2002 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Treat people the way you would like to be treated."
Katherine Ortega, the youngest of nine children, was born in 1934 in Tularosa, New Mexico. Her father once worked as a blacksmith, repairing farm equipment and tools for local farmers. Later, he opened a small restaurant in Tularosa. He moved his restaurant to Alamogordo during World War II to be near the Holloman Air Force Base.
Katherine Ortega loved her large family. Her parents were kind and hard working. "Everyone in the family was required to help with the work at hand and was told not to sit down until the work was finished," says Ortega. By the time she was in the third grade, Ortega was working in her father's restaurant waiting on tables, running errands to the grocery store or bank, and working in the kitchen. Soon, she discovered that she enjoyed working.
Ortega's parents wanted their children, especially their daughters, to be independent and self-sufficient. Her father believed it was important to be educated and able to take care of themselves. He told his daughters that if they were not treated well by the men they married, he wanted them to be able to feel they could leave and make a good living on their own. Ortega took that lesson to heart and became fiercely independent.
An avid student, Ortega graduated in the top 10 percent of her class. Throughout high school, she had worked part time for the local bank, and continued working there full time for more than two years to save money for college. Once she entered Eastern New Mexico University, she wasted little time in earning her degree. She graduated in less than three years with a degree in business and economics. During her time at Eastern, she worked in the library; she worked for her hometown bank during vacations and holidays.
Ortega's goal was to become a high school business teacher, but her faculty advisor told her she would not be hired because she was Hispanic. Rather than pursue teaching, she joined her sister and brother in their accounting business in Alamogordo and later accepted an accounting position with an independent oil operation in Roswell, New Mexico. In 1968, wanting new opportunities, she moved to California to live with one of her sisters.
Ortega became an accountant for a small public utility company that had just opened in California. She became a certified public accountant and worked in the tax department of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. Later, she served as vice president of the Pan American National Bank of East Los Angeles. She became the first woman president of a California bank, the Santa Ana State Bank, and was appointed by President Reagan in 1981 to serve on the Small Business Administration Committee for Small and Minority Businesses. In 1983, President Reagan appointed her the 38th Treasurer of the United States, a position she held until 1989.
When asked about her success in business and public service, Ortega says, "I define success as being happy with myself and accomplishing those things that are important to me. I do not think success has to mean an accumulation of wealth. Getting the best education possible should be a priority for young people. Also, I tell youth not to be afraid to work hard. You should always be willing to go the extra mile."
Ortega says that following her father's advice of treating people the way she would like to be treated has always served her well. "He also taught me to do a job well or not at all, and to be positive in my thoughts and deeds." The Horatio Alger Award is, according to Ortega, one of the highest honors she has received. "There are so many unsung heroes in our country," she says "The media would do well to provide us with more positive accounts of such individuals and I believe the Horatio Alger Association is doing a superb job in this regard."