By Donna Parker
Ernie Valdes ’60, an English major who graduated from Trinity, has worked as a trial attorney, parole officer, and social worker, but it took the heart attack deaths of three lawyer friends to finally turn his life around.
“I was smoking, drinking, and working too hard,” he says with a smile. “So, I decided to quit that nonsense and try to fulfill a couple dreams I had put aside a few years back. When, I worked in the Trinity bookstore I had read an article in Atlantic Monthly on the Dead Sea Scrolls that piqued my interest so I wound up with a minor in religious history and thought I’d like to study biblical archeology. While I dropped the biblical part, the lure of anthropology remained. ”
Ernie journeyed to Mexico City one summer, and his hosts took him to the ancient ruins of Teotihucán that pre-dated the Aztecs by 500 years. “We were never taught anything positive about Mexico back then so the implications of these magnificent ruins overwhelmed me and pre-Columbian art became an avocation and over the years I was able to acquire some pre-Columbian pieces.”
“Right now, I’m working with the Center for Public History at UH, where I collect oral histories on the history of the Mexican Americans in the Houston area. We are also producing documentaries on the 1894 Grand Opera House in Galveston and the Camino Real that opened East Texas to Spanish and Mexican settlements in the 16th century. That road starts in Mexico City, travels through Monclova, Mexico, into San Antonio and to Los Adaes, Louisiana, arching over to Goliad and Houston.”
Ernie, a voracious reader in Spanish-Mexican history, explored the other Camino Real in his CJ-7 Jeep traveling through northern Mexico and the Southwest U.S. that runs from Mexico City, through his home town of El Paso, ending in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “On this trip, I avoided all of the freeways I could, taking old dirt roads, checking out the ecosystems of the desert, looking for pictographs, and relishing those great rainstorms up in the mountains.”
Anthropology has been a recurrent theme throughout Ernie’s life. When he was a junior at Trinity, he was a participant in Crossroads Africa 1958, which was a precursor to the Peace Corps. He and 12 other Americans spent the summer putting in a filtered watering system in a small village named Gbendembu in Sierra Leone. Two other Presbyterian colleges had sent 10 students each on Crossroads. “I asked the leader, Dr. James H. Robinson, a Presbyterian minister in Harlem, and the Director of Crossroads, to save me 10 spaces for the following summer for Trinity students. Dr. Robert Hunter, department of political science, became a sponsor and helped me recruit eight students for Crossroads Africa in 1959.
“Trinity was a great start for me. I worked on the Piaute Indian reservation the summer before and I arrived on campus with just $35 in my pocket, which was not a promising beginning, so obviously I had a lot of help. Like most students, different professors inspired me in different ways. Drs. Charles and Star Heimsath, a husband and wife team taught classical literature and philosophy; Dr. Ina Beth McGavock, English, whose husband Dr. William McGavock sent her a corsage every single day, was very supportive, Dr. Kathryn Bowen, classical history and languages was a woman for the ages. Dean Marion B. Thomas was a fantastic person, and perhaps the most supportive of all was the university president Dr. James W. Laurie.”
Looking back on his life, Ernie believes his greatest achievement has been lending a hand to others.
“My life has been little peaks of helping people wherever I could, particularly when it came to saving them from deportation, when I worked within the immigration system. The elemental things like family (wife, three children, and three grandchildren) are the most important. I was always there for my kids. In life, you have to seek the essence of what is really important and focus on that.”
You can e-mail Ernie at email@example.com.