Ortega, Katherine D.: 1934—: Former Government Official, Banker, Accountant

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Katherine D. Ortega: 1934: Former government official, banker, accountant

In the summer of 1983, Angela Marie Buchanan stepped down from her post as the 38th U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, leaving the post vacant for then president Ronald Reagan to fill. Reagan said to the New York Times that he was looking to appoint someone who "reflects the goals and ideals for which the people voted." That person was Katherine D. Ortega, a former member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Small and Minority Business Ownership as well as an established liaison for the Republican party with the Hispanic community and numerous women's organizations. During her six-year term in office, she properly managed the nation's budget of $220 million, raised $40 million to help restore the Statue of Liberty, and created both a new currency design to prevent counterfeiting as well as the West Point Bullion Depository, the first new mint in the United States since 1862. After her retirement from the Treasury in 1989, Ortega has gone on to become a top consultant in the world of banking and has also served on the board of directors for numerous corporations.

Katherine Davalos Ortega was born on July 16, 1934, in Tularosa, New Mexico, the daughter of Donaciano Ortega and Catarina Davalos Ortega. The town of Tularosa was smallpopulated by no more then three thousand peoplebut it was a tight knit community that remembered heavily its Mexican and Spanish roots. Ortega credited much of her success to this community saying to the New York Times, "I am the product of a heritage that teaches strong family devotion, a commitment to earning a livelihood by hard work, patience, determination and perseverance." Before Ortega began formal schooling, she only spoke Spanish, the language that most of the inhabitants of Tularosa spoke, but she quickly picked up English once she began attending classes at the public school.

Found Strengths in Banking and Accounting

Along with English skills, Ortega showed an advanced proficiency in mathematics and problem solving. Starting in elementary school, she was far ahead of her classmates, so far ahead that her family began having her run the cash register in the family owned restaurant when she was only ten years old. As she moved along to junior high and high school, she continued to amass mathematical knowledge and also showed interest and skill in the area of accounting. By the time she was in her senior year of high school, she had graduated from working the register at the family restaurant to being a part-time bank teller at the Ortero County State Bank. She would take on a full time position as a teller when she graduated, spending two and a half years learning the ins and outs of banking while earning enough money to put herself through college.

At a Glance . . .

Born on July 16, 1934, in Tularosa, NM; daughter of Donaciano Ortega and Catarina Davalos Ortega; married Lloyd J. Derrickson, February 17, 1989. Education: Eastern New Mexico State University, BA, 1957.

Career: Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co., tax supervisor, 1969-72; Pan American National Bank, vice president, 1972-75; Santa Ana State Bank, president, 1975-77; Otero Savings & Loan Association, consultant, 1979-82, 1989; Presidential Advisory Committee on Small and Minority Business Ownership, board member, 1982; Copyright Royalty Tribunal, commissioner, 1982-83; U. S. Secretary of the Treasury, 1983-89; private accounting practice, 1989.

Memberships: Executive Women in Government; American Association of Women Accountants; United Nations, alternative representative; Leadership America, advisory board member; National Park Service, advisory board member; Ralston Purina Company, board member, 1992; Kroger Company, board member, 1992.

Awards: Outstanding Alumni of the Year Award, Eastern New Mexico University, 1977; honorary doctorate of law, Eastern New Mexico University, 1984; honorary doctorate of law, Ken College of New Jersey, 1985; honorary doctorate of social science, Villanova University, 1988; Achievement Award, California Businesswoman's Association; Outstanding Woman of the Year Award, Damas de Comercio.

Address: Home Washington, D.C.

In the mid 1950s Ortega attended Eastern New Mexico State University at Portales, where she aced many of the business, mathematics, and economics classes on her way to a bachelor's degree in business and economics in 1957. With this degree, Ortega felt that many doors were open to her, and she focused on giving back to the institute of education by becoming a high-school teacher. When she began to look for a job, she found many openings on the eastern side of New Mexico, but as she began to apply for them, she found that she was rejected often without even an interview. She eventually consulted the chairman of the Eastern New Mexico State University business school about this problem and was told, according to an interview she did with the Boston Globe, that she "need not apply in the eastern part of New Mexico, where such a job was open, because of my Hispanic background." Appalled at the level of discrimination in the world of education, Ortega swore off the idea of becoming a teacher, and decided instead to forgo the whole job hunt altogether.

