Ruben Valdez, Colorado’s first Hispanic House Speaker, remembered as a Denver mentor and education advocate

Valdez represented Denver in the General Assembly during the 1970s before working for President Jimmy Carter and Colorado Governor Dick Lamm.

Ruben Valdez in 2015. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Schools.

Ruben Valdez in 2015. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Schools.

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

Amber Valdez rarely disagreed with her grandfather, the pioneering former state lawmaker Ruben Valdez. But there was one thing she absolutely tried to convince him he was wrong about.

“I was always joking that the only thing we argued about was getting him a smartphone,” Amber Valdez said on Wednesday.

There are many other stories like that, both minute and large, that Amber started hearing on Wednesday after she notified people her grandfather had died on Tuesday night. He was 82. The messages poured into her phone, from people around the city Valdez represented in the General Assembly during the 1970s.

“It is so overwhelming right now to hear from everyone,” Amber said. “He really is the person that everybody thinks he is … you hear these stories from people I didn’t know, who have this special connection (with him). He impacted so many lives. It’s incredible to hear in a time like this.”

Ruben Valdez’s daughter, Peggy, echoed her daughter’s comments. Over and over again, the word used to describe her later father was “mentor.”

“What I have enjoyed about reading those (messages) is that everybody remembers something particular about him, about their interactions, how they’re all different and appreciative of the time they had with him,” Peggy Valdez said.

Valdez represented’s Denver’s westside during the 1970s and was elected House Speaker in 1975, serving two years in the position. With his election, he became the first Hispanic to serve as House speaker in the Colorado General Assembly. He served in the legislature from 1970 to 1978.

His family said he cared deeply about education, citing the 1975 Bilingual and Bicultural Education Act among his greatest legislative achievements. The bill sought to improve language skills and combating Spanish cultural bias, according to a New York Times article from 1975.

“Something that really resonated with him, (was) he had a friend in grade school who couldn’t speak English, and he would interpret for him when he was in the first and second grade,” Peggy said. “I know that education and educational opportunities were paramount to him.”

Valdez would later serve as a regional director for the United States Department of Transportation under President Jimmy Carter and as head of Colorado’s social services and labor departments under Governor Dick Lamm. Amber said he opened his own lobbying firm in 1988. She worked with him first as an intern while a student at Colorado State University before eventually becoming a partner in the firm.

“He was a strong leader but he also had a great ability to find great compromise,” she said. “That’s why his peers loved him so much.”

Ruben Valdez speaks to first grade students at STRIVE-Ruby Hill Elementary School, which is located on the campus named after Valdez. Courtesy of the Valdez family.

Ruben Valdez speaks to first grade students at STRIVE-Ruby Hill Elementary School, which is located on the campus named after Valdez. Courtesy of the Valdez family.

Alan Salazar, Mayor Michael Hancock’s chief of staff, said he will always remember Valdez as a gentleman. He was, as Salazar puts its, “old school in the way he treated people … in the best possible way.”

“He was very passionate about civil rights,” Salazar said. “But he was not a person prone to a fiery temper or treating people badly … he was just the opposite of that, in my opinion. He wanted to solve problems … he loved people and humanity, that’s the kind of person he was was.”

Valdez remained a key figure in Denver politics after leaving the statehouse.

Amber said aspiring Latino elected officials often sought advice from her grandfather.

“He was really about empowering the Latino community. He always has been,” she said.

Born in Trinidad, Valdez was the youngest of nine siblings. He ended up moving to southwest Denver for trade work and returning to school after initially dropping out of high school, according to a 2015 resolution from Denver Public Schools. He ended up raising three children who attended Denver Public Schools.

The school district named a campus after him in 2015: the Ruben Valdez Achievement Campus, which his family said he regularly visited. In the resolution naming the school, the district described Valdez as “a man of humble beginnings who has achieved success in business and government through self-determination and perseverance.” They called him a role model for Denver students.

“He gave me a lot of good advice … losing him is like losing a member of my family,” Salazar said. “I have nothing but the highest regard for him.”

Hancock said in a statement Wednesday that Denver had lost “a giant.”

“Our Latino community has lost a trailblazer, and I have lost a dear friend,” Hancock said in a statement. “Ruben Valdez wasn’t just an exceptional public servant and advocate, he was a leader and mentor to so many and a tireless champion for what he believed was right and just.”

Hancock added that as a legislator, Valdez represented and advanced the interests of westside neighborhoods. He gave them a voice, Hancock said. Valdez’s district included a large Latino population.

The DPS resolution noted that in 1975, Valdez was the first Hispanic to serve as governor of Colorado when the governor and lieutenant governor were out of the state. As House Speaker, he was third in succession.

Valdez’s family said they’re working on hosting a public memorial, but details are still being finalized.

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