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WATCH: Memorial service for longtime UTEP president & ‘beloved icon’ Diana Natalicio

UPDATE, Oct. 24: The University of Texas at El Paso paid tribute to the life of UTEP President Emerita Diana Natalicio at a Celebration of Life memorial ceremony that was open to the public Sunday evening in UTEP’s Centennial Plaza.

Natalicio, who led UTEP for 31 years and was the university’s tenth and longest-serving president, died Sept. 24 at age 82.

During the ceremony, current UTEP President Heather Wilson announced the establishment of the Natalicio Institute for Hispanic Student Success at UTEP, with more details to come in a few months.

Wilson said that the institute "will develop leaders for Hispanic serving universities and will serve as a national resource for inclusive excellence.”

Wilson added that Natalicio was all about access and excellence: “She was a leader of great conviction, she led a team of people that built a university who defined exclusive excellence for Texas and for the nation.”

Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, speaking at the service, said there was much to celebrate and emulate of Natalicio.

“She made space for everyone and it also is a part of what makes a great leader,” Escobar said. “When we are given the opportunity to impact people lives - we need to do it to the greatest extent possible.”

State Sen. Cesar Blanco said he learned much from Natalicio, including how to be a true advocate for the community. 

He noted how she positively impacted El Paso and the surrounding areas: “She had the special ability to see the potential in others no matter their background of social status. She fought against the status quo, against stereotypes, and she stood up for her students - because she saw there potential and believed in a better future for them.”

During the ceremony, Grammy Award-winning cellist Zuill Bailey performed as hundreds of candles were illuminated.

In lieu of flowers, UTEP officials said those who wish to honor Natalicio’s memory can donate to the Natalicio Legacy Fund at pickaproject.utep.edu/project/27951.

ORIGINAL REPORT, Sept. 24: EL PASO, Texas -- Diana Natalicio, who served as president of the University of Texas at El Paso for 31 years, died Friday at the age of 82.

Her brother, Bill Siedhoff, confirmed Natalicio's death in an email to ABC-7. He didn't indicate a cause of death.

"My sister loved El Paso, and she chose to retire here. She loved the weather, the mountains, the food, and the wonderful people. She had a great and accomplished life. She loved UTEP and most of all, she loved UTEP's students. They are what drove her life's work, and what provided her greatest satisfaction," Siedhoff said. "I thank the El Paso community for embracing her all these years, and for all the love she always received."

Natalicio was UTEP's longest-serving leader, occupying the president's office from 1988 to 2019. During that time, UTEP's enrollment grew from 15,000 to over 25,000 students, its budget rose from $65 million to nearly $450 million and research expenditures increased ten-fold.

State Sen. Cesar Blanco - who worked closely with Natalicio in the legislature as she advocated for UTEP - described her as "a pillar of our community... (who) will be dearly missed," while State Rep. Lina Ortega called Natalicio a "beloved icon in higher education."

During Natalicio's tenure, UTEP received national recognition for excellence in both academic and research programs; she was also widely recognized for her efforts to make higher education more accessible to low-income students.

When Fortune magazine included Natalicio on its list of "World's Greatest Leaders” in 2017, it noted that she had "made wider access her priority, fighting to keep tuition low and creating flexible on-campus jobs” at a time when "rising costs and cultural barriers mean low-income students struggle to get in and struggle to stay.”

El Paso Mayor Oscar Lesser, a friend of Natalicio, said her passing marked "a sad day" for the entire community.

"Dr. Natalicio was an incredible human being who dedicated her life to UTEP and to the thousands of students whose lives she changed for the better," Leeser said. "She made UTEP the tier one university it is today, and she made El Paso shine bright throughout the world."

Natalicio, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, first joined UTEP in 1971 as an assistant professor of modern languages. She served as chairwoman of the modern languages department, dean of the college of liberal arts and vice president for academic affairs before becoming president in 1988.

Richard Adauto, who was UTEP's executive vice president throughout Natalicio's entire tenure, expressed "deep sadness" at word of her death.

"I had the privilege of seeing first-hand her passionate commitment and deep caring for the students of this region, as well as the positive impact that her decisions had on their lives," he said.

Estrella Escobar, who had served as UTEP's associate vice president for 18 years under Natalicio, echoed Adauto's sentiments and called it an honor to have known and worked with her.

"She was all the wonderful things people knew of her and more. No matter how many awards or accolades she received, she always remained true to who she was at heart. Always striving to make UTEP the best, always steadfast in her vision of access and excellence, and always making every decision – big or small – for the benefit of the students we served," Escobar said. 

When she retired in August 2019, Natalicio was the longest sitting president of any public research university in the nation - which prompted the University of Texas System Board of Regents to name her President Emerita of UTEP.

"Dr. Natalicio will be remembered by many as a pioneer in higher education. She defied the critics who said it wasn’t possible to open access to higher education to everyone and still offer a top tier educational experience," said current UTEP President Heather Wilson, who succeeded Natalicio. "Her sustained commitment to provide all residents of the Paso del Norte region access to outstanding higher education opportunities has helped make UTEP a national success story."

Funeral arrangements for Natalicio were pending, but those involved in the planning said they hoped to do a public viewing at UTEP's Don Haskins Center as part of the services.

(The Texas Tribune contributed background to this report.)

Jim Parker

Jim Parker is the Director of Digital Content for ABC-7.

Rosemary Montanez

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