When you say your professor was a drill sergeant that doesn’t sound like a compliment.
But Rebecca “Becky” Salokar, chair of Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Relations, was a drill sergeant at the U.S. Army Training Center in Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
After her 1974 graduation from South Miami Senior High School, Salokar enlisted. In 1982, as an Army reservist, she graduated from FIU with a bachelor’s in political science.
That degree, to which she added a master’s and Ph.D in political science from Syracuse University, set Salokar on the path to a 31-year career as a political science professor at FIU. Some of her students went on to become judges, Florida legislators and lawyers, including Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Miami-Dade Chief Judge Bertila Soto.
Salokar died on Dec. 19, at 60, of cancer. She was the drill sergeant turned professor who inspired devotion from her students.
“She wanted to reach out to you. That was what Becky lived for. One of the things that made Becky happiest was to hear from a former student,” said 11th Judicial Circuit Judge Judith Rubenstein, Salokar’s wife. The couple were together for 22 years.
“I’ve known her for 38 years. She was an extraordinary student whose connection to people made her one of the most effective teachers I have ever known. She had a huge impact on careers and aspirations,” said John Stack, founding dean of FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs.
Salokar joined FIU in 1985 and was politics department chair from 2012 to the summer of 2016.
“She was such an enthusiastic teacher. Professsor Salokar was one of the reasons why I stayed in political science. You could tell Becky loved teaching,” said FIU Class of 1986 grad Catherine McManus, assistant general counsel, 11th Judicial Circuit Court.
A great teacher gives a little bit of their soul and leaves a part of their soul in their students. Becky fit that description in every possible way.
John Stack, founding dean of FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs.
“I hear this all the time,” Stack said. “For me, a great teacher gives a little bit of their soul and leaves a part of their soul in their students. Becky fit that description in every possible way.”
In a twist, teacher became student again and wound up working for one of her former FIU classmates.
That classmate is now U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga, the first Cuban-American woman on the federal bench. As a regular assignment for her judicial process course, Salokar sent her students to observe court proceedings, interview the presiding judge and write a paper. Altonaga was one of the judges Salokar often had her students interview.
In 2009, Salokar fulfilled a dream to earn a law degree. She graduated from FIU’s law school, finishing second in her class while working full-time as a professor. She then clerked for Altonaga.
“No awkwardness there — I was now her ‘boss’ and she my trusted law clerk. She quickly and seamlessly changed our roles from colleague/university professor to a member of my team, working closely with me on a day-to-day basis,” Altonaga said. “Her work product was superb; no surprise there. And that is the time during which I truly got to know Becky as the amazing human being she was. And over the years since that time, she became one of my closest and dearest friends.”
Born Nov. 1, 1956, in Miami Beach, Salokar’s grandfather Andrew was a Yugoslavian immigrant who moved to Miami in 1910 and homesteaded 160 acres along Coral Way. His sons Claude (Salokar’s father) and Philip built and ran Ludway Bar and Grill in 1947. The bar sat at 2370 SW 67th Ave., for 42 years, until 1989.
Old Herald news clips depict Salokar, face flushed and damp, hoisting empty beer kegs over her head to cut through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd in 1987. “Make way! Make way!” she’d shout as she made her way to the bar to toast her father, who died less than two years later in April 1989.
“Becky … was forever positive and loved to lend a helping hand to anyone who needed it,” Altonaga said. “The way she confronted the challenge of her cancer care is in keeping with the way she handled any and all challenges that came her way: with bountiful spirit, grace and positivity.”
Salokar is also survived by her brother Frank. A memorial will be held in January. A scholarship fund in Salokar's name is being established at FIU. For details, contact Maria Wilkinson-Diaz at 305-348-2227.