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Legacy of Love, Family, and Heritage: The Manuel Valdez Jr. Story

An American labor shortage created during WWI sent recruiters of the Rock Island Railroad deep into the heart of Mexico to find hard working young men to do the grueling work of building their railroad track.

When asked what is Mr. Manuel Valdez Jr.’s legacy, his children agree it is love; love of family and community.

An American labor shortage created during WWI sent recruiters of the Rock Island Railroad deep into the heart of Mexico to find hard working young men to do the grueling work of building their railroad track. The Valdez brothers answered the call. Before making the move, Manuel Valdez Sr. and Guadalupe Sapien married in 1919 in the city of La Piedad, Michoacan, Mexico. Then Jesus Reyes and her children Juan, Guadalupe, and newlyweds Manuel Sr. and wife, Guadalupe, left their families and friends far away in Mexico to build a life in West Des Moines, Iowa in America.  The Valdezs built a life and raised their families in Valley Junction. Manuel Sr. and his brother, Juan, worked for the Rock Island Railroad as many Mexican immigrants did for nearly 80 years. As employees of the Rock Island Railroad, they lived with their children in the boxcar community known as Hyde Park named after the superintendent of the railroad company. Eventually, Mr. and Mrs. Manuel Valdez Sr. bought a home south of the railroad tracks near Fifth Street in Valley Junction. Later they bought a home at 116 12th Street where they raised 13 children. Manuel J. Valdez, Jr. was born on June 9, 1928, the first born son to Guadalupe and Manuel Valdez, Sr.

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The Valdez children had a full and happy childhood. They always played outside on the southside of the railroad tracks and enjoyed swimming in the river with brothers and friends. Thirteen children were great playmates and also shared everything. In their modest home the children slept in two beds, one for the girls and a bed for the boys. The Valdezs were rich in family and love and focused on all they had, each other. The older sisters would care for the younger children. And Manuel Sr. was always singing and smiling; a characteristic his first born look-alike adopted.

Growing up in the Junction afforded the opportunity to make many friends. The uniqueness of the Valley Junction community was that race did not determine relationships. Manuel Jr. often relived the story of walking with friends and happening to come upon an apple orchard. They would stop and “barrow” some apples. Manuel was proud of his roots in Mexico and Valley Junction. 

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Manuel Valdez grad 1948
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Manuel and Helen Valdez wedding 1950
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Julie Tony Vicky and dad Manuel
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Manuel’s story

Manuel often described a childhood filled with family, sports and music. At Valley High School, he excelled in football as quarterback, basketball, and track receiving many accolades for his performance. There was no baseball in high school so after graduation Manuel, brothers, and close friends created a team. The West Des Moines Mexican Eagles fast-pitch softball team was the team to beat! Manuel Jr. was a proud member and  played first base. Brother Jess Valdez was the fastest pitcher in the area. The Eagles played at Birdland Park in Des Moines.They traveled for tournaments as far as Omaha which was a major accomplishment then! 

Although they may have been friends as young children playing in the neighborhood, it is guessed that Manuel met the love of his life at Valley High School. In 1948 Manuel Jr. graduated from high school and two years later he married Helen Salgado. Shortly after Manuel Jr. answered the call to serve his country during the Korean War. He enlisted in the army for 2 years. He didn’t see any combat as he was stationed in Whitehorse, Alaska. The unit served as a road survey crew. They would test out large new equipment. After two years, he returned home. The birth of his son, Tony, kept him home to care for his newly growing family. The new parents moved to 3rd Street and Railroad in 1955-66. Later they moved to 13th Street and Vine in West Des Moines as their forever home. 

Manuel took the wartime skills he learned operating heavy duty machinery and utilized them throughout his career at Marquette/Monarch Cement Plant. He loved his job. Work friends were like family. The co-workers would play pranks, tease, and eat lunch together. John Long was a best friend at the plant and in the community. Many lifelong friendships were developed there. 

Sports were important, but music played a valuable role in Manuel Jr.’s life too. His love of music and first guitar were gifts from his father. Manuel Sr. loved to sing and play the guitar. The legacy of singing to his children, which later multiplied with births of his daughters Vicky and Julie, was kept alive in Manuel Jr. He loved filling the house with all kinds of music and adored his albums. It was not unusual to hear the vinyl of big bands, Mexican music, and even country music filling the house. In the early days, he created and played in a band called The Manuel Valdez Orchestra. Manuel played with family and friends in several bands where they spent many years entertaining at United Rubber Workers Hall, Vittoria Lodge, churches, weddings, dances and family events for those in the Mexican community looking for, as he called it, “good music you can DANCE to”. Local Italian and Mexican dances brought a crowd with the MVO rocked the stage.  Manuel Jr. was popular in the Des Moines Mexican music community and had his own band that included his brother Darrell on trumpet and later his son Tony and nephew Vincent.

With music came singing and dancing. Manuel Jr. loved to dance! A lively cha-cha swept Manuel and Helen around the room and out on the town. You couldn’t keep them off the dance floor of the Val Air Ballroom. He kept dancing right into his 90’s. Growing up all of his kid’s friends loved to watch them dancing. Mr. and Mr. Valdez would go out dancing and last longer than the young kids. Dance was so important as a family past-time that it became a playful criteria for a good son-in-law. Criteria showed up in suitor conversations. Can he dance and is he a Hawkey fan were at the top of the list of questions.  

