Judge Armando O. Rodríguez achieved many firsts in his lifetime – in politics and on the bench – but his biggest accomplishment, according to those who eulogized him during 2-hour funeral mass Thursday morning at Holy Spirit Catholic Church was his devotion and love for his wife of 62 years, Betty.
“Armando loved that woman more than anyone I have every seen love a spouse,” said U.S. Chief District Judge Lawrence O’Neill during a 14-minute eulogy. “He clearly spoke about the fact that without Betty, he would not have succeeded.”
O’Neill and Angie Cisneros, a longtime friend of the Rodríguez couple, spoke about the judge, his wife and their love for each other, their Mexican culture, and an emphasis helping the community. The burial mass for Betty took place at the same northeast Fresno church four years ago.
Armando, the ninth of 12 children who spent his early years living with his family in a railroad boxcar, will be buried next to Betty at Belmont Memorial Park at 11 a.m. Friday (April 21).
Fresno State will fly its national and state flags at half-staff on Friday in memory of Rodríguez.
“He later admitted that she made him expand his views, focus on greater horizons and elevate his goals,” said O’Neill, who served on the Fresno County bench with Rodríguez. “He claimed that with her he had a second set of eyes, and a second set of ears to perceive the truth.”
Rodríguez died April 5 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 87. He was the first Latino lawyer in Fresno County, but was forced to open the first California Rural Legal Assistance office in Madera because no one in Fresno would rent him space.
Rodríguez went on to become the first Latino elected to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, and later became the first Latino to serve on the Fresno County Municipal Court and later its Superior Court. He retired in 1995, but continued to fill in as a visiting judge throughout California.
Deacon Eduardo Valdez, who helped Msgr. Patrick McCormick with the mass, recalled meeting Rodríguez at a political convention at the old Del Webb Center. Valdez was then 22 years old and living in Castroville.
I can tell you that people asked me more than once if I thought Betty would be jealous because I spent so much time with him. I found out that she would invite me to do things (with the judge) because she needed a few hours to go shopping.
“I had never met a Mexican attorney. I didn’t even know they existed,” he said to laughter. Valdez returned home and told his wife he wanted to become an attorney.
“I believed in myself that I could be an attorney,” said Valdez, who later moved to Fresno and opened a law practice. “Armando was a mentor, a role model, a man of honor, and a man of dignity.”
Valdez said Rodríguez could be as comfortable eating a taco on the westside with a farmworker as he could eating “filet mignon at a country club.”
“He would call them all friends,” said Valdez, who called his friend “a pillar of the community,” a fighter, a pioneer, a political activist, a humble man, “a man for all seasons,” a mentor and a role model.
“We could look to him and know we had a man who could represent us, and he represented us,” said Valdez.
Cisneros, who spent many hours golfing with the judge or in meetings.
“He was a person I enjoyed spending time on the golf course or on any given Saturday watching HBO boxing, or just lunch,” said Cisneros, a retired Fresno State worker.
“I can tell you that people asked me more than once if I thought Betty would be jealous because I spent so much time with him,” said Cisneros. “I found out that she would invite me to do things (with the judge) because she needed a few hours to go shopping.”
Cisneros said Rodríguez got involved with the Mexican American Political Association in its early years because “he believed that in order to make positive changes in our community, it would be through the political process.”
Later, political officials from U.S. Senators to local officeholders, would call upon Rodríguez for advice.
O’Neill praised Rodríguez for his legal work.
“He witnessed hate during his lifetime, but he chose the opposite to live. And he witnessed exclusion, yet he chose inclusion,” said O’Neill. “He saw rejection, and he grasped at acceptance. He saw deprivation, but he chose charity instead. And he saw a great deal of injustice in this world; and, instead of becoming a victim to it, he chose justice as a profession.”
O’Neill recalled the first time he met Rodríguez in early 1980.
“I looked at him, and I said, ‘Judge, I understand that you are of Irish descent.’
“Sir, I think you’re mistaken. What gave you that impression,” was the judge’s response.
“Isn’t your name Armando O. Rodríguez?” replied O’Neill.
“Armando realized he had been set up. He gave me one of the many boyish smiles we are all familiar with, that made him look like he was 10 years old,” said O’Neill.
After that meeting, the judge would call O’Neill “Irish, until the day I was appointed and he stopped.”
“I didn’t like the fact that he stopped,” said O’Neill. “Judges don’t call each other by title. They call them by nickname.”
Rodríguez told him, “No. It’s a matter of respect.”
“He had respect with his positions. He had respect for anyone who held that position.”
Of all the awards that Rodríguez earned, O’Neill said the Ohtli Award given by the Mexican government was the one his friend cherished the most.
Cisneros spoke about her friend’s appreciation for his heritage.
“He had tremendous pride in his Mexican heritage,” said Cisneros. “He loved everything about being a Mexican American. He loved the culture.”