Mauricio Acevedo remembers the angst he and his classmates faced during their 1974 senior year at Bishop Mora Salesian High in Boyle Heights.

The Vietnam War, still a year away from ending, required 18-year-olds to register for the military draft. Acevedo took an aptitude test to access his vocation skills.

“My test said I was going to be a mechanic — that bothered me for a long time,” said Acevedo. “I didn’t want to do that. I was good in biology and math. I was competitive with my buddies.”

He went to Sister Eliza Martin, a beloved chemistry and biology teacher at the all-boys school. She asked what he wanted to do instead. He brought up the idea of becoming a nurse, like his cousin in the Navy.

“I remember her telling me, ‘Why don’t you try to be a doctor and see what happens?’ ” said Acevedo.

After 40 years as an emergency room physician specializing in internal medicine for Kaiser Permanente in Baldwin Park, Acevedo became emotional talking about how Salesian prepared him for enrolling in Cal State L.A., then taking classes at USC Keck School of Medicine just blocks from his Lincoln Heights childhood home.

“Honestly, after all these years, what she said has stayed with me because, by the grace of God, that was an inspiration to keep me going,” said the 67-year-old Acevedo, standing outside of the Salesian High campus gym on Jan. 31 as he held on to his new Golden Diploma, one of 55 honored during the school’s annual Catholic Schools Week celebration for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Alphabetically, Acevedo was first in line to receive the recognition, wearing a nametag with his 1974 yearbook portrait. Right behind him in line was his brother, Rudy, a retired engineer. Eventually, the group gathered on the stairs outside the gym for a photograph to commemorate their reunion.

For almost 10 years, Salesian has organized this Mass on the feast day of St. John Bosco as a tribute to its past, with all its pomp and circumstance. Moises Delgado, the Salesian High vice president and a member of the Class of 1997, called it a “win-win situation” for students and alums.

“The students get to hear the stories and see the school pride in the past traditions the school once had, and they get to share their experiences as well,” said Delgado. “The alumni recognize that even though time has passed, the same type of students attend Salesian today. It still serves students that come from hard-working families and have opportunities to succeed regardless of what area they came from.”

Mauricio Acevedo was one of the Class of 1974 alumni who returned to receive a Golden Diploma. Acevedo has spent 40 years as a physician for Kaiser Permanente in Baldwin Park. (Victor Alemán)

In addition to the 390 Salesian High students in attendance, another 140 elementary students from nearby School of Santa Isabel participated.

Outside at a reception area where the honored guests were treated to a lunch, students from the Salesian Lettermen Society sporting their light blue sweaters gathered to meet the alums.

Eddie Valdez pointed out to them where the former school gym was once down the hill at the site of the current football field. The gym they were just in was once a parking lot.

“This is the third Golden Diploma event I’ve been part of watching, and it’s interesting to see what they went through — and to think about what it might be like in 50 years,” said Isaiah Ochoa, a senior on Salesian’s Esports team.

Sergio Guzman, a senior receiver on the varsity football team, said the alum’s enthusiasm “makes me more excited each time to see them come back and it encourages more school spirit. I think of Salesian as a place where I have become a young man and may not have had the same opportunities at other schools.”

Jerry Vasquez, a senior middle linebacker on the football team, called it “a blessing to see my brothers come back and fully enjoy what it’s like to still be a Salesian Mustang — once a Mustang, always a Mustang, in church, at home, and on the playground.”

Chosen to speak to the gathering prior to the diploma distribution, Jose Sandoval, a retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge who studied at Harvard University and UC Berkeley, told his 1974 classmates that he recalled the Salesian as faculty “may have had more faith in us than we did in ourselves. … We were just kids from East LA trying to get by. They could foresee the challenges and setbacks we would face, and their guidance helped us get through. Our friendships have endured. A word to the new generation of Salesian students: Look around and value these guys. They will make a difference in your life.”

David Gonzalez, an Emmy Award-winning technical director, videotape engineer, and cameraman at ABC/Disney for the last 43 years, said as an alum, the best advice he can give to current day Salesian students: Never give up.

“The school had a profound impact on me,” said Gonzalez, who moved to the Inland Empire and is active in the alumni association. “We may have been poor, but purpose kept us alive.”

From left: Mauricio Acevedo, David Gonzalez, and Fernando Rios. (Salesian High School)

Fernando Rios recalled the persistence he learned from Salesian faculty as he studied at UC Santa Cruz, then at UCLA to get his MBA and work at AT&T for 32 years.

“We were taught to persevere, to move forward and make the best of what we had, stay up all night and study if you had to,” said Rios, who lives in Whittier. “I have bonds with these friends through the year — maybe stronger in the last few years than when we were in school.”

Acevedo, whose son became an orthopedic surgeon and his daughter became a nurse, laughs when he thinks about how he signed his classmates’ high school yearbook telling them he was going to be a doctor.

“And they didn’t believe me,” said Acevedo, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church where he lives in Rancho Cucamonga. “I look back at all the years in college and interning and training and it all boils down to this is where my roots were set. That’s important because when the wind blows, something has to keep you grounded.

“I’m blessed because I started with nothing and here we are now. This was where I was supposed to be. Whatever Salesian is still doing now, it’s working. We can’t take that for granted.”