by Nicole Haims Trevor ‘91

Rivera’s legacy lives on in the hearts of a generation of athletes. For some, he embodies tough love. For the rest, just love.

The first thing you need to know about Alex Rivera is that what you see is what you get. There are no two Alexes. He is passionate, generous, loyal and kind. He sets a high personal bar for himself and for others. Neat and tidy, his longish graying hair is the only visible sign of a rebellious spirit.

But there’s a twinkle in his eyes. He has plans. Adult or student, athlete or colleague, parent or alum—whatever the connection, Alex is invested in you. He listens and he reserves judgment. He tries to walk in others’ shoes. These are characteristics he brought to Prep in 1978 as a young coach, and he says he learned them from his own middle school coaches growing up in East LA.

“On any day you see Alex, he’s going to stop and ask you about yourself, about your day, about what’s going on in your life,” says Julie Mejia, a 14-year veteran of the physical education (PE) department and its incoming chair. “And if he is helping you through something, it comes from a special place in his heart that really cares about you, that wants to help get you to a better place. And he’s going to give you a hug at the end and he’s going to ask you who loves you.”

Back in 1978, Rivera was recognizable for his energy, his talent and again, the good hair. He was coaching in a Japanese youth league when he connected with a parent named Betty Chu, who happened to be on the Board of Trustees when then-Prep Headmaster Ed Anderson was looking for a new PE teacher. Once hired, Rivera immersed himself in Prep’s culture, working with John Plumb ’64, Jim Wood, John Neupauer and others to understand the culture and history of the school. In short order, he earned respect as a leader. But Rivera still looks back on those early days with the perspective of someone who can’t believe he won the lottery.

“Ed Anderson was like my second father. The opportunity he gave me was tremendous. He came all the way down to Roosevelt High School to watch me coach. Who would do that? He connected with me. He gave me an opportunity. He’s real close to my heart.”

In the 41 years since then, Rivera has accomplished much for Prep, for both the Athletics Department and the whole community. Headmaster Peter Bachmann cites a few signature achievements that have had a lasting impact on both athletic and school culture.

After Rivera became AD in 1986, he made the Athletics Department more female friendly, with support from the administration. In addition, he increased the quality of PE and coaching staff. He also was responsible for the increased attention placed on athletics through the Athletic Council on Leadership, which was founded in 2008 with full support from Bachmann.

From Rivera’s modest perspective, these accomplishments were about making sure that everyone who wanted to play a sport had a chance. It was also about ensuring that the department reflected the gender balance on campus and that athletics professionals received what they needed to do their jobs well. The idea itself is simple, but it was Rivera’s execution that made a difference. He made exceptional hiring choices, understood his personnel and let them do their best work. There’s a boldness to the simplicity of his plan, a power in the mutual respect and trust that he fostered. In the last 15 years, the department has been remarkably stable.

Among his great hires are Garrett Ohara ’84 in 1999, followed by Sean Beattie, Julie Mejia and Esteban Chavez in 2005. All four were seasoned coaches, and they worked well together. Together, they revitalized the physical education curriculum. In 2009, Beattie became head of the PE department. In the fall of 2019 as Ohara departs (see article), Beattie will become AD and Mejia will succeed him as PE chair. Chavez will remain in the department and continue coaching girls and boys soccer. Ramses Barden ’04 and a new PE teacher will join the PE team in the fall; Barden will coach boys basketball.

Russell White joined the Athletics Department in 2016 and will succeed Rivera as the lead mentor for the Athletic Council on Leadership. He describes Alex the same way Alex describes his own early mentors.

“He embraces you in a different kind of way. He always was the check-in guy. And you knew it was genuine. He says, ‘I love you,’ and you genuinely feel that love. It’s so hard to come by in today’s world. I hope to be the same way,” White says.

There are other familiar threads to Rivera’s story. Everyone is family. Former coach Lisa Burton is his sister, while Glen Beattie, John Ruch and Vatche Hagopian are his brothers. Ohara is his oldest son, while Mejia, Chavez and Sean Beattie are his younger set of kids. Rivera never hesitates to say that all his friends are from Prep. Family, friend, teammate, athlete—he sees no distinction.

“The heart still beats the same,” Rivera says.

Sean Beattie has known Rivera since he was five years old, and Rivera first hired him as an assistant volleyball coach when he was a 19-year-old college student.

“Alex treats you with respect. He’s tough on you when you need it, and he gives you a hug when you need it. He can do just about anything for you,” says Sean Beattie. “He’s definitely a second father to me, especially at Prep.”

