A testimonial to a life well lived
Feb 6, 2021
My friend and former colleague at the University of North Texas, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology G. Roland Vela, transitioned from his earthly home on Jan. 26.
Soon after moving to Denton over 50 years ago with his wonderful wife, Emma, Roland got deeply involved in the community. He understood the value of community relationships and community building. He demonstrated these values through active participation in a host of Denton boards and committees, and then, most notably, by his service as the first Hispanic elected to the Denton City Council.
I met Dr. Vela, known to his friends and colleagues as Roland, when I moved to Denton in 1975 to join the faculty of Texas Woman’s University. He was a most approachable, down to earth and unintimidating yet high-profile scholar, a cultural trait of his deep Tejano roots growing up in the oldest part of San Antonio.
In a similar experience shared by fellow academics Roberto Calderón and Gloria Bahamón, Roland was one of the first to welcome my wife, Rosemary, and I to our new community, immediately helping us to feel at home and a part of something bigger than ourselves.
As a UNT professor, Dr. Vela embodied the university’s mission, describing its faculty “as a caring and creative community (that) empowers our students and benefits the world around us.” Roland Vela lived those words through his magnetic energy, generous friendship and a high expectation of excellence.
This was further evidenced in his formal and casual interactions with his students and young emerging university scholars. He believed in people and took them under his guidance, inspiring them to achieve their fullest potential.
As a Hispanic biologist, Dr. Vela’s influence and inspiration as a role model to young Hispanics cannot be underestimated.
According to Isabella Piña Hinojosa, a longtime Denton resident and UNT graduate, “Dr. Vela encouraged me and other UNT Mexican-American students to dialogue and feel welcome at NTSU/UNT. Several students from the UNT Chicano/Mexican-American Student Organization were often invited to his home for inspirational talks that helped boost the Si Se Puede (Yes, We Can) self-confidence among the students.”
Domingo García, prominent Dallas lawyer and national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, says of his UNT biology professor, “When I ran for the Denton City Council at the age of 20, Dr. Vela provided mentoring support. He also helped many others of his former students.”
To strengthen the university’s outreach to the Hispanic community, Dr. Vela also founded the annual UNT Hispanic Conference. A highlight of this annual event was the special presentation of the G. Roland Vela meritorious award to an outstanding DFW Hispanic for “Contributions Which Foster and Enhance Education for Hispanic Students.”
The city of Denton recognized and honored the deep significance of Dr. Vela’s legacy and his contributions to our community in May 2019, when it dedicated the G. Roland Vela Athletic Complex. Through this enduring public facility, generations of children and their parents will come to know this icon of our community, who was, as the sign posted at its entrance states, a “U.S. (WW II) Navy veteran, UNT Professor, Civic Leader, Mentor, Husband and Father.”
The great author and anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” In many ways, that line defines Dr. Vela’s impactful life. He was one of those thoughtful and committed individuals with a strong sense of missionary zeal who lived up to Dr. Mead’s vision. He opened the doors of opportunity to so many individuals, and for that we are grateful and inspired.
In the Jan. 28 article in this newspaper announcing the death of Dr. Vela, his close friend, retired UNT professor Don Smith, said, “He was a very intelligent man and a fantastic bacteriologist. Roland made Denton better, and he made UNT better.”
Without a doubt, my friend also made the world better.
Dr. G. Roland Vela is in heaven now. No intermediate steps for him, for he possessed a caring heart and a giving soul. Rest in eternal peace, my friend. You’ve earned it.
Dr. Vela’s family has asked friends and colleagues wishing to contribute to the 2021 LULAC G. Roland Vela Memorial Scholarship Fund to submit a financial gift to: Angeles Muñoz, vice president for advancement, G. Roland Vela Memorial Scholarship Fund, Denton LULAC Council #4366, P.O. Box 981, Denton, TX 76201. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.