Longtime Tucson city manager, UA VP Joel Valdez dies at 87
'The definition of a civil servant'
Joel D. Valdez, whose name graces the Main Library in Downtown Tucson, was the city manager of his hometown for 16 years, and then a University of Arizona vice president for two decades. Valdez died unexpectedly Wednesday at age 87, his family said.
"He was the definition of a civil servant," said his son, David Valdez. "He worked selflessly. He did everything he possibly could to make Tucson better, to make someone's life better."
In addition to his leadership atop Tucson city government and a senior UA post, Valdez is remembered for his championing of bilingual services in the local library system.
"He was delighted that they named the library after him" in 2002, David Valdez told the Tucson Sentinel on Thursday. "That's where his father learned how to speak English, in the (former) Tucson main library Downtown — so he was attached to that."
Valdez began his career in government working for Pima County as a juvenile probation officer and then superintendent of detention services. After nearly a decade, he joined the city, working in the library system.
In 1970, he began working within the City Manager's Office — and was appointed as Tucson's top administrator in 1974.
Valdez was city manager until 1990, focusing on capital improvements, libraries, and pushing a $300 million bond election in 1984. He also touted Tucson's Hispanic culture, including food and music, to the world, through such efforts as serving on the board of the Tucson International Mariachi Conference. He set up a scholarship fund for Los Changuitos Feos in 1964, his son said.
After retiring from the city, he was quickly recruited by UA President Henry Koffler to be vice president for Business Affairs. The next UA president, Manuel Pacheco, made him a senior vice president. Valdez retired from that post in 2010.
At the university, Valdez guided the construction of the Student Union Memorial Center, the Integrated Learning Center, and numerous other projects that changed the face of the UA Mall.
Born in 1934 in a house across the street from St. Augustine Cathedral, Valdez was a 1951 graduate of Tucson High School, where he played baseball, and earned his UA bachelors of science degree in 1957. Later, he studied at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1972), and Harvard University's Senior Managers in Government Program (1978).
"He had a good, funny side about him that a lot of people don't know about," David Valdez said. "They know about him giving a stern look at things when he was in public office."
"But he loved to joke, loved classical music and of course mariachi," David Valdez said.
"He so often gave credit to someone else" for the public projects he worked on, Valdez's son said. "'I don't need the public to know about that. Those who know, know,' he said."
Valdez was a registered independent, David Valdez said, "and really treated everyone equally." During his career across posts with the county, city and university, Valdez had to navigate dealing with high-powered figures from both the Republican and Democratic parties, and was "loved so much by pretty much everyone."
During his long career, Valdez held national positions on the United States National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, National Academy of Public Administration, International City Management Association and the White House Conference on Balanced National Growth and Economic Development, as well as board posts with the UA Foundation, the Catholic Diocese of Tucson, Tucson Medical Center and the evolving public library system.
In 2011, Valdez had a stroke, which required months of intensive care and then rehabilitation. He had another stroke in 2014, and had been using a wheelchair in recent years. His son told the Sentinel that his death Wednesday was "totally unexpected."
"He woke up as usual, was cheery and happy. Then he complained about a pain in his side, and suddenly he took his last breath," David Valdez said.
"He never complained, I never saw him depressed" after his stroke, David Valdez said. "He would read the news to keep abreast of what's going on in the city, and loved watching Westerns on TV."
"He was a giver," his son said. "He went out of his way to help anyone who required assistance. He would say, 'You reach down and pull someone up.'"
Joel Valdez was preceded in death by his wife, Mary Lee Valdez, in 2020. He is survived by son David (Karen) and their children Joel and Katrina, daughter Lisa Maish (Randy) and their sons Ryan, Kevin and Andrew, as well as two brothers, George and Alex.
Services are pending.