Ogden • It began slowly: A few teenagers found their way over to the judge, seated in a low, cushioned chair in the student union of Weber State University.
They crowded around him, asking the judge to autograph copies of the book they were just given: “No One Makes It Alone,” a memoir by Judge Andrew Valdez.
On each copy, he wrote detailed notes, words of encouragement, support. He called the students “mija” and “mijo,” Spanish terms of endearment that mean “daughter” and “son.”
In a matter of moments, the line multiplied.
Hundreds of high school students gathered, clutching copies of the paperback, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of Valdez.
His Wednesday speech at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Summit at Weber State was one of the judge’s last public appearances before he retired Friday after 20 years on the 3rd District Juvenile Court bench.
“In a starving country, a sandwich is a hero,” Valdez said over his shoulder as more students rushed forward, books extended. “These kids are starving for encouragement, for someone who looks like they do, who can tell them, ‘You can do it, too.’ ”
It’s a message he has championed for decades both in and out of the courtroom, said Valdez’s friends and family.
“He spends an incredible amount of time interacting with kids,” said Deputy Court Administrator Ray Wahl. “He felt like having a mentor made a world of difference in his own life and, to some extent, his focus as a judge and as a member of this community has been a way to pay back for that and what it did for him.”
On the corner • The story of Valdez’s youth has been retold so many times, it has become near-legend among Valdez’s colleagues, supporters and admirers.
It always begins in the same place: the corner of 200 South and Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City.
Valdez was 8 years old when he began spending his days on the corner, selling newspapers, shining shoes, doing anything he could to make a pocketful of change to bring home to his mother.
His mom, a single woman who held down three jobs to care for her four children, was rarely home. She didn’t have time to emphasize the importance of school as much as she did the necessity of survival.
Valdez, a self-described “poor Latino kid from the west side,” never dreamed of going to college or becoming a judge. He never even knew those things were possible.
“Life was tough,” Valdez told an audience of more than 900 high school students this week. “My world was nine blocks — from my house to that corner. I’d never even been east of State Street.”
One day, everything changed.
He was 11 by then, selling papers among the afternoon foot traffic when a man walked by, already carrying that day’s edition. Valdez recognized him — he passed often. Always with a newspaper firm in his grasp.
“Sometime buy one from me,” Valdez called out to him. “You never buy one from me.”
Years later, the now-62-year-old man acknowledges, “I was a mouthy kid.”
The man turned to look at the boy, small and skinny, even for his age. The next day, he bought a newspaper.
In the years that followed, the man, Jack Keller, taught Valdez to play tennis. He took him to the University of Utah on his first-ever visit to a college campus. He gave him a job, got him off the streets, and allowed Valdez for the first time to dream of his future beyond a life of selling newspapers on the street corner.
“Jack took me out of that nine-block world,” Valdez said. “I started to dream. I started to think, ‘I could have this. This could be mine, too.’ ”
‘His kids’ • Several years ago, Valdez sentenced a 12-year-old boy to juvenile detention for carrying a gun to school.
The boy was unapologetic, convinced that the gun gave him power and respect — the kind that would protect him on the streets and afford him the life he wanted.
In an effort to change this, Valdez paid him a visit.
When he arrived at the juvenile lockup, the boy was led into the room by a guard. He was handcuffed, his legs shackled.
“I asked him what he needed the gun for, and he said, ‘It gives me power, man. When people see me coming down the street, they cross to the other side. That’s respect,’ ” said Valdez, recalling that he told the boy:“That’s not power. That’s fear.”
Valdez ordered the guard to release the boy’s hands. He asked that they open the door and allow him to walk the kid outside.
The officers complied.
“You see that?” Valdez said, looking at the boy. “That’s power. That’s respect. You live in a room as big as a couch, and your world is getting smaller and smaller. If you don’t do something, you’ll never have this kind of respect.”
The boy broke down, Valdez said. He told him that his father was in prison. His mother was working three jobs to keep food on the table.
“That boy was just like me,” Valdez said. “He was just like I would have been if I didn’t have Jack.”
After he was released from detention, the boy was paired up with a mentor. He went on to earn his high school degree and graduate from trade school. He never went back to prison.
It’s not an anomaly, Wahl said. It’s how Valdez treats all of the kids who come into his courtroom.
“He calls them his kids,” Wahl said. “Judge Valdez is a champion for children.”
In the mid-1990s, Valdez started a mentorship program in 3rd District Court that pairs juveniles with volunteers. It’s known as “The Village Project” — a nod to the age-old axiom that it “takes a village” to raise a child.
“Over the course of his career, Judge Valdez has made a big difference in the system and in literally changing how it operates in the interest of kids who go through juvenile court,” Wahl said. “He’d rather work himself to death than worry about whether or not these kids are getting the kind of care and attention they need.”
This need to give back, to help children who face the same struggles he did as a boy, began when Valdez was still a student himself.
Alex Pacheco, an old college friend who attended the U. with Valdez in the 1970s and now works as an assistant administrator at Tooele High, said the two conceived an outreach program for Mexican-American youths through a group Valdez founded in college, called the Chicano Student Association.
“He was always the one who told me, who told all of us, that you can be anything you want to be,” Pacheco said.
Valdez did just that.
He went on to serve in the U.S. Army before graduating from the U.’s law school in 1977. He became a public defender in Salt Lake City, representing the accused in high-profile cases for more than 15 years. He was appointed to the bench in 1993.
Hope for the future • When Valdez retires, there will be just four minority judges left on the juvenile court bench throughout the state.
And the total number of judges of color in all state courtrooms — from juvenile to district to the Supreme Court — will fall to eight out of 112 judges.
It’s important, Valdez said, that children from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds see that people like him, the man in robes doling out sentences and making decisions, can look just like they do — “brown skin, brown eyes, brown hair.”
“When I go to the U, there aren’t too many students who look like me,” Valdez said. “When I go to the prison, there are a lot of people who look like me. I don’t think that’s lost on these kids.”
In the two decades that Valdez presided over juvenile court proceedings, he saw children suffer abuse and neglect. He saw kids as both victims and perpetrators of violence.
And more than anything, what Valdez hopes to leave the children who come through his court with is hope.
“I’ve got a folder full of a success stories and a desktop full of obituaries,” Valdez said. “But when you can take someone by the hand and help them, when they’re reaching out, you’ve got to take that hand. That’s what someone once did for me.”
It’s an open secret that Valdez gives out a dollar for every A grade “his kids” receive when they present their report cards to him in court.
Valdez, who has four children of his own, said he likes working with children for the hope that they bring. It’s what he saw this week, as he gazed into the faces of the dozens clamoring for his signature on the inside cover of their books.
“He must be really famous,” said one student, in wonder, eyeing the line of teens and the journalists gathered nearby, taking photos and notes.
“Maybe I should become a judge,” said his friend, puffing out his chest and laughing as the two joined the line.
Valdez doesn’t plan to “fade into the woodwork” with his retirement.
He will continue to advocate for children and plans to apply to serve as a senior judge, who fills in when other judges are unavailable or have a conflict of interest.
Valdez smiled at the line of students, as he took another teenager’s book.
“Last one!” he called out, then signed at least 50 more.
“He can’t help himself,” Pacheco said, grinning at his old friend. “He just can’t say ‘no’ when it comes to helping kids.”