Retired Fresno County Superior Court Judge Armando O. Rodríguez, the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up in Fresno’s west side during the Great Depression and later became one of the most influential Latinos in the San Joaquin Valley, died Wednesday at the age of 87.
Judge Rodriguez died of pancreatic cancer in his home surrounded by family and friends. They said the judge’s health turned for the worse on Tuesday when he was unable to talk.
A Catholic, Judge Rodriguez received his last rites from Bishop Armando X. Ochoa, who performed the ceremony in the judge’s home in Clovis. Barely lucid, the judge kissed the bishop’s hand and thanked him.
Judge Rodriguez was the first Latino to be elected to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. He also was the first Hispanic judge on the Fresno Municipal Court bench.
True American story
His life reads like a classic American success story: the ninth among 12 children whose parents immigrated from Mexico. The family first lived in a railroad car in Planada in Merced County before settling in Fresno.
His father, Jorge Rodriguez, was a tailor; his mother, Carmen Rodriguez, a homemaker. The judge’s middle name was his mother’s maiden name Osorio. He attended Edison High School and married his high school sweetheart, Betty Raya, in 1950. He then served as a Morse code radio operator in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War before attending Fresno State College and law school in San Francisco on the GI Bill.
After becoming a lawyer in 1965, he found his cause in social justice, first working with the Alameda County Legal Aid Society, and then with the newly founded California Rural Legal Assistance, opening an office in Madera. In 1967, he went into private practice in Fresno.
Friends described the judge as a mentor who was always respectful of others and chose his words carefully. A lifelong Democrat, Judge Rodriguez and his wife worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get other Democrats elected. And when it came time for him to run for elected office, he had no problem getting financial support, his friends said.
In 1972, he became the first Latino to be elected to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. While serving his first term on the board, Gov. Jerry Brown in 1975 made him the first Hispanic judge on the Fresno Municipal Court bench.
Three years later, he became the first Hispanic judge in Fresno County Superior Court, only to lose the seat in the June 1980 election that, he said, falsely portrayed him as soft on crime. “That is the biggest disappointment in my career,” Judge Rodriguez told The Bee in 1995 when he announced his retirement after 20 years on the bench.
But before Judge Rodriguez finished his judicial term, Gov. Brown tapped him again in December 1980, putting him back on the Municipal Court to replace a retiring judge. When the Municipal and Superior courts merged, he retained his title as a Superior Court judge.
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand called Rodriguez “a titan in Fresno County history, a man who didn’t just serve in multiple public capacities, but also did so as the first Latino in many of those roles.
“Being the first is never easy, but Judge Rodriguez was more than up to the task, and in the process paved the way for other Latinos to follow.”
Ashley Swearengin, Fresno’s former mayor and now president and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, called Rodriguez a “trailblazer and inspiration,” and noted how the judge created a memorial scholarship fund to help local college students. The fund is in honor of his wife Betty, who preceded him in death. Rodriguez was on the foundation’s board from 2012-14.
Superior Court Judge Kimberly Gaab, presiding judge, issued a statement on behalf of the court’s judges and staff. She said in part that “Anyone who was in his courtroom can tell you that Judge Rodriguez had a passion for the law and public service.” She noted how he took temporary judicial assignments while retired from his 20 years on the bench
Judge Rodriguez was a founder of Arte Américas, and an active supporter of Radio Bilingüe, the Fresno-Torreón Sister City Committee and numerous other community organizations. He often credited his wife for his success. She had worked in a beauty salon while her husband went to law school. Like her husband, Betty Rodriguez was a founder of Arte Américas. She also a major supporter of the Girl Scouts, and Friends of the Library, and started the League of Mexican American Women’s Fiesta Navideña Fashion Show to raise scholarship funds.
“He loved her very much,” said Nancy Marquez, another founder of Arte Américas and a board member.
Betty Rodriguez died in November 2012 at the age of 83 from cancer. She and the judge were married 62 years. After her death, the judge visited her grave every day – unless he was out of town on business.
The lonely, graveside visits concerned his friends, including Angie Cisneros.
“He told me that people mourn in different ways,” Cisneros said. “He said talking to his wife and spending time with her made him feel good.”
