Victor Vasquez was born in Texas. He’s been around the world: to Guam, to Turkey and plenty of places in between for work. But as the 2020 Hermiston High School Distinguished Alumnus, he’ll always consider Eastern Oregon his home.
“I do believe that Hermiston has produced a lot of really good leaders. Even now, Hermiston behaves like a village,” he said. “I always tell people I’m from Hermiston.”
Vasquez was born in 1949. His father, a World War II veteran from Mexico and for some time a single parent, took up migrant farm work to keep their family afloat. It took Vasquez and his siblings all over the Pacific Northwest.
And when their father landed a job at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, they enrolled in the Hermiston School District. Vasquez was a first grader.
“They called us monolinguals. I didn’t know a single word of English,” he said.
He may have started his education speaking only Spanish, but credits the school district with teaching him to speak and read English at an early age.
“I had absolutely no accent. That really comes from some of the early education I got,” he said.
Vasquez was far from a star student back in high school.
“We were relatively low-income. I worked when I was in school,” he said. “I didn’t excel.”
But he said that’s one reason why he was so honored to received this year’s Distinguished Alumni award at the Distinguished Citizens Awards early February.
“You can’t judge yourself by how you’re doing in high school,” he said.
Vasquez didn’t, and it brought him a long way.
Nearing graduation in the late 1960s, his school counselor urged him to head to trade school instead of a university.
But Vasquez wanted to go to college, like his art teacher had encouraged him to do. He just wasn’t sure how to afford it. So he joined the military in the midst of the Vietnam War.
“It was quite a risk for anyone to volunteer then,” he said. “But when you don’t have money it’s the only option.”
He served for two years, and was honorably discharged after the then-president of Blue Mountain Community College wrote a letter requesting it, which allowed Vasquez to gain his associates degree. He focused in on getting good grades.
After he got his bachelor’s degree at University of Oregon, Vasquez eventually attended the Kennedy School of Harvard to study organizational development.
He said initially, the school sent him an invitation to apply but he didn’t take the opportunity because he thought finances would be an issue. Eventually, an administrator convinced him.
“It wasn’t something I planned on. It was in front of me, and I ended up taking it,” he said.
From there Vasquez’s professional success bloomed. For six years, he worked for the State of Oregon, including under Governor Barbara Roberts doing work with rural counties. Later, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton as a deputy administrator for the USDA and again to serve as a deputy assistant secretary under the Department of Defense.
Vasquez takes the word “servant” in public servant quite seriously.
“How much can I do while I’m here?” he asks.“We’re only there temporarily. This is something that’s been granted to us, we’re here to serve.”
During his time with the USDA in the 1990s, he spearheaded economic development programs for rural areas.
His proudest accomplishment from the job was launching the Rural Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Communities program.
“I worked in some of the poorest communities of the country. It was grassroots economic development,” he said. “ In a lot of areas we reduced the poverty level, it was very impactful.”
After some time outside of Washington D.C, he was appointed as deputy undersecretary for USDA Rural Development in 2009, by President Barack Obama.
He remained in the position until he fell in love and got married to a woman in south Texas in 2011.
“When you’re in love you’ll do anything. She didn’t want to go to D.C,” he said. “So I went to Texas.”
Vasquez started a consulting firm there. And while he still lives in Texas today, he’s currently taking on a role as interim director of a Salem-based organization called MERIT, which aids people in small business development. He lives with family in Keizer.
Vasquez has plenty of positive Hermiston memories. He has only missed two high school reunions, and can still remember when Main Street got its first street light. But he said that growing up, he faced his own challenges and for that he has advice for young Hermistonians.
First and foremost, stay in touch with family.
“Whether you believe it or not you’ll get a lot from your family,” he said.
“People aren’t always welcoming,” he added. “Don’t let it affect who you are. When you need help, ask for help. Pay attention to the lessons you’re learning now.”
Vasquez, from the Class of 1968, will give a keynote speech at the Hermiston High School Graduation on June 4 this year.