Nelson Valdés, a janitor-turned-UNM professor emeritus, was honored with the Bernard S. Rodey Award, given to professors who exemplify leadership in education.

UNM professor Howard Waitzkin, a colleague of Valdés, said the award was well deserved.

“Nelson is one of UNM’s very best teachers,” he said. “He’s a very highly regarded faculty member among students and also many of us, his colleagues. He’s influenced the lives of probably hundreds of UNM students in a very positive direction.

“He’s a very supportive and very helpful mentor for students … For those efforts, which have been tireless efforts, he’s very appreciated.”

Valdés created the Latin America Data Base, a collection of more than 28,000 articles taken from Latin American newspapers and journals, which brought more than $2 million to UNM. He was a part of the creation of the University’s Latin American and Iberian Institute.

Valdés was born in pre-revolutionary Cuba, and was sent alone to the U.S. at the age of 15. He said his story is not one of rags to riches, but he was “lucky” to have a private school education in Cuba. Valdés first began working at UNM as a janitor in 1962.

He attended school while working, but he said work-study did not exist at that time.

“I was a regular janitor who also took some classes,” he said.

Valdés received his doctorate in history and sociology in 1978 and was hired as a professor in 1991. Valdés said his own history influenced his decision to study sociology.

“Imagine a revolution going on in the country of my birth, the civil rights movement in my adopted country,” he said. “I was the product of two cultures.”