The Fiery Competitor with an Enormous Heart

In the early years, Rivera earned a reputation as a fiery competitor, and also earned a remarkable loyalty from his athletes for doling out toughness and love in equal measure. He managed to unlock in his players the personal potential of each individual—for the good of the team, and for the good of the individual. How? However you can. “Everyone’s different. Find what works,” he says.

Glen Beattie joined the faculty in 1981 and was himself an intense presence. With Rivera, they represent 79 years of Prep coaching, and when Beattie coached football with Rivera, they were a tag team of good-cop, bad-cop, improvising and changing roles as needed. “The kids appreciated the fact that we were fireballs. They needed the kick in the pants, but Alex always knew that it was, finally, about life lessons,” Beattie says.

Jeff Crawford ‘86 played basketball for Rivera in middle school and high school. He echoes Beattie’s sentiment. At an event honoring Rivera in April, he said, “Practices were demanding. I’m not going to lie. There was yelling and screaming. He taught us loyalty, dedication and toughness. I am sure that my teammates and I tested your commitment to us, Coach. But you stuck with us. I’ll go to battle for you anytime. You’re my favorite coach that I ever had in life.”

“There’s no question that Alex could be intimidating as a coach,” says Matt Bogaard ’90, the starting forward on Rivera’s first varsity basketball team to make the CIF Finals. “He can be aggressive. But I see now his level of authenticity. He’s very dedicated. He pushes you to be the best you can be, and you know that he has your back. He is trying to bring the best out of you as an athlete, and, as a result he makes the best out of you as a person.”

Perhaps the deepest tie Rivera has is with Ohara, whom he coached in the Japanese league and later recruited as a Prep student. Ohara came back in 1999 at Rivera’s behest, took over the varsity basketball team and succeeded Rivera as athletic director in 2014. Next winter, one of Ohara’s athletes, Barden, will carry on the basketball legacy, taking over as varsity coach. For Ohara, one special aspect of being back at Prep these last 20 years has been watching Rivera evolve. He saw his daughter, Kate ‘21, be coached by Rivera, softer but still vital, 45 years later in the same gym.

“The style was different. It’s a tribute to his growth and patience,” Ohara says. “Back when I played for him, when the game was over, you knew he was going to give it to you, and you knew he would pick you back up. He’d go out of his way to show his love and support in other things he did. He went to everything. He knew your life.”

“Alex has had a huge transition. He was harsh at times but motivating. And his transition over the last 20 years has been incredible,” says Sean Beattie. “He still teaches the skills the way they need to be taught, but he’s become a more loving coach. He was always, but now he shows the love as a coach, too.”

“He has evolved into the most gentle and gracious human developer,” says Peter Bachmann. “And I’ve seen that firsthand because my son (Rob ’03) has spent most of his life with Alex. He was in his basketball camps back when he was in elementary school. When he came to Prep as a student, Alex encouraged him to pursue basketball. He eventually hired Rob for several summers as a counselor for his camps and they remain friends to this day. Even though over the last 15 years Rob has taken to calling many of his former teachers by their first names, Alex is always Coach. And I think he’ll always be Coach to generations of kids.”

ACL: A Legacy in Life Lessons

Rivera’s drive led him to what he says he was born to do, and to the area that has given him his greatest career and personal satisfaction: creating the Athletic Council on Leadership (ACL). He intuited early in his career that what happens on the court or field can be translated and magnified in other settings. He wanted to build that wider platform at Prep. His platform would include all varsity sports and be open to girls and boys, and it would function to stretch athletes’ leadership abilities. It wasn’t until Bachmann returned from a conference that things started to come together. Former NFL player Joe Ehrmann was the keynote speaker.

“It was the end of summer, and Peter said, ‘Read this book, [Ehrmann’s] Season of Life, and we’ll talk about it next week when we get back to school.’ And I read it and said, ‘This is it. This is what I’m supposed to do,’” Rivera says. “Thank you, Peter Bachmann, for sharing Seasons of Life with me. It’s the road map for the Athletic Council on Leadership.”

“ACL is a center for human development and leadership, and it’s a place for community spirit and community support. From Special Olympics camps and work with the Boys & Girls Club to our global connections, we have had lasting impact,” Bachmann says.

It’s hard to overstate how much of an impact ACL’s work in Nicaragua has had on Rivera, and how this impact motivated his students. Prep, through Manuel Nuñez, has had a long-standing relationship with schools there. The first student group to visit went in 2011. In 2013, Rivera joined the trip for the first time with a group of ACL students and was changed by the love he had for the people he met and the needs that he could help fulfill through ACL.

