Richard Cervantes Alvarado, who helped resettle 15,000 war refugees in Vietnam, transformed and democratized the United Way’s investment process, and spent his life mentoring nonprofit leaders and building community from the San Antonio barrios to the American Civil Liberties Union, died on Jan. 21, 2013. He was 72.
He is survived by his sons, Christopher and Marc; his brother, Rodolfo and his wife, Elvira; his younger sister Marina and her husband Raul; his younger brother John, and his wife, Melody; six nieces and nephews and his former wife, Hanh Alvarado.
(Scroll down to replay the webcast of his Jan. 26 memorial service and see remembrances from family and friends)
“Dick touched and improved community,” said José Antonio Contreras, a friend and colleague. “He frequently saw what most others could not yet perceive, finding possible in the improbable.”
Alvarado came to the task without pretense, armed with an infectious laugh, a boundless ability to listen and a passion for people and community service.
“Richard’s love for this community and developing leaders with integrity was contagious,” said Don Arispe, who considered Alvarado a role model and a mentor.
“His art was in people,” said his son, Christopher. “People were his canvas.”
Alvarado’s work transformed countless organizations, including the Texas and national American Civil Liberties Union and United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County. But his unassuming manner left many unaware of how deeply he changed the world for the better.
Richard Alvarado was born on May 27, 1940, in a four-room house on Salinas Street on San Antonio’s West Side, the son of John and Amalia Cervantes Alvarado. He was the grandson of Ernesto de la Garza Cervantes and Natalie de la Garza, who fled Mexico for San Antonio during the Mexican Revolution.
Known as “Dickie” to his close-knit family of aunts, uncles and cousins, Alvarado spent his youth playing at his grandfather’s ranch on Luckey Road between Southwest San Antonio and Lytle. As a young teen, he worked with his grandmother in the grocery store she built and ran on Salinas Street near Zarzamora and West Martin Streets.
At home, two doors down from the store, “He would go to bed at night with a flashlight so he could read a book,” recalled his brother, Rudy.
It was a lifelong affliction, said his son, Chris. “He had a phenomenal weakness for buying books.”
On graduation from Central Catholic High School as a National Merit Scholar in 1958, Alvarado received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, but was disqualified from serving because of his eyesight.
Instead, he went to Texas A&M University where he was a member of the Corps of Cadets and majored in History and Government. There, Cuban-born history professor Armando Aranda encouraged him to join the U.S. Foreign Service, according to a 1986 article in the San Antonio Express-News.
After graduating from A&M in 1962, Alvarado spent a year teaching American and World History to high school juniors and seniors in Edgewood Independent School District .
In 1963, he joined the Federal Civil Service with the Social Security Administration.
In January 1964, he switched to the Foreign Service and was sent by the State Department to the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, where he became Vice Consul and Political Officer. In 1966, he became Vice Consul of the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece, supervising the non-immigrant visa section.
He volunteered to go to Vietnam in November 1967, and became an advisor on emergency relief to the Vietnamese Ministry of Social Welfare and the Province Chief of Darlac Province in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. He earned the rank of Second Secretary of Embassy and United States Consul.
Alvarado’s role was to move people away from the fighting and to try and find them safe haven, his son said. In his time in Vietnam, he wrote plans for emergency relief and resettlement of war victims and helped resettle more than 15,000 refugees.
He was not a combatant, but the war came to him.
On Jan. 30, 1968, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive against South Vietnam and the United States. “He was caught in the U.S. Embassy and had to fight off the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive,” said his brother, Rudy. “He didn’t talk about that much.”
For his work with war victims and with the Montagnard tribesmen of the Central Highlands, the Vietnamese government awarded him the Vietnamese Social Welfare Medal and the Vietnamese Ethnic Minorities Affairs Medal. He also earned the U.S. Department of State Medal for Civilian Service in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, he met Hanh, a Vietnamese national who also worked with refugees though Caritas Viet Nam, a relief organization under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam. She and her family were also refugees of the war.
In December 1969, the two were married in the Bishop’s Chapel of the Chancery in Vietnam. He told his brother the State Department asked him to choose between continuing with the Foreign Service or marrying Hahn. Alvarado chose Hahn, resigning his diplomatic commission and returning with her to Texas.
In February 1970, Alvarado accepted a fellowship at the inaugural class at the Lyndon B. Johnson Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
After completing the fellowship, Alvarado worked for more than two years as an executive with the Economic Opportunities Development Corporation, the Community Action Agency in San Antonio.
Alvarado made his most sweeping mark on the nonprofit world after he joined the United Way of San Antonio in 1974.
He established a system to measure results, and before the end of 1975, his division completed the first-ever quantitative review of the programs of each United Way member agency.
He Introduced personal computers, developed the first computerized inventory of social services in San Antonio and oversaw the United Way’s first priorities plan.
