Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times Merrion Master Scholar Timothy Velaquez shares his thoughts during the San Juan College honors reception on Tuesday, April
Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times Merrion Master Scholar Timothy Velaquez shares his thoughts during the San Juan College honors reception on Tuesday, April 17, 2013. (Augusta Liddic)
FARMINGTON — Timothy Velasquez was nervous about sharing his story at San Juan College's annual honors forum and reception Tuesday evening.

With his mother and his girlfriend looking on in support, Velasquez opened up about his drug and alcohol use and his time in prison, all of which he said stemmed from the death of his father.

"On May 11, 1996, my mother and I found my father dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest," Velasquez said, while choking back tears. "That one event set forth a chain of events that lasted for the last 17 years."

Velasquez graduated during last fall with an associate degree in surgical technology from San Juan College. Because the college only hosts a commencement in the spring, he will receive his diploma on May 11, exactly 17 years after the death of his father.

"In some ways, it just feels like autopilot. It seems surreal," said Velasquez before his speech.

He is one of the 18 master scholars graduating, meaning that he has completed 18 honors credit hours and maintained a minimum 3.6 GPA.

A total of 141 students were honored during the reception. The students were presented of total of $25,000 in honors awards from the Merrion Oil and Gas Foundation.

Velasquez said he spiraled out of control after the death of his father and hid his pain in drugs, drinking and partying.

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He held a number of jobs — handling luggage and packages for UPS and American Airlines at the Albuquerque International Sunport — before moving back to Farmington to work for Mesa Airlines as a flight attendant.

Shortly after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he quit his job and started his own business selling billiard tables and whirlpool baths.

Velasquez said he didn't truly feel hopeless until his sister, Caroline Johnson, lost her left leg during a freak accident in December 2008.

"She lost her left leg from the knee down, right before Christmas time," Velasquez said. "We finally got her back on Christmas Eve, and I remember lying on her kitchen floor, crying, saying to myself, I'm never going to feel as helpless as I was at that moment.'"

Shortly after his sister's surgery, Velasquez was incarcerated for multiple arrests related to drunken driving. He was in prison from early 2009 to March 2010.

While in prison, Velasquez started teaching GED courses to inmates. He mentioned his interest in a medical career to the GED course supervisor, Janice Davis. It was Davis who introduced him to the surgical technologies field.

"So when I got out (of prison), I made it a point to go to school," Velasquez said. "I realized with my prison background in the medical (field), getting background checks and what not, I had to put myself as far ahead of the pack as possible."

In an effort to stand out, Velasquez took one honors course at San Juan College before realizing there was no honors program for his degree. So he called honors program director David Bramwell and requested an honors program for surgical technology. At the honors forum, Bramwell said that it was Velasquez's push for the program that made it a reality.

"That's what I wanted. It was more of a personal goal to say I did it," Velasquez said. "My mom needed something to be proud of as well. I put her through a hell of a lot."

Timothy Velasquez's mother, Rosie, said she only had one thing to say about her son.

"I'm very proud of him. He's come a long, long way, and I've got the Lord to thank for bringing him this far," she said.

Timothy Velasquez's girlfriend, Elene Cerspin, said was surprised when she found out about his stint in prison.

"He's an amazing young man. It's just nice to be along this journey with him," she said. "(I'm) just so proud of him. It's the Tim that I know. This is who I know he is."

Velasquez currently works a the Animas Surgical Hospital in Durango, Colo., assisting in a variety of surgeries. Early Tuesday morning, he assisted on a total hip replacement operation.

"(The surgeons) currently have me helping out on surgeries that require a lot of sawing," he said.

Joshua Kellogg can be reached at jkellogg@daily-times.com; 505-564-4627. Follow him on Twitter @JKelloggDT