“Our students visited La Mascota Hospital, which is the only children’s cancer hospital in Nicaragua. An alum (Naomi Hatanaka ’11) had started an organization to help with transportation for families with sick children,” Mejia observes. The only nonprofit funding for family transportation to La Mascota comes from Hatanaka’s organization and ACL.

When an ACL student came up with the idea of a fundraising 5K, Mejia was initially skeptical. Planning and executing a 5K is no small feat.

“They figured it out and it’s been a huge success,” she says, adding that although the 5K has raised substantial funds for family transportation to La Mascota, like many facets of ACL, its true value is deeper than dollars and cents.

“It’s a way that our students come together, our families come together, our teachers. It represents Alex. Everyone comes together toward one generous moment for people who need it,” she says.

Over 11 years, Rivera has created a mini-army of ACL leaders that has gone off to college and continues to use the lessons they’ve learned to make change in the world. ACL has not just raised the bar for leadership at Prep; it has made an impact in the local community.

The practice of mentoring ACL students requires Rivera’s greatest gifts—the ability to listen and reserve judgment, while at the same time encourage others to broaden their own skills. Modeling these behaviors is good not just for students, but for the other adult mentors in the room as well. Students often have ambitious ideas. It’s up to the mentors to nurture those ideas and to assist the students as they craft actionable, practical plans. At any given ACL meeting, Rivera and the other adults say far less than the students, who are broken into committees with different emphases: Spirit, Life Lessons, Community Service and Initiatives and Leadership.

Alex Kyriakakis ’20 will be a captain for Life Lessons next year. She says that she will remember and cherish Coach Rivera’s words of wisdom on the topic of communication. “It goes both ways, talking and listening. Listening is the most important quality a leader can have.”

Germaine Harvey ’20, who will also be a Life Lessons captain, says that Rivera’s impact on him has been life changing. When Rivera truly sees who you are, doors open.

“It’s hard to say only a few words about Mr. Rivera because he is the main reason I’m at Prep,” Harvey shares. “I first met him through an ACL summer event with the Boys & Girls Club. Since then, Mr. Rivera has been nothing less than family. He has constantly supported, protected and loved me with all his heart. He has helped me to grow into the leader I am today, and I do not know where I would be without him.”

Harvey says that he’ll carry three lessons forward: “Putting effort into everything I do, being accountable and responsible, and always showing respect.”

The Cycle of Leadership

When his retirement plans became public, Plumb, who showed Rivera the ropes so many years earlier, reached out to and thanked him for being a part of the Prep legacy. Plumb sees Rivera as an important link to the Jim Wood era, and says he was glad to have an opportunity to nurture and mentor Rivera, who in turn has mentored others.

“My legacy, if there is such thing, is that I cared about everyone and I was a good enough example and mentor for our young people,” says Rivera. “I have the confidence that this is a good time to go because of what I’ve seen in the last three years. It’s a dynamic group, a beautiful group. They’re involved, they care about the kids, they have beautiful, newer, better ideas. So, it’s time, and luckily my legacy is their legacy—that we care about our kids.”

“Family and team do have a way of blending under Alex’s watch,” says Ohara. “You care for people. That’s the right thing to do. You care for them as family. And you deal with hard times. Alex created a unity. It’s established. That’s the norm. I think that will live on. I am so grateful to him.”

One of Rivera’s sisters from another mother is Burton, a PE teacher and coach at Prep from 1982 to 1998. She traveled from Canada to celebrate his retirement in April.

“I am struck by the vast influence he has had on so many us—athletes, students, colleagues and coaches,” she says. “He always took the time to teach his athletes and students not only the fundamentals of sport, but also counseled them to evolve into persons of strong character. Alex’s leadership and impact on the Prep campus is immeasurable. The legacy he leaves will be felt for generations to come.”

Ever the planner, Rivera’s immediate goals are simple. He will spend time with Yolanda, his wife, whom he calls “the person I always want to be with.” They’ll do some traveling and consider their next move together. But his desire to serve doesn’t end with retirement, and his connection to Nicaragua isn’t over. He will continue to foster leaders.

With so much talk about what Rivera has given to Prep, Rivera has a simple message to the community about what it has given him. In almost a whisper, he says, “People gave me back love, parents gave me love. The school gave me support and love. Alumni gave me love. I think because of that maybe I did something right.”

Indeed you did, Coach. Indeed you did.

July 29, 2019