“He played a pivotal role in transforming the way United Way of San Antonio invested contributors’ dollars, dramatically increasing the number of donor-citizens who participated in the fund distribution process,” said José Antonio Contreras.
Alvarado’s cousin, Julius Garcia, remembers first hearing about the changes at the United Way. As then-President of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1367, Garcia was called to a large meeting in about 1984.
The unlikely collection of people in the room included representatives of San Antonio Real Property Management at Lackland Air Force Base, Fort Sam Houston, Kelly Air Force Base, union representatives of the American Firefighters Association, Civil Service Management, among others.
At the time, Garcia recalled, some were skeptical about the United Way, and how it allocated donations and whether the agencies were held accountable.
To Garcia’s surprise, the man who walked out to present the United Way’s case was his cousin, Dick.
Alvarado explained that the United Way had implemented standards for accountability. That in order to get funding from the United Way, agencies were required to report the results of their work and show what good they had done with the money. Moreover, people who donated funds to the United Way were now asked to select the agencies they wanted their money to go.
Funds would no longer be allocated by a small group of wealthy people, but instead, hundreds of San Antonians from all walks of life would participate. Alvarado pledged that hundreds of volunteers would participate in the allocation process.
The diverse crowd, which included union and management, enlisted people and officers, private sector and government employees, embraced the plan.
“I was mesmerized by his ability to bring people together,” Garcia said.
Only after Alvarado’s death in 2013, did Garcia learn his cousin had authored the new accountability program. “I thought he was just the pitch man,” Garcia said “I had no idea he was a mover and shaker without ever taking any accolades for it.”
Alvarado’s visionary system “became a model for the United Way, nationally,” said Leslie Schockner, a colleague who counted Alvarado as a lifelong mentor. “The idea was that people who donated should know what good their money is doing.”
Beginning in 1988, Alvarado held the rank of Vice President at San Antonio’s United Way. He developed collaboratives with governmental agencies, colleges and universities and the business community, according to a two-page biography he wrote in 1991. He went on to create community initiatives to provide health care to the homeless, identify and support families at risk of becoming homeless, and programs for the prevention, treatment and control of alcohol and drug abuse.
“He was always trying to figure out how to make the system do good,” said Schockner, “a system to meet human needs.”
In May 1991, Alvarado was appointed Executive Director of the United Way of El Paso.
“I was blessed with a call from Dick one day, inviting me to lunch where I was surprised to learn that he’d be leaving,” said José Antonio Contreras. “He’d requested the meeting to urge me to apply for his position at the United Way. I am thankful that he did, and for having succeeded him.” (Read more from Contreras here.)
In El Paso, Alvarado learned to cook, said his younger son Marc, who moved there with him. “He would get recipes from cooking programs on TV or recipes from the newspaper. He loved using herbs and including them in his cooking.”
Marc was a young teenager at the time. “I remember him trying to teach me how not to be a jerk,” he said. “I’ve always had something of a temper, and Dad would say: ‘You got it from me. But the important thing is to know that you have it and try to be better than it.’ “
By 1995, Alvarado had increased and strengthened the participation of Latinos in the United Way of El Paso, and he raised $20 million in four annual campaigns, according to his resume on LinkedIn.
Alvarado returned to San Antonio and became the Director of Consulting Services for the Nonprofit Resource Center of Texas (now the Center for Nonprofit Support, a division of the San Antonio Area Foundation.
Rose Mary Fry, who was the Executive Director of the Nonprofit Resource Center at the time, said she hired Alvarado because he was “a very talented and very dedicated person who understood the nonprofit sector.” He was a good listener, and down to earth, making people feel at ease. At the same time, she said, “he had a view of the world that was beyond Texas, and to me, that was always real helpful.”
In 2005, at 65, Alvarado left the Nonprofit Resource Center. But he didn’t stop working.
“He was really crappy at retiring,” said his son Christopher. “His ‘retirement’ meant working with just the organizations he wanted to work with.”
When Don Arispe came to Alvarado for guidance in his new position as Director of Community Leadership Development at St. Mary’s University’s 21st Century Leadership Center, Alvarado put together an innovative Leadership Learning Community.
“It was a group of veteran community leaders who were willing to come together regularly to help provide me guidance -- essentially an advisory board,” Arispe said.
“In exchange for their guidance, I would coordinate/facilitate lunch forums for/with them,” he said.
The formal outline for the Leadership Learning Community called for quarterly luncheon seminars to be led by an innovative guest presenter. As planned, the three-hour seminars were designed to “emotionally inspire and intellectually challenge senior community leadership developmental practitioners, academicians and activists.” The idea was to collect and archive “invaluable local community leadership development wisdom.”
Alvarado brought the community full circle, by “identifying up-and-coming young leaders and bringing them to our center’s attention,” said Arispe.
On another front, Alvarado’s lifelong interest in civil rights and civil liberties had drawn him to the ACLU of Texas.
