WHITTIER — Martin Ortiz still remembers the teacher in a Kansas elementary school who singled him out because he couldn't speak English. She sat him in a corner, emptied all the desks around him and pinned a sign to his chest. It read: "I'm retarded."
He wore the sign for an entire semester.
"I still remember all those little kids dancing around me, calling me crazy and nuts," recalled Ortiz, now director of Whittier College's Center of Mexican-American Affairs. "I vowed never to let that happen to anyone again."
The crusade is now a half century old and Ortiz is still going strong, working long hours to give Latino students a better shake. Since 1968, he has dedicated his waking hours to widening opportunities for Latinos at Whittier College, for decades a predominately white campus that was founded by Quakers before the turn of the century.
Ortiz runs the center from his small office tucked away four flights up from the president's suite in the Administration Building. He is a consummate salesman--a telephone almost always in his ear as he pitches the college's virtues to high school counselors, contributors and parents alike.
Often he's seen walking the hillside campus with a prospective recruit and parents, his hands moving constantly as he talks about the value of education for minorities, a theme he drills into anyone who will listen.
A modest man, born and raised in a Wichita barrio, he refuses to take credit for Whittier College's success in recruiting Latino students. He says it is a team effort, beginning with college President Eugene S. Mills.
But those around him say Ortiz is the key, the spark plug that makes the center and its annual fund-raising efforts go.
"He's been on a one-man campaign to give Latinos a beachhead at that campus," said Nina Serrano, a former Whittier College official now working at Redlands University. "He has overcome a lot of resistance, and deserves all of the credit."
William Estrada, assistant dean of students at Occidental College, called Ortiz "courageous" for carving out a niche for minority students when it wasn't a popular notion at small, private colleges in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "He is the father of minority student programs at Southern California colleges," Estrada said.
Following World War II and a tour of duty as a military meteorologist in the South Pacific, Ortiz came to Whittier College because it offered a program in YMCA management. He eventually graduated with a sociology degree. Only a handful of minorities were enrolled at the time.
While generally accepted by faculty and other students, he quickly discovered that Whittier in 1948 was not a place for Latinos. No barbershop in the city would give him a haircut, and he was asked to leave most restaurants.
Nobody would rent to Ortiz and his bride, so they lived in veterans housing near City Hall.
Went to Chicago
After graduating, Ortiz went to Chicago and directed a city support group for Latinos.
In the late 1950s he returned to Los Angeles and began coordinating projects for Latinos in Eastside neighborhoods. He also began teaching sociology part time at Whittier College, and was hired full time in 1971 as director of the Center of Mexican-American Affairs.
"He is the kind of man who is equally comfortable eating with students in the cafeteria or with a group of big contributors at a tux-and-tails dinner," said Joe Lazalde, a Whittier College graduate who now works at Hughes Aircraft. "He has so much ability to make people feel important."
In a private moment at his desk, decorated with a small Mexican flag and a stack of phone messages, he acknowledges the inroads made at Whittier College.
"We do represent an institute of change over the years, and it didn't come easy," he said. "But my goal has always been helping students. If I've helped a few, I'll always be a happy man."