Al Martinez is being remembered as a pacesetter who quietly yet decisively paved the way for many in his church, profession and community.
He was Omaha’s first Latino police officer, serving most of those 33 years in South Omaha, where he grew up.
He was Nebraska’s inaugural Hispanic Man of the Year, chosen by a state agency when it started the annual tribute in 1985.
Perhaps the most pivotal “first” came early on, when he was the first (and only) boy ever kissed by a neighbor girl who would become his wife of 70 years. Married as teens, while Al was on leave from the Navy, he and Dee raised five children, three of whom followed in their dad’s footsteps and became police officers.
“Al absolutely was a pillar of the entire community, a stalwart and a leader in so many ways,” said Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle.
Martinez was 89 years old when he died Monday of Parkinson’s disease complicated by COVID-19. A private funeral will be held today; a celebration of life will be held when the pandemic subsides.
A veteran of the Korean War and son of Mexican immigrants, Martinez is survived by Dee, their children, and 36 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Dee Martinez said she felt fortunate to have shared a life with a “good-hearted, generous” partner who couldn’t turn away a person in need.
She recalled a time decades ago when Martinez, then a police officer, brought home two Spanish-speaking boys about 14 or 15 years old.
A judge had released the train stow-away teens after they were picked up near the railroad tracks. Upon learning that they had no place to go, Martinez called his wife, and they opened their home for a few weeks until the boys could reunite with family.
Similar gestures continued through the years as the bilingual couple from two of the longest-standing and biggest Latino families in the state built a welcoming and mentoring household known for reaching out to others.
After Martinez retired from the Police Department in 1989, then-County Attorney Jim Jansen swiftly recruited him as an investigator on his team, noting “the respect he commanded within the community.”
Jansen said Martinez modeled the term community policing before it was coined.
“He engaged with people,” he said. “Everybody trusted Al; his word was golden.”
He recalled two years ago, when Omaha’s southeast police precinct honored the long-retired Martinez. The hall was packed, “showing the lasting impact he’s had.”
The Rev. Damian Zuerlein recalled the first lengthy conversation he had with Martinez — on the roof of a building in South Omaha. The year was 1991, and at the time, community members had urged Martinez to launch a last-minute write-in campaign to oust a councilman who many thought snubbed the needs of the district’s changing demographics.
Martinez’s climb to the roof was aimed at drawing attention to the late entry. While his bid failed, Martinez said then that it signaled “a new beginning” for Hispanic political activism in the city.
Zuerlein, at the time just starting as pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, said he grew to know Martinez as a parish and fiesta leader who had a knack for uniting disparate groups.
“And he was such a gentle soul, quiet, stable, consistently there,” he said. “I don’t think I ever heard him say anything bad. He was always very positive.”
With a police background that helped Martinez know his way around the city, he became a go-to person for congressmen, mayors and others seeking to open a door to South Omaha.
Boyle, a former mayor, recalled wrapping up many a campaign with dinner at the nonprofit American GI Forum, a veteran and community organization that Martinez helped lead.
Being around Al and Dee, Boyle said, “felt like home.”
Son Mark Martinez is a retired deputy police chief, the first Latino elected to the Omaha school board and former U.S. marshal for Nebraska. He attributed the path taken by him and siblings Lela, Al Jr., John and Michael to their role-model parents.
He said his dad always took time for family.
Youngest son Michael recalled his dad packing everyone in the car for a road trip to watch him participate in one of his first Special Olympics. “He was always there when I needed him,” he said.
Often, Martinez would pick up another child with special needs or a neighborhood kid going through a tough time to join his family for a College World Series game or other activity. They would take in friends or family who needed a place to stay.
Mark said his dad was happiest when he was coaching, encouraging and helping others.
“He has built generations of kids, and if we do our job right, we pass that on, his legacy.”