My dream has not withered like a raisin in the sun, though at my age I wonder what my “future” would have been had I realized my dream of being a college or university president. It never happened, but I’m not bitter. I’m reminded of the last words in The Sun Also Rises when Brett Ashley says to Jake Barnes: “Oh, Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together.” And he replies: “Yes,” he said, “isn’t it pretty to think so.” It is “pretty” to think I would have made a damned good college president.
In 1973 the Presidential Search Committee at Texas A&I University in Kingsville, Texas, thought so. Of the three finalists (of which I was told I was first) the regents chose the third candidate. Later I would learn that as president that candidate was replaced on grounds of “incompetence.” The story is probably apocryphal, but I have joked since then that had I been given a chance to be president I could have been as incompetent as the candidate they had chosen.
That dream of being a college or university president was not a childhood dream. My parents were not college people. They came from Salamanca, a small village in Mexico in the state of Guanajuato, an area densely colonized by the Spaniards. My mother completed four years of schooling and my father three. But they were gente culta (cultured people) and educados (educated–in the cultural sense of the word). And they passed those values on to their children—me and my sisters.
My family is not Spanish, though I’m often asked if I am–because of my compound surname. There was a time in the United States when many Mexican Americans chose to label themselves as “Spanish” because of the stereotypes associated with being “Mexican.” My mother and father were a blended people: a mixture of Spanish and Indian with a little Irish and Sephardim on my father’s side. The Spaniards called blended people mestizos. My parents called themselves mejicanos (with a “j”). They came to the United States during the roaring twenties (my father in 1921; my mother in 1925, though a branch of her family had settled in San Antonio in 1731 as founders of La Villita: precursor of the city of San Antonio, Texas).
In my family I was the first to go to college, not because it was planned that way but because of World War II. I served in the Marines from 1943 to 1946 and was consequently eligible for the GI Bill, a boon that made my subsequent academic life a reality. However, at the beginning of my matriculation at the University of Pittsburgh I almost faltered.
At the end of my first semester at Pitt in the Fall of 1948 I wound up with 2 A’s and 3 F’s, and a GPA of 1.65. The A’s were in Spanish–advanced courses already. The F’s were in Chemistry, History, and English. I was informed that, since I was a provisional student–having been admitted to the university with less than the required preparation: only one year of high school)–in order to stay on for the Spring semester one of those F’s needed to become a D. The chemistry and History profs were no help. But the English professor, Abraham Lauf, considered my situation when I told him I had been a Marine during the war. He perked up at that and informed me that he had been a 1st Lt. in the Marines during the war. I added that at war’s end I was discharged as a Platoon Sergeant.
The chemistry between us yielded a review of my work in the Freshman English course and a finding that my grade could indeed be changed from an F to a D. That change placed me on probation status and allowed me to register for the Spring semester of 1949. That semester I earned a D in the second half of Freshman English with professor Lauf. I have often wondered if that act of kindness is not what motivated me to pursue the Ph.D. in English. I should add that the reason I performed so poorly that first semester at Pitt was because I had finished only one year of high school and was really not prepared for college work.
At 17, I was entering the 10th grade. Chronologically I should have been entering the 12th grade. But because I started public school in the segregated schools of San Antonio, Teas, as a speaker of Spanish I was held back an extra year in the first grade and in the 4th grade I was held back again because I still had not gotten the hang of the English language. By this time I was two years older than the rest of my 9th grade cohort. Consequently, when I turned 17 in August of 1943 I joined the Marines–a dark year for the country in its struggle against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
After the war I went to work at the Carnegie Steel Works and the Jones & Laughlin Steel Works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as a laborer. The work was strenuous, especially at the ore trestle where gondola cars filled with ore from mines throughout the country brought their minerals for dumping into the ore trestle from which little cable drawn ore buckets filled to capacity with ore crawled up the sides of the Bessemer furnaces to dump their loads into the yawning orifices of the furnaces in a frenzy to produce the steel demanded by post-war America. During the war steel had been regulated for military uses.
On the ore trestle, labor gangs popped open the gondolas to let the ore slide down into those wheeled ore buckets. The job was difficult during summers, but in the winter the ore gondolas would be frozen almost solid when they were tracked into the steel plant. This meant we had to loosen the ore sufficiently so it would slide out of the gondola chutes into the ore buckets below. To get the ore flowing, once we opened the chutes, we had to whack the sides of the gondolas with 50 and 75 pound sledgehammers. When that didn’t work, we had to climb into the gondolas with safety lines and pick at the ore with long sturdy iron poles. A quick unexpected slide could cause serious injury or death if one was not careful. The work was painstaking and laborious.
After 2 years on the ore trestle I realized that if I expected to escape the servitude of the steel mills I needed an education. Thanks to Chancellor Fitzgerald, the University of Pittsburgh was willing to accept GI’s like me without high school diplomas as provisional students After the war Chancellor Fitzgerald had announced that ex-GI’s were welcome at Pitt regardless of their educational preparation. I often joke about having a Ph.D. but no high school diploma. Not even a GED. That revelation often raises arched eyebrows. It took me two years to get the hang of college. As an upperclassman I made exceptionally good grades. Had admission to graduate school depended on my entire GPA I never would have made it. I completed a Master’s thesis in English on Hamlet at the University of Texas (Texas Western College); and pursued the Ph.D. in British renaissance studies with focus on Chaucer at the University of New Mexico. I discovered Chicano literature in the mid 60’s and since then it has been my ignis fatuus.
