A familiar face at the Bee County Clerk’s Office for four decades, Torres died Sept. 19 at the age of 84.
“She did 40 years of service in that office,” said her daughter, Diana Salazar.
“We had a good working relationship,” said one-time County Commissioner Victor Salazar. In spite of the fact that they were members of different political parties, he said she always had his respect.
“Nobody could beat her,” Salazar said. “If she wanted to continue working, she would never be defeated.”
It was that job, being in charge of the county clerk’s office, that kept Torres going, her daughter said.
Born Julia Villarreal, the daughter of Juan and Francisca Villarreal, Torres graduated from A.C. Jones High School in 1948. She was in the same class as several others who made a mark in Bee County.
That same year, she married José Medina Torres, and after her first child, Diana, was born, Torres went to work for Carlos Reyes B. in his accounting office.
“He hired her as his assistant,” Mrs. Salazar said. “I think those were the only two jobs she had” – working with Reyes and then in the county clerk’s office.
José was working at the Beeville Coca-Cola plant at the time, driving a truck for Truman Gill.
José continued to drive a truck the rest of his working life, first for South Texas Materials and later for Santos Jaramillo.
It was in 1962 that Torres was hired by Hazel Parchman as one of the clerks in her office.
Parchman apparently recognized talent when she saw it, and within a short time she started grooming her new employee to replace her when she retired.
“Of course, it was Mrs. Parchman who taught her everything,” Mrs. Salazar said. When Parchman decided it was time to step down, Torres ran for the office and took the reins in 1975.
“I believe that she was the first Hispanic to be elected to a countywide office,” Mrs. Salazar said.
Right away, she proved herself to be a stern boss and a stickler for following the law.
“She was always a hardheaded lady,” Mrs. Salazar said. Her successor agreed.
“She ran a tight ship,” Davis said. “We were always told that we were public servants, that we were here to serve the public.”
Davis said she appreciates the fact that she was groomed by Torres for the job she holds today in much the way Torres was groomed by Parchman.
Davis said she met Torres while she was working at Henry Eissler’s Appliance service. Torres had bought an air conditioner there, and she had been specific in what she wanted. But after the unit was installed, Torres called the company a number of times to complain about the noise it made.
Each time, Davis took the call. Then, in 1993, Torres called Davis and said she had an opening in the clerk’s office. She had been impressed with the way Davis had handled complaints on the telephone, and she asked her to apply for the position.
Davis started to work on Jan. 18, 1993, showing up in jeans because that was all she had to wear. Davis said she mentioned her lack of proper office attire to Torres, and her new boss told her that was all right. She told Davis that the first thing she should do when she received her paycheck was buy the proper clothing for the position.
“I bought two dresses and a pair of shoes,” Davis said. The shoes never did fit her properly.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Davis said. But she learned quickly that her new boss had a “sink or swim” way of teaching her how to handle the position.
Torres sent the newcomer to the commissioners court meeting that first day on the job and left her alone. It was when Bob Walk was the county judge, and the commissioners included Butch Smith, David Chesnutt, Jimmy Martinez and Victor Salazar.
“Channel 3 was there,” Davis said, and the atmosphere was intense. At one point during the meeting Davis said Smith leaned across the desk and called Walk “boy.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I had no idea what I was getting into. It was a bad meeting.”
Davis said she was 23 at the time, single and living with her parents. She had never been involved in politics. At that time she said she had probably been in the courthouse two or three times in her life.
Three months later Davis said she tried to quit her job, but Torres would not hear it. Torres walked out among the office’s employees and told them that if any of them felt they could not do their jobs, they could leave. Then she returned to her own desk and told Davis to stick to the task.
“She was a mentor. She interpreted the law the best way she could,” Davis said. “She was always reading.”
In fact, whenever Davis said she was having a hard time understanding her duties, Torres would give her a book to read.
Davis said elections were often frustrating for her boss because she was always being accused of something. But she was dedicated to doing the job right and staying within the law.
Both Davis and Mrs. Salazar remembered the time Sheriff R.L. “Bob” Horn was sent to her office to impound the ballots boxes. Torres refused.
She did not back down until Horn told there had been a legal order to impound the boxes and keep them locked up after voting hours each night until the election ended.
Davis said Torres gave in at that point.
Davis remembered the time Torres announced that she would be holding an election school for precinct judges. The day the class began, Torres introduced Davis to those attending and left the room.
Davis sat stunned for a short while, feeling abandoned, and then started teaching the class.
Mrs. Salazar said much of her mother’s management style came from her upbringing. When she misbehaved, she was made to kneel in a corner. But she was hardheaded even then, Salazar said. “As soon as her father left the room she would stand up again.”
Not long after Torres retired at the end of 2002, she was told she had cancer. Salazar said she battled the disease from that point on. But just when she had beaten one form of cancer, she would be diagnosed with some other form of the disease.
The last few years were hard on the dedicated public servant.
Mrs. Salazar eventually had her mother move in with her and her husband, Moses. It was during those days that the family members got a chance to really know the matriarch. They enjoyed hearing the stories of her youth.
Salazar said the funniest story was one her mother told of being hired as a child to be in charge of weighing the cotton sacks in a farmer’s field.
She was sitting in the seat of one of the cotton wagons, and she got the horses to move, but she turned the team too sharply and ended up breaking an axle on the wagon.
Her father told her that her first paycheck would go toward repairing the damage.
That lesson helped carry her through the rest of her life, of bearing responsibility for one’s actions.
Former Commissioner Salazar agreed that everyone respected Torres for her work ethic.
“We had some good times, and we had some bad times,” Salazar said of the eight years (1989-97) he served as a commissioner while Torres was county clerk. “But the good times outweighed the bad.”
Salazar said he saw Torres several times during her last days because his cousin is Torres’ daughter’s husband. He realized how much weight she had lost and how much of a toll the disease had taken on her body.
“Julia was a tough cookie,” Salazar said. But the voters, Hispanic and Anglo, respected her. “I can only remember one person ever running against her,” he said. And of course, that opponent never stood a chance.
Davis said she never realized that she was being groomed to replace Torres until, in 2001, she told Davis that she did not intend to seek re-election. “She asked me if I’d run.”
Davis said she would run for the position, but she would not be in a position of helping Torres in the election.
After Davis took office, Torres stayed out of the courthouse, especially after she came down with cancer. The last time Torres was in the building was during the November election in 2006. Mrs. Salazar came in to cast an early ballot and Davis was told her old boss was in the car in the parking lot.
Davis brought her into the building for that final visit.
She recalled Torres telling her on her first day on the job, 21 years ago, that she would not make a lot of money working in the county clerk’s office. “But it does have retirement,” she told her new employee.
Today, Davis realizes how important that pension will be someday.
“I loved her,” Davis said as tears filled her eyes. “She was my mentor.”
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.