Since New Mexico, and much of the rest of the United States, was still very much prone to discrimination against Hispanics as well as women, Ortega and one of her sisters decided it would be easier for them to go into business for themselves. As Ortega told the New York Times, "My father taught me we were as good as anybody else, that we could accomplish anything we wanted. He encouraged all three of his daughters to make a living for themselves so we would never have to be dependant on anybody." Taking their father's advice, they started a small accounting firm in Alamogordo, New Mexico, with Ortega's sister, who was a certified public accountant, as the main handler of many of the clients, and Ortega handling more of the day to day business. Ortega floated in the 1960s between the self-started accounting business with her sister and other various accounting jobs throughout the state. In 1967 Ortega felt that she might have more opportunities in another state and headed out to California. This did prove to be a good move for Ortega as she quickly secured work in the accounting field in Los Angeles, and by 1969 was a tax supervisor for Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Company.

Moved From Accounting to Politics

Ortega would stay at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Company until 1972 when she got her first big break in the banking world, becoming the vice president at the Pan American National Bank in Los Angeles. This was definitely a step up for Ortega, although the bank was still small enough that she found herself often working as a cashier at times when employment was down. Ortega worked hard over the next three years to make Pan American National a reputable and trustworthy bank throughout Los Angeles and her effort did not go unnoticed. In 1975 she was approached by the Santa Ana State Bank and offered the position of director and president. Ortega quickly accepted and became the first woman bank president in California. Much as she had at Pan American National, Ortega was known at Santa Ana State Bank to be a hard worker who was not afraid to pitch in with the more menial tasks to keep the business running smoothly.

Back in New Mexico, the Ortega family accounting firm had grown and changed its name to the Ortero Savings & Loan Association. The family requested in 1979 that Ortega return to New Mexico to help the business succeed as she had the banks she had worked at in California, and Ortega readily did so, becoming a consultant to the firm from 1979 to 1982. During this time period, Ortega also decided to throw herself into the field of accounting more fully and became a certified public accountant in California as well as New Mexico.

In the early 1980s Ortega began to show an interest in politics, claiming to the New York Times that she was "born a Republican." She offered her services to the New Mexican Republican party and was soon used as a liaison for both local and state officials to communicate with Hispanic and women's organizations. She became known as a major supporter of the Republicans in New Mexico, not only for her help with the Hispanic community, but also for her activeness in election campaigns. She was a major supporter and rallier for Republican Senator Pete V. Domenici, who once he was elected brought Ortega to the attention of the national Republican party. When President Ronald Reagan needed someone to fill a position on the Presidential Advisory Committee on Small and Minority Business Ownership, Domenici suggested Ortega, and after looking at her credentials, Reagan agreed that she was the right person for the job. She served on the committee for eight months in 1982, and worked to foster a good relationship between the federal government and minority-owned businesses. She did such a good job on the committee that she was appointed to another federal panel, the Copyright Royalty Tribunal, which monitored and determined the amount that cable companies were required to pay in copyright fees to use certain television shows and music.

Became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury

In 1983 the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury was Angela Marie Buchanan. During the summer of that year, Buchanan decided that she had served her term and told Reagan that she would step down as soon as he could find a replacement. Reagan began to solicit suggestions from numerous members of his cabinet and his party, and once again Domenici, who was now a chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, suggested Ortega for the position. Reagan agreed that the country would benefit from someone of Ortega's skills. Reagan officially nominated Ortega on September 12, 1983, surprising many members of the Reagan Administration who assumed that the position would be offered to more long time notable Republicans such as Nancy Kassebaum or Elizabeth Dole. Yet as Reagan said in his nomination speech, according to the New York Times, Ortega was "symbolic of the values the Hispanic community represents" and added that "nothing is a better influence on America than the strength and decency of the Hispanic family." With this type of support behind her, Ortega was quickly put before the Senate for confirmation, and on September 23, 1983, Ortega began her term as the 39th U. S. Secretary of the Treasury.

