is one word to characterize the career of Nelson A. Diaz: "First."
His family came from Harlem and he was the first to go to college,
graduating at the top of his class from St. John's University in 1969. Peter
Liacouras, then a Temple Law School professor, recruited Diaz to become the
first Puerto Rican student at the Law School.
"This was a time when there were no Puerto Ricans at the law firms. Peter
Liacouras told me, 'You'll love Philadelphia. Temple is right next to a
Latino community,'" recalled Diaz, now a partner in the national law firm
Blank Rome. "And he was right."
As a third-year law student in 1971, he was the first person appointed to be
special assistant for administration in the University's counseling center.
Diaz helped Temple's small but growing Puerto Rican student population.
"All we Puerto Rican students want are the same opportunities given to
everyone else," he said at the time. "I'm going to bring the counseling
center to the Puerto Ricans at Temple to help them get those opportunities."
And when it came time to speak up about the lack of minority students in the
law school, Diaz's voice was the first to be raised. Fueled by the anger and
frustration after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Diaz began calling
for a change to the treatment of poor white students, in addition to those
from underrepresented groups on campus.
"I ran the revolution against the Law School," Diaz said. He was a founding
member of the Black Law Student Association and led pickets who protested
for more black and Puerto Rican students to be admitted to the school.
Why did he stick his neck out at a time when making waves could have hurt
his chances at a future career? "I had nothing to lose. Law firms weren't
hiring Puerto Ricans, so I had nothing to lose," he said.
When he graduated in 1972, he was the first Puerto Rican ever to graduate
from a law school in Pennsylvania and the first to pass the state bar exam.
His post-Temple career has been marked by significant milestones. He was a
special assistant to Vice President Walter F. Mondale as a White House
Fellow and became executive director of the Spanish Merchants Association of
He went on to break new ground as the first Latino judge in Pennsylvania's
history and has served in numerous city, state and national posts, including
an appointment by President Bill Clinton as a general counsel to the
Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Throughout the years, individuals and groups around the country have
recognized Diaz for his leadership, inspiration and dedication. For example,
he has five honorary doctoral degrees, including one from Temple.
In 1992, Diaz began his first term as a Temple trustee. He continues to be
an advocate for underrepresented populations and wants Temple to look at the
students from Latino countries as potential University students.
Diaz also wants to make sure that everyone -- especially the parents of
potential students -- understands that today's Temple is a diverse
community, with an active and safe campus that features internationally
known programs of study.
"Temple today is a much better institution than the Temple I went to," Diaz
said. "I wish I could go to law school today."
If he could fulfill the fantasy and go to the Beasley School of Law, there
is no doubt that when the class ranking came out, Diaz would be first.
© 2005 Temple Times