Nephew Louie Rodriguez said his uncle drove to the cemetery every day until a doctor told him in late March to quit driving.
Because the judge and his wife could not have children, they often took their nieces and nephews on trips, Louie Rodriguez said. The trips were not only fun, but educational, he said. “He stressed education every day to us,” said Louie Rodriguez, 68, of Fresno. “He and my aunt would do whatever they could to help us achieve our goals.”
But the judge wasn’t all business; he rooted for the San Francisco Giants and 49ers and loved to play golf and listen to Mexican music, his nephew said.
For Arte América’s history project, Marquez said she interviewed the judge. She said the judge talked about how Mexican Americans worked hard in the fields, then at night gathered for dances in Fresno during the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s to raise money to build a cultural center. But the center was never built for one reason or another, Marquez said.
But Judge Rodriguez never forgot the dream. In 1987, he and his wife and others founded Arte Américas in downtown Fresno. In 2010, when the organization needed to refinance the loan on the Van Ness Avenue property, Judge Rodriguez and his wife carried the loan, Marquez said.
“We will always be thankful for what they have done,” Marquez said, noting that the Rodriguez names are in the gallery of major donors.
On the bench, Judge Rodriguez was known for being tough, but fair.
“I don’t mind hammering the bad guys. I can sleep with that,” he said in the 1995 interview.
But the judge also liked to steer a defendant away from crime. “Every once in a while you got to do something for somebody who makes a mistake,” he said.
Judge Rodriguez showed his commitment to the disadvantaged by serving on committees to train courtroom interpreters and keep filing fees and other court costs low.
In May 1984, Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp named Judge Rodriguez to a newly formed commission to enact laws against hate crimes and violence against minority and religious groups, as well against gay men, lesbians, the elderly and the disabled.
For inspiration, Judge Rodriguez had three portraits of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy hanging in his chambers. “He’s been one of my shining lights,” Judge Rodriguez said in the 1995 interview with a Bee reporter, noting Kennedy’s commitment to equal opportunity and justice. “If I had a hero, it would be Bobby.”
Louie Rodriguez said his uncle met Robert Kennedy and his brother, Ted, and had pictures taken with them.
Outside of work, Judge Rodriguez stayed busy, serving on several boards, including the Migrant Legal Action Program and the defunct Fresno Metropolitan Museum. He also was president of the Mexican American Political Association from 1971 to 1973.
In his 80s, Judge Rodriguez was still taking court assignments from Redding to Bakersfield. He quit taking them after his wife died, his nephew said.
For his tireless work, he received the Bernie Witkin Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, the Fresno County Bar Association’s highest honor.
Active to the end
Judge Rodriguez learned he had cancer about a year ago, but it didn’t slow him down, his nephew said.
In January 2016, the judge delivered an emotional speech about his wife when Fresno County named its newest regional library – The Betty Rodríguez Regional Library at 3040 N. Cedar Ave., near Shields Avenue, in central Fresno – for her tireless work in supporting children’s literacy.
In June, in triple-digit temperatures, Judge Rodriguez introduced Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to an Edison High School crowd.
Three months later, Judge Rodriguez was presented with Arte Américas inaugural Legacy Award for all of his contributions to the community and for inspiring others, said executive director Frank Delgado. Later this year, Arte Américas will hand out the first-ever Armando O. Rodriguez award to the person who shares the same qualities as the judge, Delgado said.
Friends began suspecting the judge was sick when he didn’t show up to Arte Américas on March 29 this year for a reception honoring the founders of the group. The judge was supposed to be the keynote speaker.
Once word of his impending death spread, family and friends went to the judge’s home to pay their respects.
“He had a good life,” Louie Rodriguez said. “Because he helped so many people, he will be known as one of the greatest Latino activists to ever live here.”
Armando O. Rodriguez
Born: Oct. 31, 1929
Died: April 5, 2017
Occupation: Retired Fresno County Superior Court judge
Survivors: Sisters Vicky Rodriguez, Vange Chavarria, Pearl Ferris; brother Henry Rodriguez
Services: Pending. Burial will be next to his wife Betty at Belmont Memorial Park