By David J. Krajicek
Carlos Velez, a prominent Latino journalist in New York and renowned figure among the Colombian community of Queens, died Friday.
Velez, 68, died of pulmonary disease at James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx. He had lived for many years in Flushing and spent the past decade in Bayside.
Velez covered Queens for the New York Daily News in the late 1970s and 1980s, and he wrote the paper’s “Qué Pasa” column, which Velez created as an early recognition of the growing importance of the city’s Hispanic population.
Later, he published a literary magazine, Nosotros, and contributed to a number of Latino publications, including Business Latino, Hoy and Queens Latino. He also spent many years as an editor of publications for the Colombian Civic Center.
One of 11 children, Velez grew up on his family’s coffee farm near Armenia, Colombia. He emigrated to New York as a teenager, following a few relatives to the U.S.
His life was a classic immigrant story. He worked in menial jobs, including as a dishwasher at the Nevele resort in the Catskills, until he got a break when an acquaintance suggested he apply at the Daily News as a copy boy.
Velez had no prior training as a journalist, but he was a voracious reader who followed the news closely his entire life.
He visited the paper’s headquarters, The Daily News Building at 220 E. 42nd St. in Manhattan, one day in 1966 and was directed to the office of newsroom manager Ed Quinn.
“The only word I knew in English was ‘yes,’” so that was my answer to everything he asked,” Velez told me recently. “At some point, he got up and gestured for me to follow. I thought he was showing me the door. Instead he took me to human resources. I got the job. Don’t ask me how.”
Velez became one of the first native Spanish-speakers in the newsroom at the Daily News, which was then the largest-circulation newspaper in America.
Albor Ruiz, a former columnist at the paper, called Velez “a true Latino pioneer at the Daily News.”
Velez quickly was recognized for his energy and initiative as a newsroom clerk, and he was soon promoted to assistant head of copy boys. His news career was interrupted in 1967 when he was drafted into the Army. He spent two years in the service, working primarily as a supply clerk at Fort Jackson, a base in Columbia, S.C.
Velez returned to the Daily News after his discharge in 1969 and was promoted to head of copy boys, managing the dozens of young men and women newsroom clerks who aspired to become reporters.
He was known as demanding but protective of his young staff.
“Anyone who ever fetched a cup of coffee under Carlos’ tutelage always felt he or she could do it better next time,” said Thom Forbes, who worked for Velez and became a lifelong friend. “But he was always fair and forgiving and was as generous in spirit as anyone I’ve ever known.”
Another former copy boy, Dan Vetell, said Velez was an important role model for a generation of budding reporters and editors who worked under him.
“He was basically in charge of a whole bunch of knuckleheads, and he turned us into journalists,” said Vetell, who joined the News in 1971 and had a 20-year career there. “He was always impeccably dressed and presented himself like a professional. He was showing us that this is how you represent yourself if you want to succeed in the news business. And we all did succeed. He made sure of it.”
Velez was a mentor to a number of young Latino journalists as well, including his longtime friend Javier Castaño, editor of Queens Latino.
“Journalism was his passion, and I will remember him for his tenderness, honesty and humility,” said Castaño.
In the late 1970s, the Daily News recognized Velez’s value as a bilingual journalist as the South American population of Queens mushroomed, and he was promoted to reporter in the paper’s Queens bureau. He had hundreds of bylines during a decade as a reporter and “Qué Pasa” columnist for the paper.
In this position, he became one of the most recognized figures in the close-knit Latino community in Queens.
He left the Daily News in the late ‘80s and worked as a news consultant, writer, designer and editor on dozens of publishing projects for newspaper, magazines and organizations throughout the New York region. He also continued mentoring young journalists, spending more than 10 years as production manager of The Bronx Beat, a paper produced by students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Velez maintained a close connection with his native country, visiting Colombia regularly and hosting several Colombian nephews who earned graduate degrees at New York schools. In partnership with his brother German, he operated a vestige of his old family farm in Colombia, growing coffee, fruit and flowers.
Velez was passionate about books, and he maintained a personal library of more than 1,000 volumes in both English and Spanish.
He was also an avid outdoorsman. Camping, trout-fishing and canoe trips in the Catskills and Adirondacks consumed many weekends when he was younger. He often toured the United States with siblings and other relatives visiting from Colombia, including a camping trip with his mother in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
For the last 30 years of his life, Velez spent countless weekends at “La Finca,” his house on the Little Delaware River in the Catskills near Delhi, N.Y. He enjoyed fishing, photographing nature, reading and strolling his acreage.
La Finca became a favorite party spot for his Latino friends and relatives from New York and Colombia, including an annual 4th of July pig roast during the 1990s.
Velez is survived by six siblings in Colombia, including his twin brother, Luis Fernando, and many nieces and nephews in both Colombia and the U.S. A memorial gathering is planned this summer at La Finca.