Love of music is truly a family trait. Creating music was passed down to the Valdez children. Vicky learned to play guitar while Julie played the flute in elementary school.  It seemed though that Tony got the lion’s share of the musical talent. A lot of the music his dad, Manuel Jr., loved influenced the type of music played in the Tony Valdez Large Band. Initially the dads were supportive in booking the gigs. Tony’s musical skills began to truly shine his Freshman year at Dowling, and soon Manuel Jr. was driving boys and instruments all over as the manager of the Echos V. From the first notes coming from the basement of the Valdez home to the 3 groups Tony plays with today, Manuel Jr. and his brother in-law Sal Salgado could be found most of the time, front and center, whenever Tony was playing. He always had a song in his heart and could be heard humming or singing wherever he went. 

Yes, music was important, but we would be remiss to think Manuel Jr.’s love of sports ended in high school. He was an avid and loyal sports fan and had favorite teams in many sports to include the Iowa Hawkeyes, the Chicago Cubs, Chicago Bears and in his later years the Dallas Cowboys. He also loved any team his children or grandchildren were part of and coached baseball and softball for many years. 

When asked what is Mr. Manuel Valdez Jr.’s legacy, his children agree it is love; love of family and community. He loved his family and was surrounded all through his life with much reciprocated  love and support from all those who knew him. Manuel was truly committed to his family, worked hard to provide for them, and was very devoted to wife. The Valdez children wanted for nothing as Manuel Jr. supported his children in school, played with them, and coached them.  All three children attended Sacred Heart and Dowling High School. His daughters believe he was ahead of his time in caring for his family. 

In an era of strong gender family roles, Manuel Jr. was a renaissance family man. He would come home from work before his wife and cook dinner so it was ready for her when she arrived home from work. He dusted and vacuumed as well as mowed the lawn, He thought he could fix everything (even if he couldn't). He was the “Uncle” that everyone wanted for their own. He was a devoted family man who always had a story to share about his kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews, and was especially thrilled to learn a great-grandchild is expected in November. 

The Valdez family didn’t have much, but he gave all he had. Even as Helen’s health waned in 2004, he took care of his lovely wife for several years until he couldn’t care for her himself anymore. Helen Valdez passed in 2010 with her husband’s love as tender as it was in its conception sixty years prior.  They exemplified what a beautiful marriage should be. Their faith kept them in the tough times and bolstered them in good times. Yes, beyond music, another legacy left for the Valdez children is how to be a good partner and good parents.Today  kids are close because of him. They still hang-out together and live in the same city. 

Manuel Jr. was proud of his Mexican American heritage. This manifested in music and faith as previously mentioned, as well as hard work, family, and food. He earned and passed on the Mexican hard work ethic. “We had to work harder and do better. Nothing is given to you,” you could often hear him imparting wisdom through encouragement.  “Your family are your friends,” was constantly reinforced. He was very protective due to some of the prejudice he faced. So he ensured that family was considered friends too. Even still, Manuel Jr. made friends and family with all people. Manuel Jr. knew everyone. He was known for caring for neighbor’s yard and in later years being a neighborhood handyman. In his later years, he sat on the porch and the neighbor ladies would bring him food to thank him for his care. Manuel Jr. felt good about his neighborhood, caring for it.

Finally, the Mexican legacy was to be consumable.  The cooking of Mexican food became a true labor of love for his daughters. Hele was an excellent cook, and it was hard for her daughters to live up to her culinary skills. After her passing Manuel Jr. became his daughter’s food critic. They would work hard to make the perfect Mexican sopa, but he always had some adjustments to make. His favorites were enchiladas with spice and sopa. So many batches of Mexican rice went “out the window” until they got it right according to Manuel’s taste. 

Manuel J. Valdez, Jr, passed away Thursday, June 3, 2021, just 6 days before his 93rd birthday. He died peacefully in his sleep at the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Julie and Kelly McCarty, where he had stayed this past year during the pandemic, yet his heart and his roots never left Valley Junction. We hope you can join us to celebrate Manuel's life.

Valdez children: Tony (Eileen) Valdez,  Vicki (Tom) Hallman, Julie (Kelly) McCarty, Valdez Grandchildren: Heidi Valdez (Larry), Aaron Valdez (Deanna), Nick(Kate)Hallman, Cal McCarty & Corey McCarty;

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1948

Manuel graduated from   Valley High School

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1950

 

Manuel married Helen Salgado.

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1951

Manuel enlisted in the army for 2 years where he was stationed in Whitehorse, Alaska.

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1951-1963

 

Manuel and Helen started their family including a son, Tony and two daughters, Vicki and Julie.

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1955

Manuel's growing family moved to 3rd Street and Railroad

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1966

 

Manuel and Helen moved to their forever home at 13th Street and Vine in 

Valley Junction.

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Started career at Marquette/Monarch Cement Plant

also known as Hawkeye Cement.

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Founded and played in a band called The Manuel Valdez Orchestra.  Later, he played in the Tony Valdez Large Band with his son. 

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2010

Manuel cared for his wife Helen Valdez until her passing.           

They were married for 60 years.

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2021

Manuel passed away 6 days before his 93rd birthday. He died peacefully in his sleep at the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Julie and Kelly McCarty, where he had stayed this past year during the pandemic, yet his heart and his roots never left Valley Junction.

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Today

All three of Manuel’s kids live in the

same city and continue his legacy including cooking and sharing Mexican food including Manuel’s favorite enchiladas with spice and their

perfected sopa!