Jesse James Valencia was the kind of person who wrote letters to the editor.
Everywhere he went, the 23-year-old MU student made contact with local publications — getting involved, speaking up, letting people know what he thought. In a letter he wrote to the Missourian last May, Mr. Valencia introduced the piece by saying, “My grandma is always so proud when I write editorials for newspapers, ha ha.”
True enough, Connie Baugh of Perryville, Ky., has every single one saved in a scrapbook.
“I thought he was a good writer,” Baugh said. “He had a strong will and strong opinions.” She laughs when she thinks about his hard-headed ability to stick to his guns when others disagreed.
Baugh says the owner of a furniture store in Mitchellsburg, Ky., has kept one of Mr. Valencia’s articles framed on the store’s wall since around 1997, when Mr. Valencia wrote the article for his high school newspaper, The Rebel. The owner loaned the Valencia family the framed article to display in his memory at the funeral home on Friday, Baugh said. But the owner needs to have it back.
“She said she wouldn’t take a million dollars for it,” Baugh said.
Mr. Valencia was found dead Saturday afternoon in East Campus. Police are investigating the death as a homicide.
Family and friends said that Mr. Valencia was headed for great things. His stepfather, Lupe Valencia of Springfield, Ky., said his son was a caring person with a deep desire to succeed.
“He had to overcome a whole lot,” Lupe Valencia said. Coming from rural Kentucky without much money, he said, his son had worked hard to make his success. “We gave him a lot of moral support and we loved him, but we couldn’t give him a lot of financial support. He was doing that on his own.”
Mr. Valencia’s dad said his son loved to call home and talked for hours on the phone to his mom Linda Baugh Valencia and sisters — Rachel, 10, and Maria, 15.
One of Mr. Valencia’s best friends, Erin Bailey, whom he knew from their days at Boyle County High School in Kentucky, said she and Valencia were instant friends.
“He was larger than life,” Bailey said. “He was driven, smart, funny, politically savvy. He was known as a person who didn’t bow down to the status quo.”
Mr. Valencia often wrote letters to MU’s campus newspaper, The Maneater, and submitted articles to Prospectus — a local alternative political magazine on campus which eventually published one of Valencia’s articles. Angad Nagra, former editor-in-chief of Prospectus, remembers Valencia’s zeal above all else. “He was a passionate advocate for gay rights,” Nagra said. “I could tell from his articles that it was an issue that was very dear to him.”
Bailey described Mr. Valencia as someone with lots of friends, someone whom everyone knew — a leader. She also said high school in Danville, Ky., wasn’t always the easiest place to be yourself.
“He was a little bitty guy,” Bailey said. “He was very strong, but a little more fragile than some people realized.”
Ashley Wilson, who lived on the sixth floor of MU’s Hudson Hall with Mr. Valencia, warmly remembers him. Wilson wrote in an e-mail that Mr. Valencia made art for loved ones and enjoyed seeing others smile.
“At first, he was a very shy guy,” Wilson wrote. “But once you got to know him, he was amazing. He was one of the most sincere people I have ever met, and he always made me laugh.”
Bailey said Mr. Valencia told her several times recently that he was planning to eventually apply to law school. She spoke to him on the phone about three weeks ago, and said he was going to come stay with her in Kentucky for a while this summer.
Services for Jesse Valencia will be held on Friday in Kentucky.