The dream of being a college president came to me about mid-life when I was Assistant to James Palmer, President at Metropolitan State College in Denver. I had moved to Denver from the University of Texas At El Paso where I was Founding Director of the Chicano Studies Program from 1970 to 1972, a pair of turbulent years that included taking over the office of the president of the university (with him in it) , an event which foreclosed my possibilities for tenure there.
When I left El Paso in 1972 I wondered if I should not have stayed at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces where I had spent 6 years from 1964 to 1970. For me, the irony of my departure from the University of Texas at El Paso lay in the fact that I had envisioned myself there as Mr. Chips, spending the rest of my academic life on that campus.
New Mexico State University was good for me. Newman Reed, Chair of English there, encouraged me to join the department. We had met at a conference in 1963 while I was teaching French at Jefferson High School in El Paso, Texas. In 1966 Mark Medoff joined the department. Subsequently, we collaborated on a number of projects, the most notable being a musical version of Hamlet entitled Elsinore which premiered in Las Cruces in 1968 and for which we had high hopes. Those hoped were dashed, however, when Joseph Papp of Shakespeare in the [New York Central] Park suggested that perhaps we ought to consider turning Elsinore into a rock musical. Mark went on to achieve success as Tony Award author of Children of a Lesser God.
At Metro State I worked hand in glove with the president on issues of gender equity in pay, hiring, and promotions; I organized and headed up the college’s affirmative action program; I spearheaded the president’s legislative activities; stood in for him at civic and social functions. I was also the college’s Ombudsman.
In Denver I learned about college administration. I completed a post-doctoral program in Management for Higher Education at the Harriman Institute of the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University. This experience plus my 9 years experience in the Air Force as manager of a number of multi-million dollar projects buoyed my expectations. By 1973 I thought I could handle a presidency. Jim Palmer thought so too.
In the spring of 1973 I became a candidate for the presidency at Texas A&I University in Kingsville in an area of South Texas I knew well. There was great support for my candidacy among the students, the faculty, and the community. In April of 1973 the Student Congress at Texas A&I University passed a resolution endorsing me for president. On April 27, the student newspaper the South Texan ran a front page story with the headline: Student Congress resolves support for Dr. Ortego. Letters on my be-half were sent to the Board of Regents which included Mrs Richard King (of the King Ranch family) and George F. Rhodes of Port Lavaca. Student groups collected and sent to the Board of Regents some 2500 petition signatures supporting my candidacy.
Though the obvious choice of the search committee, I was passed over in favor of the number 3 candidate. I sued the university and 9 years later the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee settled my claim. In adjudicating my claim, the university settled with me. My suit did open up the university for minority administrators. A quarter of a century later the university (renamed Texas A&M–Kingsville) appointed its first Mexican American president. Had I been selected in 1973 as president of Texas A&I University, I would have been the first Mexican American to head a state university in Texas.
This was my personal encounter with La Leyenda Negra: Historical Distortion, Defamation, Slander, Libel, and Stereotyping of Hispanics.
After the disappointing news, I stayed with Jim Palmer another year. In the meantime, Dan Valdes had drawn me into his circle at La Luz (first national Hispanic public affairs magazine in English) as founding Associate Publisher. In 1974 Dan encouraged me to join the organizing group for the Hispanic University of America (first national effort to found a university for American Hispanics comparable to black universities already in existence). I became founding vice chancellor for academic development and stayed until 1978 when I was asked to organize the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. The problematic funding for the Hispanic Uni-versity of America in Denver made my continuation with the institution economically unfeasible.
I retired from “the academy” in 1999 after 35 years of administration and teaching. However, I started teaching more than 50 years ago in January of 1952 as a teacher of French when getting a job in Texas as a teacher of English was difficult for a Mexican American. After a year of retirement, I missed the classroom and in 2000 returned to teaching as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer in English at Texas A&M University– Kingsville, the same institution where I had applied for a presidency some 28 years earlier. In the fall of 2001 there was a search for a new president since Marc Cisneros, the first Mexican American president of the university, had resigned the post. Once more I applied. Only this time I did so more as a lark to see just how viable a candidate I could be after so many years. I recognized that my viability was a long shot. But–what of it? The dream was still there.
Over the years I’ve held a number of the standard academic posts, including Vice Chancellor for Academic Development at the Hispanic University of America in Denver. In my last position (from which I retired) I was Director of a Title III HSI program, a $1.7 million dollar program for which I had been the lead writer on the proposal. I was also Director of the Bilingual Education Program as well as Professor of English.
I thought I had a shot at the recent (2004) presidential vacancy at Texas A&M–Kingsville, no matter how long a shot it was. I wasn’t surprised I didn’t make the final cut, though I had hoped to make it that far. That I didn’t wasn’t a disappointment, for the person selected–-Rumaldo Zapata Juarez–-has turned out to be an extraordinary choice. That event did, however, close the box in which I laid to rest my dream of being a college president–not to wither like a raisin in the sun—but to rest. I am assuaged by a line Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra utters: “What I aspired to be comforts me.”
Copyright 2016 by Dr. Philip de Ortego y Gasca.