Servando 'Joe' Velarde

Obituary: Servando 'Joe' Velarde tackled race barrier in fencing

Published: Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 4B

Servando "Joe" Velarde, a career Air Force officer, social activist and noted fencing coach who broke down racial barriers in sports, died Sept. 26 of cardiac arrest, his family said. He was 89.

A disabled veteran, Mr. Velarde retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1971 with almost 25 years of distinguished service. He joined the Army Air Corps in World War II and flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 armorer-gunner in Europe. Recalled to duty during the Korean War, he was assigned to special operations and counterinsurgency and served in Europe during the late 1950s.

He was given special assignments in West Germany, Lebanon, Cuba and Venezuela during the Cold War and served with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. He received more than 20 commendations, including the Legion of Merit as chief of military-civic action programs in Vietnam in 1969-70.

Meanwhile, Mr. Velarde also taught languages, Latin American history and cross-cultural communications at Columbia University and the Air Force Academy. He coached fencing teams at Columbia and the U.S. Military Academy to NCAA championships and led a U.S. armed forces squad at international fencing games in Europe.

In a sport that rarely made headlines, he drew widespread attention when he withdrew his Columbia team from a major New York fencing event in 1949 because a black member was not allowed to participate. The action led amateur fencing officials to refuse to sanction events at venues that barred minority participants, and Mr. Velarde was honored for "ending racial discrimination in fencing" at his 2009 induction into the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame.

"They said he was moving too far too fast," said his wife, Carol. "But he said he had fought in World War II to uphold equal protection in the Constitution for everybody."

After leaving the military, Mr. Velarde dedicated himself to advocating for immigrants and the working poor. He settled in California in 1975 and was a counselor for the Center for Employment Training.

In 1984, he moved to Sacramento to be deputy director of La Cooperativa Campesina de California, a consortium of agencies serving farmworkers. He led a team of experts who published a major work on education for migrant farmworkers and was an adviser to Bill Clinton's presidential transition team in 1992.

The son of a marble craftsman, Servando Joseph Velarde was born in 1923 in Patterson, La. He spent his early years in his parents' native Cuba before moving with his family to New York in 1933.

He learned an appreciation for new ideas and diversity as a member of the first Spanish-speaking family in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. He later wrote an affectionate story about how his teen years as "The Shabbos Goy" shaped his life values that was published in the Jewish Voice in Sacramento and widely circulated. (The story is archived at

He began fencing at 13 and was co-captain of the Brooklyn College fencing team when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. He returned after the war to graduate, earn a master's degree in education and be co-captain of champion fencing teams at New York University.

He taught at Eisenhower College in New York after retiring from the Air Force and married in 1974. He was a father to six children in a blended family and was predeceased by a daughter, Dana Rortvedt.

An Elk Grove resident, Mr. Velarde was a prolific writer of letters to The Bee on education reform and human development. He lobbied lawmakers for his proposal to create a new holiday, National Immigrants Day, to celebrate immigrants' contributions to the quality of life in America.

"No human endeavor in this country has escaped the influence of an immigrant's mind," he said in 1995.

Servando 'Joe' Velarde

Born: March 19, 1923

Died: Sept. 26, 2012

Survived by: Wife, Carol Velarde of Elk Grove; sons, Servando Velarde III of Dubai and Len Velarde of Connecticut; daughters, Geraldine Collins of North Carolina, Gayle Palumbo of Greenbrae and Maria Duke of South Carolina; sister, Maria Paul of Florida; 14 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren

Services: Pending

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