GOP keynoter radiates self-help ideal
Washington — Peggy Tozer, librarian at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, N.M., recalled how back in the 1950s, Katherine Davalos Ortega worked to put herself through school. As a student assistant in the library, Katherine earned 50 cents an hour, or about $5 a week, and lived on that sum.
''She was studious and hardworking,'' Miss Tozer says. ''If one gave her a job to do, you could forget it, because she could do it and you knew she would do it.''
Others who know Ms. Ortega are equally confident that the quiet-mannered treasurer of the United States will ''do the job'' when she delivers the keynote address at the Republican National Convention Monday night. It will not have the oratorical flourish of Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, who electrified the Democrats in San Francisco. But she has a genuineness and strength of character that GOP convention planners hope will communicate itself to the American people.
It is a character forged in humble beginnings and a life devoted to diligent work and steady self-advancement. She herself speaks proudly of her Hispanic family and how it shaped her ideals and outlook on life.
''My father was the most important influence on my life,'' she said in an interview in her office at the Treasury Building. ''I find myself even today going back to my father and to his stress on self-reliance and determination.''
Born in 1887 near Bent, N.M., Donaciano Ortega grew up with other Hispanics and with Indians from a neighboring reservation. In his early years he worked in the copper and gold mines of New Mexico. By the age of 16 he was commissioned as a deputy US marshal. Later he opened a blacksmith shop, repairing tools for farmers.
After he married Catarina Davalos, also a native New Mexican, and his family sprouted, Donaciano gave high priority to educating his children. He moved to the town of Tularosa so they could attend high school. All eight of his children graduated, and Katherine, the youngest, attended college.
The Great Depression years were difficult ones for the Ortegas. The father took on extra jobs; his children helped out by selling vegetables and perfume door to door. By the early '40s, Mr. Ortega had opened a small Mexican-American cafe. The business grew and he ultimately moved it to Alamogordo. The family lived in the back of the restaurant and everyone was expected to share in the work, including Katherine. Later Mr. Ortega opened a furniture store, a successful business now run by his son Daniel.
''My father was conservative and believed in doing as much as possible for ourselves,'' says Ms. Ortega. ''He never accepted any government handouts and was a very proud individual, even though we were very poor.''
Today, as US treasurer, Ms. Ortega often touches on the theme of self-reliance and her father's philosophy as she speaks to women's and other groups. ''He preferred that we discover within ourselves the core of private sustenance, that small, clear voice that turns a crisis into an opportunity for growth,'' she said in a commencement address at Eastern New Mexico University last May. ''Work was significant not for the material well-being it might afford - bloodlines and bank accounts he dismissed as irrelevant - but for the evidence of character it displayed.''
While Ms. Ortega's father instilled a spirit of self-reliance, her mother gave the family religious values. ''My mother was much more religious than my father,'' she says. ''She made it a point that we attend catechism and church every Sunday. I am still a Catholic.''
From early years Ms. Ortega seems to have gravitated toward the world of accounting and banking. ''I remember when he owned the restaurant and she was in grade school, how she enjoyed taking the deposit to the bank,'' relates Ethel Olson, Ms. Ortega's eldest sister. ''She was always attracted to the financial part of the business.''
When she was a high school senior, Ms. Ortega worked in the bookkeeping department of the Otero County State Bank in Alamogordo. At the university in Portales she majored in business. ''She was an excellent student and a wonderful girl,'' recalls Becky Sharp, then dean of the College of Business.
After graduating from Eastern New Mexico University, Ms. Ortega, together with her sister, Ethel, founded an accounting firm in Alamogordo. Attracted to California in the late 1960s, Ms. Ortega worked with an accounting firm in Los Angeles as a certified public accountant (CPA). Later she was made vice-president of the Pan American National Bank in Los Angeles and subsequently became president and director of the Santa Ana State Bank - the first woman president of a California bank.
Family considerations took her back to New Mexico in 1978. ''My mother, who was in California, was going on 86,'' she says, ''and she talked me into returning.''
Ms. Ortega says she has had her encounters with discrimination. After graduation from college she was told she would not be considered for the best teaching job because she was Hispanic. She was refused housing in New Mexico because of her ethnic background. And she recalls how she was denied service in private clubs in California because she was a woman.
But she obviously has not let all that stand in the way of her progress. ''We weren't allowed to come home and complain that 'I couldn't do this because I'm Hispanic,' '' she says in her gentle, reserved manner. '' 'Get the chip off your shoulder,' my father would tell us.''
Tenacity often broke down the barriers. Ms. Ortega related her difficulties when applying to take a CPA examination in California. She had no accounting degree and was told she did not have the required credits in business courses. She called officials in San Francisco and insisted on going over her college transcript with them. Her application was reconsidered.
''When she sets her mind to do something, she does it and does it well,'' comments Mrs. Olson, who, as chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Otero Savings & Loan Association, has made her own mark in the business world.
For leisure, Ms. Ortega likes to travel around the world - Europe, China, South America, Mexico, Israel. In 1971, she crossed the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, a trip for which she learned some Russian. Ms. Ortega recalls that visit with amusement. It seems that one Russian asked her to send him some aftershave. She did, and he wrote back, ''Every time I use Brut I think of you.'' She smiled broadly as she told the story.
All the Ortegas, influenced by the conservative principles of their father, are Republicans. Ms. Ortega has always been active in party politics, joining the Young Republicans after college and later serving as precinct chairman in Alamogordo. As a woman and a member of the Hispanic community, she was spotted and tapped by the Reagan administration, serving on the President's Advisory Committee on Small and Minority Business and as a commissioner on the Copyright Royalty Tribunal before being appointed treasurer in September 1983.
At the White House ceremony announcing her appointment, Ms. Ortega was visibly moved, according to press accounts. ''I have often said that I was a born Republican,'' she said on that occasion. ''I am the product of a heritage that teaches strong family devotion, a commitment to earning a livelihood by hard work, patience, determination, and perseverance.''
There are no bounds to what women can achieve, she feels. ''I've seen a lot of change,'' she says. ''The opportunities are here, and they are improving for women.'' Women should get into positions of power and help each other, she adds. ''I've always been supportive of other women, because I feel I have received a lot of support.''
But her message to them - as well as men - is individual self-sufficiency and a can-do spirit, rather than reliance on government: ''It is individual risk-takers who lead us closer to the truest form of social security - more jobs , more opportunities, a higher standard of living, a greater wealth of the things which make us all part of a national family,'' she told students in her commencement address. ''I hope you will reach out to change, make it your own, use it to uncover potential where others see only problems.''
University president Robert Matheny says the speech had an impact on the students, many of whom came by after the graduation ceremony to express their appreciation, something they ordinarily do not do. ''She came across extremely well, with sincerity and credibility.''
When Ms. Ortega takes the podium Monday evening, 12 family members will be in the audience, including three brothers, two sisters, cousins, and nieces.
''We're very proud,'' says Mrs. Olson. ''And very excited.''