Fresno State's new president Joseph Castro knows the challenges many Valley students face all too well: the Hanford native was raised by his single mother and grandparents, held his first job as a paperboy at age 12 and slept in a garage-turned-bedroom that opened to the laundry room.
"It was hard. I wish I could have done a lot more for them financially, but I guess what you don't know you don't have, you don't really miss," said Castro's mother, Anne Marie Mendez.
Castro, the first Latino and Californian to hold Fresno State's top post, began his job as the university's eighth president this month. Fresno State's fall semester starts Aug. 22.
His hardscrabble roots tell a story many in the Valley could call their own.
Castro, 46, was born at Sacred Heart Hospital in Hanford. He grew up in a single-parent household and didn't have a relationship with his father — also named Joe — until adulthood.
When he was a kid, his family reluctantly moved from their house into an apartment complex when Kmart took over several Hanford residential properties. After school, he and his sister did homework at their grandparents' home while his mother worked long shifts as a hairdresser.
Castro was a quiet kid, Mendez said. He started kindergarten just before he turned 5, always earned good grades and kept his bedroom neat. April Aquino, his younger sister, said she remembers playing tennis with Castro and dancing at disco parties her mom hosted in the 1970s.
"He was older so he set an example for me," she said.
Greg Maroot, a real estate broker in Fresno, has known Castro since elementary school. They played together on the Hanford High tennis team and Castro edited sports articles Maroot wrote for their high school newspaper.
When their favorite football teams squared off during the 1985 Super Bowl, Maroot said Castro's normally calm disposition hardly shook even as his team, the Miami Dolphins, flopped to Maroot's 49ers, 38-16.
"Unfortunately for Joe it was a blowout for the 49ers," Maroot said. "It was a testament to Joe's patience. You could tell he was very agitated with the result, but he held his composure."
It was during those early years that Castro took an interest in government and public service. He still winces (and laughs) at the memory of getting one question wrong on Ms. Spear's seventh-grade Constitution test.
And getting a university degree, he said, was never a question.
"Even though they hadn't gone to college, they just thought that was something that was important for me and my sister to do," he said of his mother and grandparents. "Before I fully understood what it was all about, I knew that was the expectation."
While he was in high school, Castro learned about a college recruitment program at the Ted C. Wills Community Center in Fresno. By the end of the meeting, he had unexpectedly landed a seat at the University of California at Berkeley.
"I thought (our applications) were going to be submitted and we'd hear something later ... I handed them the application and they actually stamped 'admitted,' " he said. "I just knew it was a great opportunity and I accepted without even visiting."
He took out loans, won scholarships and received grants to pay his tuition bill. But the toughest part, Mendez said, was taking their motorhome out to UC Berkeley to help Castro move in.
"It was the hardest thing to leave," she said, "but once he was out, he was out."
And then, he met Mary. Castro needed extra money after his first semester and during winter break, found a part-time job at the Burger King where Mary — now his wife — was just a high school senior flipping hamburgers.
"The problem was she was dating someone, so that was a bummer," he said. Months later, he asked her out. They married at Yosemite National Park in 1991.
Martin Juarez met Castro during his sophomore year at UC Berkeley. They were later groomsmen in each other's weddings, but Juarez, who works in San Jose, said his best memories are of rooming with Castro when he was in graduate school.
"Joe loved 'The Wonder Years' and Kevin Arnold (the main character, played by Fred Savage) and we would sit together and just have a beer while watching the show," Juarez said. "We'd go to A's games together and used to take the BART down to Berkeley."
Claudia Martinez and Castro also were friends in college. He's "sincere" she said, and has a "moral compass like I've never encountered before."
They met the day she moved into the dorms.
"I was homesick and wondering, 'What do I do now?' and within five minutes of that there was a knock on my door and this guy was welcoming me and inviting me to a social later," she said.
Castro is a year older but they both lived in CASA Joaquin Murieta, a multicultural student dorm, throughout their undergraduate years. They stayed friends and years later ended up working together at both UC Merced and UC Santa Barbara.
Castro zigged in and out of higher-education positions after earning his master's degree at UC Berkeley and his doctorate at Stanford University. Most recently, Castro served as the vice chancellor for student academic affairs at UC San Francisco.
Steve Arditti, former UC assistant vice president for state governmental relations, gave Castro his first job. It was Castro's intuition and patience during the interview process that hooked him.
He was still in graduate school, Arditti said, and not even close to qualified for the government analyst position. But Arditti gave him a chance.
"Mark my words the day will come when I will be sitting in the back of a crowded auditorium, my chin on a cane, and turn (to the person) next to me and say, 'See that, sonny, I gave that young man his first job,' " Arditti recalled telling his hiring assistant at the time. "And the only thing I didn't have to wait for was the cane because the honors came much sooner than that."
Joseph Castro, the first Latino and Californian to hold Fresno State's top post, began his job as the university's eighth president this month.
Clarification: Although University of California official Steve Arditti told The Bee he hired Castro to his first job when he was still in graduate school and not close to qualified for the position, Castro says he had his master's degree before he was hired and met all qualifications for the job except for years of experience.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.