Manuel Guerrero was one of Minnesota's most influential Hispanic attorneys, serving as a founder and first director of the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association and a mentor to countless aspiring law students.

Even at age 78, he was driving to southern Minnesota to represent clients, many of them low-income people who had few options for Spanish-speaking attorneys. He believed in equal representation for all, his family said.

Guerrero, a longtime St. Paul resident, died of a heart attack on Jan. 7.

"It was about justice being served," said his son Todd Guerrero, an attorney in Minneapolis. "He worked hard to help others succeed."

That included serving as a role model in Minnesota's growing Hispanic community.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a Latino attorney in Minnesota for whom Manuel was not a mentor," said Carolina Lamas, executive director of the Neighborhood Justice Center in St. Paul.

Guerrero grew up in Marion, Ind., one of nine children in a working-class family. His parents, Nick and Francis Guerrero, immigrated to the United States from Mexico when they were teenagers. He was the first to attend college, the University of Notre Dame, and later earned a law degree at Indiana University-Indianapolis. He became a Grant County Circuit Court judge at age 29. He held the position for six years, until he determined it was not the right career path.

"He found himself sympathizing with the defendant and thought he should get off the bench," said son Dan Guerrero, also a Minneapolis attorney.

The young lawyer made an unsuccessful bid for Congress after resigning from the bench in 1970, inspired by his heroes President John F. Kennedy and brother Robert Kennedy, Todd Guerrero said.

In 1973, Guerrero was recruited to teach criminal law at the University of Minnesota and served as chair of the Chicano Studies Department. In the 1980s, he moved to Indiana and Arizona to practice law.

Guerrero returned to Minnesota in 1990, becoming director of the U's Chicano/Latino Resource Center. A year later, he became a founder of the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association. He encouraged his successors there to create ties to the National Hispanic Bar Association and to build strong mentoring programs, said Peter Reyes, the association's current president.

By 2010, Minnesota hosted the national association's annual convention, Reyes said, "putting a spotlight on Minnesota and showing its growing and strong Hispanic legal community."

Guerrero, who practiced law for 50 years, was respected in the broader legal community as well. "He had a unique blend and breadth of experience," longtime Twin Cities attorney Marshall Tanick said. "He had judicial experience. He practiced criminal and civil law. He was an educator. I relied on him for advice on many issues."

Guerrero was a man of few words who was loyal to his family and friends, his sons said. He was a stylish dresser and wore a signature bow tie, they said. Living with his wife, Elaine, on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul, he enjoyed reading, baseball, walking his dog and spending time with his family.

"He was a loving dad," Todd Guerrero said. "A perfect time for him would be to be with his family at one of our houses, or at his own house, on his deck overlooking the cathedral."

Guerrero is survived by his wife, Elaine Vargo, former wife Patricia Guerrero, sons Dan, Mike, Todd and Chad, daughters Ann Gilligan and Clare ("Angie") Vivier, stepson Wes Peterson, and his grandchildren.

Services have been held.