesday, Lehrer accepted from the San Antonio Independent School District its Inspire Award, given annually to outstanding educators and alumni.

In response to a student question, he said his only regret was not spending more quality time with his children and grandchildren but that he’s making up for that now.

“I would have loved to have been a professional baseball player,” he added.

amalik@express-news.net