Custodian Ema Lopez-Ortiz (center), flanked by Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce President Brian Duvall and Whitman President Kathleen Murray. Photo courtesy of Laurie’s Photography.
Custodian Ema Lopez-Ortiz (center), flanked by Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce President Brian Duvall and Whitman President Kathleen Murray. Photo courtesy of Laurie’s Photography.

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When Ema Lopez-Ortiz heard her name announced at the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce Annual Awards Banquet earlier this month, she thought a mistake had been made. The Whitman custodian of more than 10 years had been told that her daughter, Jennifer Lopez '13, Whitman's Intercultural Center program adviser, would receive an accolade—a ruse designed to safeguard the surprise. In reality, Lopez-Ortiz learned she had won Whitman's 2017 Pete and Hedda Reid Service to Walla Walla Award.

"I'm still in shock," she said. A fierce proponent of social justice and a key player in recent rallies, demonstrations and marches in support of immigrants' rights, Lopez-Ortiz has lived in Walla Walla for 30 years and raised three daughters who graduated from Whitman. Two of them, Jennifer and Jazmin Lopez '10, witnessed the moment. (Chantell Lopez '14 was out of town.) "They're very proud," Lopez-Ortiz added.  

"When I learned that my mom won the award, my first thought was, how can I keep this a secret?" Jennifer recalled. "Naturally, I turned to my sisters and together we schemed to get her to the reception without her knowing. Ema gave a moving speech, and I might be biased because I am her daughter, but I continue to stand in awe witnessing the greatness that is my mom."  

Nominators praised Lopez-Ortiz as an "inspiration," a "relentless force" and an "organizing dynamo." At the banquet, Whitman President Kathleen Murray noted that Lopez-Ortiz "models compassion, courage and commitment" and "exemplifies Whitman values" through her willingness to intercede on behalf of the vulnerable. Her activism also includes being a founding member of the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition. And Lopez-Ortiz serves on the Whitman Inclusion, Diversity and Equity committee.  

Reflecting on her many good causes, she observed: "It's not easy to make time to get involved, but if we want to learn, if we want to help, it's necessary."  

In keeping with tradition, the award was given in memory of a former Whitman staff member-this year, it honored namesake R. R. "Pete" Reid '49 (1923-2017). A standard-bearer of Whitman's spirit of service, Reid worked at the college for 60 years, longer than anyone in school history. He was treasurer and chief financial officer from 1966 to 1990 and special assistant to the president until 2009. His leadership and commitment benefited departments across campus, and he further dedicated himself to his church, the Boy Scouts, Friends of Children of Walla Walla, Rotary Club and YMCA. To recognize his longstanding positive impact on the institution and the town, the community bestowed on him the unofficial title of Mr. Whitman.  

In the ensuing weeks since her award, Lopez-Ortiz has received so many congratulatory messages from friends and colleagues that she plans to hang them from her Christmas tree.