His life ended in 2012, but friends and admirers say Vernon Valenzuela's legacy lives on.
The Kern Community College District Board of Trustees voted unanimously Thursday, after an impassioned request by three advocates, to approve the naming of a planned veterans center at Bakersfield College in honor of the longtime advocate and supporter of those who served in the nation's military.
Air Force veteran Randall Dickow, a local attorney and longtime friend of Valenzuela, was one of those who spoke in favor of naming the building the Vernon Valenzuela Veterans Resource Center.
"There is no person more deserving of this honor than Vernon, who always placed service over self," Dickow told the board at the meeting held in Porterville attended by about 30 people.
According to Dickow and Paul Beckworth, faculty director of veterans services at BC, the meeting was extraordinary for its passion and outpouring of feeling.
"It was one of the most emotional days of my career," Beckworth said.
One of the trustees, former Bakersfield Congressman Bill Thomas, was friends with Valenzuela when the young Vietnam veteran was a student at BC and Thomas was an instructor.
"He recalled Vernon coming to BC as a student and Vernon's passion for getting things done," Beckworth said of Thomas' remarks. "Very powerful stuff."
"He was a little choked up. We all were."
Dickow also met Valenzuela for the first time at BC, when they were members of the Associated Veteran Students. Valenzuela had joined the Marines in 1966 and returned home from Vietnam in the late 1960s after being wounded in combat.
The young man's experiences had awakened in him a deep concern for the many veterans who struggled after coming home. He would go on to earn a degree in counseling, which he used in his lifelong pursuit to help and advocate for the rights of veterans, especially those who suffered from PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Valenzuela became active at the state and national level with the Vietnam Veterans of America and other veterans organizations. He lobbied in the nation's capital for veterans benefits and for the recognition of the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange as a cause of grave illness in veterans who were exposed to it. He even returned with a recovery team to Vietnam to bring home the remains of U.S. servicemen.
Jenny Frank also spoke at Thursday's meeting. The veterans advocate has worked since the beginning at the Bakersfield Vet Center, the veterans support organization Valenzuela was instrumental in founding in 2009.
No one, she told The Californian not long after her friend's passing, has done more for military veterans in Kern County and across the country.
Many in the veteran community considered Valenzuela the godfather of veterans' causes, she said.
The resource center, which is slated to be opened in November 2019, isn't the first structure named in Valenzuela's honor. In 2013, a section of Golden State Highway — from F Street to Q Street — was designated "Vernon P. Valenzuela Memorial Highway."
It's been six years since Valenzuela's death, but his story is not over, Beckworth said.
"One of our veteran education advisers at BC, Armando Trujillo, was mentored by Vernon," he said. "Now Armando mentors the next generation of vets.
"Vernon is still with us," Beckworth said. "His legacy lives on."