Gilbert Martinez had a plan when he graduated from Tooele High School in 1965: Go to law school and become a lawyer someday. But when he stepped inside his high school guidance counselor’s office days before graduation to share his aspirations, his idea wasn’t met with enthusiasm.
“The counselor looked at my grades and said, ‘You’ll never make it to the University of Utah. You’ll never make it to law school,’” Martinez recalled. Like many other young men in that era, he skipped college to join the military, signing on to the U.S. Marine Corps with his brother instead of enrolling in school.
In 1966 he shipped out to Vietnam with the 3rd Marine Division, an experience that sent him on several operations with platoons in his company. While out in the field at war as a young corporal, he had a revelation, thinking back on the discouraging words from his high school counselor.
“I realized I would never let anyone discourage me again,” he said.
Martinez returned from Vietnam and aimed to complete his college goals. He applied to the University of Utah, but his high school grades were too low at first. He spent two years at Salt Lake Community College and successfully transferred to the U, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1975. With stronger academics as a college student, Martinez went on to complete law school at the U, attending from 1975 to 1978.
There weren’t many familiar faces when Martinez arrived at law school. In 1975, he was one of 13 ethnic minorities admitted to his class. He was the only one to stick it out, with other minorities dropping out along the way.
“There were no study programs, outreach initiatives, etc. available for minority students from different backgrounds,” Martinez said. “It was basically sink or swim. You either made it or you didn’t.”
Martinez credits three professors —John Flynn, Ed Firmage and Alfred Emery—for providing mentoring that helped Martinez navigate the unfamiliar territory of law school. It was among the first time teachers had invested time in helping him develop as a professional, he recounted.
“Nobody ever helped me. I had to go to Vietnam. I had to fight for this country. But it wasn’t until these three law professors came along, that someone took the time to help me,” said Martinez. “They really took me by the hand and acted like big brothers to me. With their assistance, I made it through law school.”
Martinez went on to become a successful attorney and later a judge. After law school, he was appointed by former Gov. Scott M. Matheson as the Utah’s first Latino ombudsman. He worked for the Worker’s Compensation Fund of Utah, served as the attorney for the Employer’s Reinsurance Fund and was a longtime administrative law judge, a profession that at one point brought him to New Mexico to work as a judge in the Social Security Administration’s Office of Hearings and Appeals. He later came back to Utah to work as an administrative law judge at the Social Security Administration in Salt Lake City.
His personal experience as a minority in law school inspired him to recently provide the first generous donation to the S.J. Quinney College of Law for the naming of the new Admissions and Inclusion Suite, designed to be a welcoming gateway to law school for the minority student community.
With so few resources dedicated to minorities during his own education, Martinez said he’s hopeful the new suite —unveiled in August 2016 —will help others better connect with resources and a community to assist them in excelling through law school, a path that for many is travelled alone as the first in their family to pursue a higher education.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if when building the new law school, we had something that would welcome minority students into the law school. That they would see something that would say to them, ‘This law school is welcoming me in here.’,” said Martinez. “That they would know that it’s not a sink or swim situation and that there are people here to help students.”
He also helped to inspire other donors to give to name the suite. In addition to Martinez, donations from Sam Alba, Jane and Tami Marquardt, Robert Marquardt, Ken Okazaki and
Cecilia M. and Ross I. Romero were vital to launching the idea. The law firm Jones Waldo also contributed significantly.
Dean Bob Adler said the inclusion suite will build on the law school’s goal of focusing on diversity initiatives. About a year and a half ago, for example, Adler formed the Dean’s Diversity Council—a group of professionals and community stakeholders dedicated to recruiting minority applicants to the law school and assisting with job placement after graduation.
“Given that the very first contact that potential law students have is with the admissions suite, we thought it would be a wonderful space in the building that shows we are open, and inclusive and trying to diversify,” Adler said. “We are very grateful to all of our donors who helped to make this happen.”