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From farm worker to U.S. ambassador, Phillip V. Sanchez’s life was ‘American dream’

Phillip V. Sanchez, who became the highest-ranking Hispanic official in the administrations of presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan as a U.S. ambassador and assistant director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, died Monday night in his hometown of Fresno. He was 88.

The Mexican American man embodied the promise of the American dream in his journey from poverty to prosperity as a leader in government, business, education and publishing.

Family said he died at Healthcare Centre of Fresno due to complications from a head injury from falling several years ago at an orphanage in Mexico that he founded and funded.

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“His ways were frank and open and the well-traveled road to his heart was straight and unobstructed,” says friend Elvin Bell, a former Fresno City Council member, mayor pro tem and retired Air Force colonel. “His whole nature invited friendship and affection. And he met it more than halfway.”

Mr. Sanchez’s first job was picking cotton alongside his farm worker mother in Fresno County after his father abandoned the family when he was 6 years old.

“When I think of my mother,” Sanchez once told The Bee, “I always have a picture in my mind of a woman who, with seven children, was left husbandless and wandered off, children trailing behind, to work in the cotton fields and grape vineyards. She didn’t even speak a word of English.”

Adversity didn’t keep him from excelling. He graduated from Clovis High School, Coalinga College and Fresno State. While in college, he joined the Army National Guard in the lowest enlisted position. He rose from that rank to colonel in the Army Reserve – the first ever to make that ascent, Bell said, and also served in the Army. He had more than 40 years of military service.

He went on to become chief administrative officer of Fresno County in the 1960s and a board member for Clovis Unified School District before being appointed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, and then to the California State University and Colleges Board of Trustees. Mr. Sanchez also has a Fresno charter school named after him; was president and founder of the first Sigma Chi Fraternity chapter at Fresno State; and was a trustee of National Hispanic University.

“My father was one of those people who tried his best to help Hispanics achieve. … He grew up very, very poor,” said son Mark Sanchez, “sometimes not having anything to eat. He just didn’t want that for anyone else. He wanted to help people achieve their dreams.”

In the early 1970s, Mr. Sanchez ran unsuccessfully for the 15th Congressional District seat (which then covered parts of the central San Joaquin Valley) and then was appointed assistant director of the Office of Economic Opportunity by President Nixon. At that time, the office had a budget of $400 million and a nationwide staff of 262,000.

“Now I will take on a constituency which is a labor of love,” Mr. Sanchez said of his appointment. “I’ll be working with low-income people and minority people in particular.”

After Nixon dismantled the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1973, Mr. Sanchez was appointed ambassador to Honduras, making him one of the first Spanish-speaking U.S. ambassadors to a Latin American country. His ambassadorship, contrary to popular opinion, Mr. Sanchez said, was not a plush government job. Hurricane Fifi killed thousands in Honduras when he was living in the country, several U.S. ambassadors were assassinated around the time he served in his post, and an American was shot and killed in his embassy office.

Under President Ford, he was transferred in 1976 to ambassador of Colombia, where he served until President Jimmy Carter recalled him in 1977.

“He was among the first Hispanic leaders that made a mark not only here in Fresno County, but in Washington,” says Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, “and had a very successful career in public service.”

Fresno State President Joseph Castro said Mr. Sanchez “made Fresno proud by representing our country with distinction and integrity.”

“And while his travels took him all over the world,” Castro wrote in a statement, “he never forgot his roots. He was a role model not only for Hispanics, but for every person who aspires to public service. He was a diplomat in the truest sense of the word.”

In a 1983 column in The Bee written by Mr. Sanchez titled, “Hispanics in the mainstream: access and opportunities,” he talked about some of the challenges of being among the first Latinos to hold public office.

“America is known as the land of challenge and opportunity,” Mr. Sanchez wrote, “but for many of us the challenges abounded while the opportunities were scarce … We have been frustrated, at times, by human foibles: the stumbling blocks of prejudice, the barricades of misunderstanding and the detours of disenfranchisement.” He also shared a dream for a better tomorrow “in which white man; brown man; black man; red man; pink, green and blue man, have learned to live, love, laugh and work in friendship.”

Friends and past news stories describe Mr. Sanchez as an honorable, trustworthy, intelligent, engaging and reliable self-starter, trailblazer and proven leader with a quick wit.

“Even his political detractors describe him as a charming man with the ability to poke fun at himself,” wrote one reporter in a 1980 story in The Bee, “a man with an incredible capacity for hard work.”

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand wrote in a statement Tuesday that he mourned the loss of Mr. Sanchez: “He was truly a great man and my prayers are with him and his family at this difficult time.”

Friend Chuck Sant’Agata remembers him as the “warmest, kindest person you’d ever want to meet … He cared about everyone and everything and did his utmost to help everyone.”

Still, Mr. Sanchez’s time in government wasn’t free from controversy. As assistant director of the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, he was criticized for slowness in granting aid to farm workers put out of work by a killing 1972 frost, and his decision to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1970 to run for Congress caused a strain between himself and many Mexican Americans.

After his time as an ambassador, he returned to Fresno to briefly run once again for Congress before deciding to focus on developing a consulting business specializing in representing corporations doing business in Latin America. That work kept him from accepting an appointment in 1980 as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in President Reagan’s cabinet. Mr. Sanchez said he turned down the offer after speaking with a member of the Conflict of Interest Council, who told him he would need to give up his business interests to go back into government.

Later in his life, he served as publisher of The New York Tribune and Noticias del Mundo, and president of CAUSA USA, a faith-based educational organization that denounced communism.

Two months after 9/11, he returned to Fresno to retire.

“My heart has always been here and always will be,” Mr. Sanchez said in an interview for a 2014 story in The Bee.

Mr. Sanchez was also a charitable man with a heart for helping children, in particular. As an ambassador, he and his late wife, Juanita, helped get a number of orphans in Honduras placed with American families – including their own with the adoption of daughter Kristina. They later founded an orphanage in Mexico and funded it for 25 years.

Friend Brad Fischer says Mr. Sanchez made people feel comfortable: “He always made you feel like you were talking to your neighbor. That man had no arrogance.”

Bell recalls a man who “studied seriously, spoke articulately, wrote fearlessly, debated rationally and concluded intelligently.

“How Phil made a positive difference in the lives of so many people are heart-warming reminders to all of us that there is no expiration date on honesty, integrity and patriotism.”

Daughter Dorrine Orosco said her father was a “wonderful person – all the way to the end.”

“Even when he could barely talk, he always would tell us he loved us,” she said. “He was just a very loving person, and very giving. He’s going to be missed terribly by all of us.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Phillip V. Sanchez

Born: July 28, 1929

Died: Oct. 16, 2017

Residence: Fresno

Occupation: Former U.S. ambassador, assistant director of the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, Fresno County administrative officer, and businessman

Survivors: Children Mark Sanchez, Cindy Elmo, Randy Sanchez, Phillip Sanchez Jr., Dorrine Orosco and Kristina Sanchez; sisters Celia “Sally” Kuhn and Lillie Mayorga; numerous grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Memorial service: Tentatively set for Oct. 27 in Fresno. Arrangements are being handled by Farewell Funeral Service in Pinedale.

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