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Alumni Spotlight: Mendoza Family

Manuel Mendoza, dedicated husband, student, soldier, and counsel was Washburn Law’s first Mexican American graduate

Margot and Manuel Mendoza

(Margot and Manuel, '57, Mendoza)

From the School of Law Alumni Newsletter - Fall 2021
By Jeremy Wangler

Manuel Mendoza, ’57, didn’t find a job after earning a business degree in 1954 from Baker University. Spending the summer unemployed led him and his future wife to a decision that changed their future family’s trajectory for the better.

“By August, he was thinking maybe, if he didn’t find a job, he would see if he could get into law school,” said Margot Mendoza, Manuel’s girlfriend at the time and later wife and mother of their three children. “We thought, ‘It couldn’t hurt.’”

Manuel Mendoza made a trip to Washburn University School of Law and met with Dean Schuyler Jackson, BA ’27. After declaring his intentions, Mendoza passed a test, and Jackson admitted him. He worked through law school, was an Army reservist, married Margot after his first year at Washburn, and welcomed their first child the month he graduated. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, he was the first Mexican American graduate of Washburn Law.

“He never mentioned feeling different at Washburn as a minority,” said their son Marcos Mendoza, ’89. “I think he was glad that there have been more minority students taking advantage of the study of law at Washburn since he began his journey.”

Growing up in Independence, Kansas, Manuel played junior college football after high school. He then sought a four-year college to continue his education and football career – making sure education came first. He gave up a chance to play at an NCAA Division I school because, “These people are really serious about football, and I wanted an education,” as Margot recalled. He decided on Baker, where he met Margot, a fellow Mexican American student. They hit it off and were together for 59 years.

While at Washburn, Manuel worked overnight at the state hospital and fulfilled his Army Reserve commitment, spending a weekend a month in Ottawa, Kansas. He also delivered groceries for a local market – the family still humorously recalls the intersection where groceries fell out of his truck. At the hospital, he was required to account for every sharp medical object in his ward before he could leave his shift in the morning, meaning sometimes he would be late for his 8 a.m. class.

“My father mentioned how accommodating and helpful the professors were,” Marcos said. “They would save a seat near the door so he wouldn’t disrupt the start of class if he was a few minutes late because of his work. They knew it was difficult to work nights at the hospital, study, and attend lectures, so they helped him when they could.”

Manuel and Margot married after his first year of law school. Their first child, Noëlle Mendoza was born the December he graduated. He started working for State Farm Insurance in 1958 in Wichita, beginning a 43-year career that brought the family to the company headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois. He retired in 2001 as a senior counsel. Manuel passed away in 2015 at the age of 84.

All three children followed in their parents’ footsteps and attended Baker. Marcos and his sister, Lisa Mendoza, ’84, took it a step further and earned law degrees at Washburn. Lisa remembers struggling her first week as a law student, but her parents’ encouragement helped her stay enrolled.

“I called my parents and said, ‘I really don't want to do this anymore,’” she said. “They reminded me that if you get an education, that's something no one can take away from you. It can be the foundation for everything else you want to do.”

She stuck with it and has spent her career using her degree to help and serve others. She’s currently an assistant attorney general for the State of Kansas.

Marcos remembers he wasn’t the best student, but his professors helped him along the way. He’s now paying it forward to current Washburn Law students as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor, teaching Insurance Law online. He’s also a scholar in residence at the University of Connecticut School of Law and an assistant director and counsel for a risk management fund that serves public school districts in Texas. He was recently honored by the Education Law Association with its Goldberg Award for Distinguished Scholarship for his 2020 law review article about civil rights claims against public school districts.

“It is a big honor, but it wouldn’t have been possible without my time at Washburn and the support of my family,” Marcos said. “Washburn encouraged me to give others a chance to grow at their own pace and in their own context. Everyone at Washburn gave me the benefit of the doubt, and I’ve tried to do the same in my career.”

If Manuel had not received similar treatment back in 1954, their family might have gone on a different path. Manuel and Margot started a scholarship at Washburn – the Manuel B. & Y. Margot Mendoza & Family Law Scholarship – to support students with financial needs. “As the years went on, the more we could see how the population was shifting and the Hispanic, the Mexican American, the Spanish-speaking population was growing, and we decided it made enough difference for everyone to have a decent education,” Margot said. “We had an obligation to help open that door for others.”

Lisa remembers a story of the dean giving her father a $500 loan during his final year of law school, hoping Manuel would quit one of his jobs and focus on his studies. He didn’t end up quitting, and he had the loan paid off within months of passing the bar exam.

“What stuck with me is the perseverance, the hard work, and that you just have to do what needs to be done in order to succeed,” Lisa said. “Everything my parents did, they were trying to pay it forward to give other people an opportunity like they got when dad was going to law school. He wanted to make sure other people could take advantage of that opportunity too. Instead of focusing on himself and moving along and pulling up the ladder behind him, he pulled people up the ladder.”

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