Ortega found herself part of the long legacy of women that had held the position of U. S. treasurer, but was only the second Hispanic woman to serve in this position; the first being Romana Acosta Bañuelos in 1974. As the U. S. treasurer, Ortega was in charge of the United States Mint along with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the United States Savings Bond Division. Her yearly duties included the mammoth job of maintaining an account of government spending, handling the nation's $220 million budget, sorting through and rectifying claims for lost, stolen, or counterfeit government checks, and burning unusable U. S. currency. She was also responsible for overseeing the jobs of 5,000 people employed by her divisions. Even more importantly to the Republican party, she was a high-profile ranking official who often was responsible for attending and representing the party at numerous ceremonial functions.

Ortega spent her time as the U. S. Treasurer split between monitoring and budgeting the nation's spending habits and promoting the role of Hispanics in the U. S. government. In 1984 she was given the honor of delivering the keynote address at the Republican National Convention, where she pushed for the Republican party to strongly look at the Hispanic communities in the country as a source of support. In her address, reprinted in Vital Speeches of the Day, she called out to the Hispanic community to embrace the Republican party saying, "To the millions of Democrats abandoned by their national leadership we Republicans in Dallas say: we welcome you to our home. Nuestra casa es su casa. Our home is your home." She was also a strong advocate for women to take a closer look at the Republican party. Ortega knew that many women felt that the Republican party, specifically the Reagan administration, were not supportive of women and did not give many positions in the party to women, but as Ortega pointed out to the New York Times, "There is a perception that Ronald Reagan has not named women to his Administration. When I'm out there, I talk about all the subcabinet appointments. I want to set the record straight." Besides drawing new members to the Republican party, Ortega also looked to do some good for the country as the U. S. secretary, starting a program in 1985 to sell Liberty Coins that were designed to raise money to restore the State of Liberty. The program raised close to $40 million.

Honored and Sought After Leaving Treasury

Ortega served as the U. S. secretary of the Treasury for six years, stepping down in 1989. For a time she returned to Ortero Savings & Loan as a consultant and has continued to work for the family owned business throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. She has also served on the board of directors for many well-known corporations starting in 1992, including the grocery chain Kroger Company and the food and animal feed firm Ralston Purina. Ortega continued to promote diversity in government after her retirement from the Treasury as well, serving as an alternative representative to the United Nations as well as on the board of advisors for Leadership American, the National Park Service, Executive Women in Government, and the American Association of Women Accountants.

Before and after her time as the U. S. treasurer, Ortega was recognized by the Hispanic community and others as a trailblazer and a role model. She has received numerous honorary degrees from universities such as Eastern New Mexico University, Kean College of New Jersey, and Villanova University. She has also been honored with the Outstanding Woman of the Year Award from the Damas de Comercio as well as the California Businesswoman's Achievement Award. Ortega felt that many of these awards show what sort of example she has been able to set for other people in her community. As she told the Boston Globe,"Ithink of myself as a role model for my people. I hope they see me and say: 'Hey, there's hope. We can accomplish.'"



The Complete Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2001.

Dictionary of Hispanic Americans, Gale Research, 1996.

Notable Hispanic American Women, Book 1, Gale Research, 1993.


Boston Globe, November, 24, 1985, p. B25

New York Times, September 13, 1983, p. B14; October 4, 1983, p. A19.

PR Newswire, April 22, 1992.

Vital Speeches of the Day, September 15, 1984, pp. 712-13.

U.S. News & Report, September 3, 1984, pp. 65-7.


"Katherine D. Ortega," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (June 16, 2003).

Adam R. Hazlett