Manuel Roman pored over Spanish-English dictionaries in his spare time, seeking out the obscure words to make sure he had a command of both languages for his job as an interpreter in the Dakota County court system.
“He was more than just an interpreter,” said Dakota County Judge Arlene Perkkio, who first met Roman many years ago when she was a public defender. “In some ways, he was very much a cultural ambassador for the Latin community. He was able to explain, in addition to interpreting, the cultural differences and perceptions people had about the court system.”
Roman, of Eagan, a beloved fixture around the courts both for his dedication to his job and his compassion for his co-workers and those for whom he interpreted, died Dec. 29 after a heart attack. He was 70.
“He loved what he did,” said his daughter, Vanessa Roman of Ham Lake. “He had zero plans to retire. He worked the day he died.”
Mindful of the rules around his role, he was careful not to give legal advice over his two decades of service. But he did go off script to help put people at ease, said Perkkio.
She recalled a time when she was a public defender and a client who was upset about finding himself in jail was yelling at her in Spanish.
Roman stepped in to helped defuse the situation.
“I speak some Spanish,” said Perkkio. “But Manuel looked at me and said, ‘Let me handle this.’ He explained to him what my job was and what I had done in preparation for the trial and that he should not be angry at me.”
For many years, Roman, who worked as an independent contractor, was the only Spanish interpreter in the Dakota County court system and its three courthouses in Apple Valley, Hastings and West St. Paul. His services were often in high demand, especially as the population in the county swelled.
“There were days when he went to all three — not just in one day, but in one morning,” said Court Administrator Heidi Carstensen.
“He was kind of a piece of the woodwork,” she said. “He was always so personable and had a smile on his face.”
Many people who found themselves relying on him were often not there under very happy circumstances, she added.
“But Manuel would make that person who struggled with English comfortable without sacrificing his role in the courtroom,” Carstensen said.
He was also renowned for his encyclopedic memory and interest in asking about his many co-workers’ children or following up to see how a sick parent was doing.
“It just blew me away that he made that personal connection with every person,” said Carstensen. “He would say, ‘How is your daughter?’ and he would remember her name.”
Born in central Mexico in the city of Aguascalientes, Roman grew up in a family that owned guava orchards.
After he graduated from high school and served one year of compulsory service in the military, he came to St. John’s University as an international student and graduated with a degree in physics.
He met his ex-wife, Cristina, who attended the College of St. Benedict, while in school.
He started off his career doing a number of different jobs such as selling cars, said his daughter.
At one point, he ran a computer parts business with a friend.
After that business closed, he started doing some work for a friend who was an interpreter.
“From there, it just snowballed,” she said. “He loved it.”
He also never stopped learning. He would often go to bookstores looking for new or different Spanish-English dictionaries to increase his mastery.
“There are probably 20 different dictionaries sitting in his spare room right now,” she said.
In his free time, he also loved tinkering with the old stereo equipment in his basement and listening to his large record collection.
He also liked to help people out. Not long before he died, he sold a car he had advertised online. It wasn’t worth much, but the single mom who wanted it didn’t have much to offer, either, his daughter said. He ended up giving it to her for $200.
“That’s what she could afford,” she said. “It made him feel good to be able to help people.”
Besides daughter Vanessa, he is survived by a son, Adrian, of Colorado; another daughter, Yvette, of Blaine; siblings Leticia and Jesus in Mexico, and a granddaughter, Aryanna. Services have been held.