Julie Otero was a lot tougher than she looked, her son Charlie remembers.
A 34-year-old mother of five, she was petite, weighing in at only about 100 pounds. And she was as sweet as an angel, Charlie said.
But her angelic exterior hid an inner fighter -- literally.
A longtime Air Force wife, Julie Otero signed her entire family up for summer judo classes being offered on the base. She saw the classes as something she and her kids could do together.
In no time, Julie was a brown belt and her children were winning trophy after trophy.
Charlie laughs when he remembers his tiny fighting mother.
"You'd see my 100-pound mom fighting these 160- and 180-pound women in tournaments," he said. "She was rough and tough, and she'd just deal with them.
"But she was a lady all the way."
Julie was mentally tough as well. Charlie still has visions of his mother dragging herself, her children and all their luggage through an airport as they traveled to join his father in the Panama Canal Zone, where he was stationed for seven years.
Born in Puerto Rico, Julie came to the United States on a banana boat as a child, her son said.
Outgoing, social and popular, she quickly caught the eye of Joseph Otero, who chased her for years. The two were married in a big church wedding in New York City, and Charlie was born "almost nine months later to the day."
When the family moved to Wichita, Julie took a job on the assembly line at Coleman. She was laid off about a month later in a labor force reduction. She was recommended for rehire.
Charlie adored his mother and remembers her as a devout Catholic who remained passionate about her culture.
"My mom would pay me a penny a word to speak Spanish to her," Charlie said. "She didn't want me to forget it."
She was also an excellent cook. She never made anything from a can, and she would prepare her kids anything they wanted for breakfast, from Belgian waffles to fritters.
"My mother was like an angel," Charlie said. "She didn't drink. She didn't get mad. All she cared about was making sure we had what we needed for life."
-- Denise Neil
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