The event, which featured State Controller John Chiang as keynote speaker, attracted close to 100 Democrats from Stanislaus and Merced counties, including former Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres, who has made few local public appearances since leaving office in 2003.
Local Democrats noted that Azevedo served as Cuellar’s mentor in the 1970s, and they said he shared Cuellar’s humble spirit and his dedication to public service.
“John is literally an institution in this community,” proclaimed West Side Democratic Committee member Sheree Lustgarten, who organized Monday night’s dinner.
The Cuellar family accepted the award on Azevedo’s behalf, as the nearly 92-year-old former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army could not attend because of an illness. Before that happened, organizers listed off a litany of Azevedo’s accomplishments.
Azevedo’s military career included serving in Europe during World War II and later being assigned to the Occupation Forces in Japan where he became special staff to General Douglas MacArthur. He also served in North and South Korea after the Korean War. He reached the peak of his military career as a lieutenant colonel, heading up the mail service for the U.S. Army and Air Force during his second stint at the Pentagon.
His civic service included serving on the Patterson City Council, cofounding the city’s beautification committee with Cuellar, and becoming one of the founding members of the Patterson Township Historical Society. Jeff Lustgarten noted that Azevedo preserved many of Patterson’s archives over the years and served as longtime curator of the city’s historical museum.
Like Cuellar, Azevedo is reluctant to receive acknowledgment for his service, West Side Democratic Committee representatives said. And just as Cuellar mentored several local residents for community service, including Mayor Luis Molina, Azevedo served as a mentor for Cuellar among others.
Reached by phone at home on Tuesday, Azevedo exhibited his typical self-effacing demeanor.
“I didn’t expect anything,” he said regarding the award. “I haven’t done anything that anyone else hasn’t done.”
He gave kudos to Cuellar, who he described in a video on display during Monday’s event as “a great American.”
That video presentation also included recent video footage of Azevedo and footage from last year of Councilman Cuellar, who died of a heart attack in January. Members of Cuellar’s family were visibly moved by the video, which included interviews with several prominent local residents — including Molina — about Cuellar’s legacy.
One of Cuellar’s sons, Sergio Cuellar, wiped tears from his eyes during the presentation, telling attendees later that he did not expect to see his father on the video. He recounted how Azevedo had pulled him aside one time when he was younger and told him that his father was a great man. He urged attendees to follow his father’s example by “giving people access to the American dream” and engaging the younger generation.
Cuellar’s widow, Reyes Cuellar, said after Monday’s dinner that she had mentioned Azevedo as a possible recipient for the award when committee members asked for her input.
“Sam thought the world of him,” she added.
Former Congressman Condit, who came at the invitation of his former chief of staff Mike Lynch, considered it providential that he came to an event in which Azevedo and Cuellar were honored, noting that the local leaders were two of the first people he met in Patterson.
“They’re great examples of citizenship,” Condit said after the event. “We need more people like John and Sam that can serve without fear.”
Condit said he lives part time in Arizona and Stanislaus County these days, noting that he has not missed voting in an election here.
The former congressman left his office amidst a flurry of controversy in 2003, following an investigation into the disappearance of his intern Chandra Levy, with whom police said he had a romantic relationship. Condit never admitted to the affair. While police questioned Condit regarding Levy’s disappearance, Salvadoran immigrant Ingmar Guandique was ultimately found guilty of Levy’s murder, and was sentenced to 60 years of imprisonment earlier this year.
Despite past political challenges, Condit received a good deal of applause when his presence was noted Monday. Azevedo said Tuesday that he was glad to hear Condit was at the dinner, saying that he had known the leader since the beginning of his political career. He worked hard on behalf of his constituents, Azevedo said.
Other prominent attendees at Monday’s dinner included Adam Gray and Lesa Rasmussen, who are both running for the 21st District Assembly seat, as well as Mayor Molina, Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh and Turlock City Councilwoman Mary Jackson.
Chiang spoke for about 20 minutes during the dinner, emphasizing the need for citizens to educate themselves on financial matters, as he rattled off facts about and figures about the state budget.
He noted that the state has had a deficit since July 12, 2007, with statewide unemployment skyrocketing to 12.5 percent during a three-month period late last year.
He said he thinks education, access to capital and infrastructure challenges are the top three issues that need to be resolved to fix the economy. In terms of education, he noted that about a quarter of white and Asian fourth-graders cannot read at a fourth-grade reading level, while about half of African-Americans and 60 percent of Latinos cannot achieve those goals.
“That’s immoral,” he said. “You should never leave the younger generation behind.”
Chiang also discussed the devastating impact of the economy on the real estate market, which is normally the first industry to pick up during a recession but this time is the last.
The state economy – and the U.S. economy in general — is more closely linked to foreign markets than in the past, he said, which he cited as another challenge.
He stressed that Californians should work to leave the state in better condition for future generations.
Gordon Barbosa, chairman of the West Side Democratic Committee, said he got positive feedback about Monday's event, including Chiang’s speech.
“I thought it was a good speech; it was very honest,” Barbosa said. “I told one person, ‘That’s kind of depressing-sounding, isn’t it?” he added with a laugh regarding Chiang's description of the current state of state finances.
The local Democratic committee plans to solicit input from the community at large for another Sam Cuellar Community Service Award recipient next year. This year, committee members selected Azevedo for that honor.
“We were looking for someone with the same values (as Cuellar), but who didn’t want the accolades,” Sheree Lustgarten said during the presentation.
Azevedo was the perfect fit, she said.
• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187 or email@example.com.