When Armando Meneses feared that his life was in danger because of his civic involvement during civil war in 1950s Colombia, he took his wife and child and left his homeland for the United States.
He made it to New York City, where he worked his way from menial jobs to become a top insurance salesman. He became an early Hispanic community advocate on Long Island.
Meneses, a longtime Oceanside resident, was proud of his rags-to-riches story and wanted others to enjoy the same opportunities, relatives said. He died Saturday at his son's home in Hauppauge, following a recent stroke. He was 85.
"His life was like a typical Horatio Alger story -- of an immigrant that makes good in America through hard work, perseverance and probably some luck," said his youngest son, Larry Meneses, an employment counselor with the Suffolk County Department of Labor.
Born in Santander, Colombia, Meneses attended Jesuit school and served in his native country's military. He had also become a traveling salesman of household items. And he contributed stories to a local newspaper that relatives think landed him in hot water in Colombia.
In 1952, Meneses and his wife, Graciela de Arismendiz, who died in 1987, arrived in Miami with their oldest son, Herman. Shortly after, they moved to Manhattan, where he became a porter for Horn & Hardart, a food service Automat in midtown. On weekends and nights he held a second job parking cars for a garage on the West Side.
When an agent tried to sell him life insurance, Meneses found his niche. He became an insurance salesman for Mutual of Omaha in the mid-1950s and had risen to the company's top salesman spot by the late '50s.
He accomplished that by being a relentless peddler of insurance, particularly in the nascent Hispanic community of upper Manhattan.
The proceeds allowed him to purchase the family's Oceanside home and to set up a Latino insurance brokerage company in Hempstead, where he eventually acquired a building to house his office and other businesses.
In the 1970s he became an advocate for Hispanic issues as a founding member of the Organización Cívica Hispanoamericana de Long Island. He caused a stir by calling for bilingual police officers in the Nassau County Police Department.
He is quoted in a January 1970 Newsday story saying: "A person would have to be naive if he did not know that Spanish-speaking persons are arrested, booked and processed without the benefit of even an interpreter."
His son Larry remembers going with his father in a used Volkswagen van that he equipped with a loudspeaker to campaign -- in English and Spanish -- for political candidates in Nassau County.
Meneses is survived by his sons -- Herman lives in Elk Grove, Calif. -- three granddaughters and one grandson and three great-grandsons and one great-granddaughter. Burial was Tuesday at the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, after a Christian Mass at St. Anthony's Church in Oceanside.