The ACLU of Texas board held a strategic planning retreat in 2003, and invited Alvarado to facilitate the discussion becase of his background. "It was love at first meeting," the board said in its resolution honoring him.
He helped the group develop a long-term strategic plan, and soon joined the ACLU of Texas board. In 2005, the state affiliate elected him as its representative on the national Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 2007, Alvarado stepped down from the boards to be Interim Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas while the group searched for a new leader. Instead of just a couple of months, the job lasted the entire year. In 2008, Terri Burke was appointed Executive Director, and Alvarado returned to the boards.
"He mentored me and he also helped the Texas ACLU board be a more professional board," Burke said of Alvarado.
With his help, the Texas ACLU was transformed. In 2000, the organization had one paid staff member; today it has a paid staff of 15 people.
In 2011, the national nominating committe asked Alvarado to run for an at-large position so he would be in a better position to help with its own strategic evolution. In the election, Alvarado was the top vote-getter in the country.
In a Jan. 26 statement honoring Alvarado, the national board members said:
"For the last four years, Richard served as the conscience of the ACLU's governance committee. In that process, as in his service to the national and affiliate boards, Richard was a strong but gentle warrior whose grace, compassion, and wisdom benefitted the entire ACLU family. He made us wiser and better people and stewards of the ACLU. We are all much poorer by his loss, but richer by the lessons and example he set for all of us." (Read the full statement here)
Alvarado's son Christopher, an urban planner, also serves on nonprofit boards in Cleveland, Ohio where he has lived for 15 years.
Christopher said he and his father often discussed nonprofit philosophy and the critical questions: “What is your mission? Who are you serving? What are you trying to achieve? How do you do that?”
Alvarado believed that if a nonprofit could not fulfill its mission, if, despite its best efforts, it could not put ideas into practice in a way that could be responsibly reported to funders, then it needed to be dissolved. He would work with the nonprofit and figure out how to have other groups absorb the work, and then “ease this organization out of being,” his son Christopher said. “It was almost like being put in hospice.”
One organization Alvarado worked tirelessly for in his un-retirement was the Edgewood Family Network, whose corps of bilingual promotoras were health care advocates for people in the poorest neighborhoods. The promotoras were from the neighborhood and had the community’s confinanza, or trust, and could navigate the intimidating world of doctors and medicine.
Arispe served on the Edgewood Family Network Board of Directors with Alvarado during some difficult times, from 2008 to 2011.
“During that period I got to see up close just how genuinely dedicated he was to motivating, inspiring, and mentoring grass-root leaders that others had written off long ago,” said Arispe.
“When our Executive Director was unable to continue leading the organization, Richard threw his hat in the ring and did all he could do to save the organization despite his failing health. He did it without ever asking for a dime.” (Read more from Arispe here)
Among the things Alvarado’s sons found in his home was a copy of Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Social Sins, hand-written on an index card. They are:
- Politics without Principle
- Wealth without Work
- Commerce without Morality
- Pleasure without Conscience
- Education without Character
- Science without Humanity
- Worship without Sacrifice
“He wasn’t one for organized religion,” said his son Marc. “But he had a certain faith in humanity that fed into everything he did. He found spirituality with family, with his work and with gardening.”
Even with gardening, he sought purpose, said Marc.
“Dad didn’t really care for a flower unless it produced a peach.”
From the family: To honor his legacy, in lieu of flowers, please make memorial contributions to Healthy Futures of Texas, 2300 W. Commerce St. #203, San Antonio TX 78207 and the ACLU of Texas, P.O. Box 8306, Houston TX 77288.
Among the boards Alvarado served on were:
Healthy Futures of Texas, the ACLU of Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union, The Youth Orchestra of San Antonio, Health Care for the Homeless Coalition Board, Target ’90 Health and Human Service Council, the Edgewood Family Network and the Children’s Association for Maximum Potential.
He was also a member of the San Antonio AIDS Consortium, the Alamo Area Council of Governments’ Regional Health and Human Services Advisory Committee, the Funding Information Center – Management Assistance Program Advisory Committee, the Injury Control Project, the United Way of Texas, the Imagineer Awards Committee, the NPAC Fund Distribution and Public Policy Development committees, Nonprofit Resource Center of Texas.
NOWCastSA webcast the memorial service for Richard Alvarado on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013.
You can replay the video from the service here. The program begins a 22:50. Marc Alvarado plays Ashkoten Farewell for his father beginning at 24:00.
- Dick Alvarado, by Jose Contreras
- Richard Alvarado, big shoes to fill, by Don Arispe
- American Civil Liberties Union resolution for Richard Alvarado
Editor’s note: Richard Alvarado was helping NOWCastSA Managing Director Charlotte-Anne Lucas navigate the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status under the IRS code when he fell ill. He had insisted on providing his guidance at no charge.