James Ontra (’94), a member of the Highlight Houston New York event planning committee, can easily name his favorite UH memory: “Andre Ware winning the Heisman trophy. [My friends and I] stayed up all night printing ‘Where is the Heisman!’ t-shirts before the game in Rice Stadium,” he recalls. “When it was announced that Andre won, Shasta and the cheerleaders all donned the shirts and flipped across the field.”
But, that memory was hard-earned: their initial run of t-shirts had Andre Ware’s name in it, and they found themselves up against a cadre of lawyers who were worried it may prohibit Ware from playing in the championship game (see photo). They decided to create a second run of shirts: “We adhered to the letter and created a grammatically-challenged statement using a homonym for Ware. The rest is history. Andre won the Heisman, and the t-shirt became a statement of the times.”
Ontra was happy to celebrate UH’s past, present and future at the New York event with fellow Coogs, and believes that the event was reflective of UH’s progress as a whole. “Overall, Highlight Houston was executed in such a way that I am confident in the future of my University,” he says. “It makes me proud to see UH growing into a national presence that is so deserved, and I know this only the beginning.”
A Connecticut native, Ontra earned his degree in radio and television at UH, but his Houston education extended beyond the classroom. “For me, Houston was fertile entrepreneurial territory,” he explains. “It was the place I learned I could dream up something and bring it to life.” After graduating, Ontra worked on presentations for NBC Olympics, the NFL, Mercedes Benz and at an exhibit in Disney’s Epcot Center. Now, he is CEO of Shufflrr, “a pioneer in Presentation Management.”
“UH provided a challenging and very well rounded education,” he says. “I was able to study in a live broadcast Radio station and TV station, while earning a living selling ‘street’ communication — designing, promoting and selling t-shirts, posters and calendars that promoted UH events. These creative, communication and entrepreneurial efforts became the foundation for my career.”
Those entrepreneurial efforts included designing and producing thousands of t-shirts (including the “Where is the Heisman!” shirt), co-founding the Velvet Elvis pub and produce and published a “Houston’s Hottest” calendar for five years. In 1993, his efforts landed him the Houston Small Business Administration Young Entrepreneur Award.
Many Highlight Houston attendees are reconnecting with UH for the first time in years, but Ontra has always seen the potential of Houston and his alma mater. “In the 1980’s, I always referred to UH as the University of the 21st century,” he says. “People would ask, why? I would say, look at the city and look at the campus. We have room to grow. And grow we have.”