SCC cancer victim starts smoking to protest campus smoking ban


Zac Velarde

Professor Michael Valle protests the BreathEasy district mandate that bans smoking on campuses.

Amber Kahwaji, Scottsdale Chronicle reporter

I reluctantly raised my hand to accept this project, thinking to myself how the hell am I going to get this done among the million other assignments due within the next two weeks? But there was something about it that had caught my attention, long before the story was ever pitched inside the newsroom at SCC.

I had seen the man in black sitting on the street corner before, smoking what appeared to be a pipe, adorned in a cowboy hat that was as noir as the rest of his ensemble. I had driven by the scene of him standing on the street corner numerous times wondering who this person was, is he a student of SCC and what exactly is he doing?

So when I found out the man in black was actually a professor, I new I had to find out more about his actions and a movement people called the Dead Smokers Society.

I met Dr. Michael Valle for the first time by accident. I was on my typical routine of leaving campus later in the day and noticed him sitting outside at his staple spot. Before I could think too rationally, I found myself pulling the car over and walking through weeds and gravel toward the pipe-smoking professor.

Valle was in deep thought, or so it appeared, and he didn’t notice me as I approached him. I took a few steps forward and knelt down attempting to gain eye contact, pulling him from the deep state of meditation he was seemingly in. Soon enough Valle looked up and I extended my hand, introduced myself and requested an interview with the doctor.

His office was adorned with volumes on a variety of philosophical topics. Books on Islam rested on the shelves followed by a series of various other themes and a Bible. His cane, which transforms into a seat for when he is resting at his corner, was perched against the wall and the infamous cowboy hat I had grown use to seeing was laying on top of a credenza behind him. An electronic cigar was, perhaps, non-strategically placed in front of his desk nameplate.

Maricopa BreatheEasy was to be the topic of our conversation. Officially put into effect on July 1, 2012, Maricopa BreatheEasy, as stated on their website, “Is a healthy-living initiative sponsored by the Maricopa Community Colleges” with its goal being the elimination of tobacco and vapor products from all District property.

However, with this new policy in place, many students are now forced to leave campus in order to have a smoke break due to all areas on campus, including the parking lots, being off-limits to smokers.

“This whole thing has come down so heavy, quickly and furiously that a lot of people, not just smokers, are saying this whole thing seems a little aggressive,” Valle said as he reclined in his chair.

Not only does Maricopa BreatheEasy ban all tobacco products from campus, the policy also states that electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are equally not allowed to be used on campus grounds.

Valle then proceeded to tell me about being confronted by one of SCC’s security guards for smoking an e-cigarette while getting off his motorcycle one morning before class, explaining that he was told he could not smoke the electronic cigarette and would be ticketed in the future for doing so, saying, “I think very few people think that banning electronic cigarettes in the parking lot is reasonable.”

Cue the birth of the Dead Smokers Society, which according to Valle was a spin-off he credits to the Dead Poets Society, and whose goal is to provide reasonable accommodations for smokers and vapors alike.

Although the start of this society began long before Valle was confronted by Mr. Security Guard, incidents like these have only fueled the fire that keep the Dead Smokers very much alive.

It was in the spring of March 2013 when Valle came up with the idea to protest “breathing easy” and all the asinine rules that it entailed.

While District members were getting ready to unleash its new policy, Valle was in Mayo Clinic fighting for his life. A threatening diagnosis of leukemia was forcing Valle to plan on not making it out alive, with a 50 percent survival rate, and the treatments being extremely invasive.

“I heard about Breathe Easy Maricopa when I was, at that time, the faculty adviser for a group called Students for Liberty at SCC which was a libertarian group,” Valle said. “While I was in the hospital my group, headed by Carlos Alfaro, started passing out real cigarettes on campus, while it was still legal, to make a statement.”

And while his student group was making a statement, Valle was sitting in his hospital room, looking out the window and watching the cars pass by.

Fast-forward four months of treatment and Valle is finally released from Mayo Clinic. “I got out of the hospital and realized how draconian this policy was and how it had radically changed this campus overnight. I was so upset that I decided to start smoking,” Valle said, almost half expecting to see the shock that would inevitably be plastered on my face. “I had never smoked in my life before then and I had just come out of the hospital from leukemia and I decided to start smoking.”

And smoke he did. Once back at school, Valle noticed the shrinking population of students willing to hang out on campus due to not being allowed to enjoy a smoke break. BreatheEasy was pushing kids away, and as Valle puts it, hurting the social experience of the campus.

With students not allowed to have a smoke break either on campus or in the parking lot, many resorted to leaving campus all together in order to ‘take five.’

As students left campus, Valle stayed on, setting up his morphing cane-to-chair at the corner of Chaparral and the SCC stoplight. It was that first day of protest that led to Valle sitting outside at least twice a week, smoking and fighting for students to be allowed to stay on campus and enjoy their cigarette too.

“There is no place anywhere in the wide open campus where students can smoke,” Valle said with a tone of frustration.

But what about those students who oppose breathing in the smoke of other’s cigarettes? Those who wish to, as Maricopa puts it, breathe easy?

“There has to be some middle ground where you can respect people’s interest in not breathing in other people’s smoke with the other extreme of this draconian ban,” Valle said, once again using the word ‘draconian,’ which he clearly feels embodies the BreatheEasy policy quite well.

As Valle continued to advocate his passion for giving students a voice in a ban they never had the privilege to vote on, I can’t help but wonder why a man who cheated death once would be so willing to take up smoking (of all things) to help prove a point.

My question was received by laughter and a statement that blew me away.

“It is really a connection to my mortality combined with do-goodery,” Valle said, “But there are things that are deeper, more important and more profound than an obsessive concern for your physical safety . . . I think that the culture is trying to live in a permanent state of adolescence, a permanent state of safety at all costs.”

And perhaps the doctor has a valid point. How often is our decision making process over-ruled by the fear of getting into trouble, of upsetting someone or having to deal with repercussions we are not ready for? True, certain decisions should be made with a logical and reasonable thought process but what about the times when you had the opportunity to take a risk and didn’t for fear of rustling a few feathers.

As Valle said, “My experience with death has given me more confidence in who I am, more confidence to express my views without fearing the repercussions. That’s why I started smoking on the corner. If I had not had leukemia I may not have ever done that.”

I sit in shock, thinking to myself how can one argue with that? Then, as he had been doing the entire interview, Dr. Valle followed up his statement with something I had no retort to, saying, “And so even if I do acquire some sort of health risk from smoking these pipes, I say that’s okay.”

An act that started as a student protest being protested by a professor has now turned into a call to action for every individual, smoker or nonsmoker, to stand up for their beliefs, stand up for their rights and stand up against ‘The Man.’

And ‘sticking it to the man’ is something Valle believes strongly in, claiming the BreatheEasy policy treats adults like children. “It’s not the job of these authorities to tell me how I’m suppose to live,” Valle said. “Were people dropping dead of cancer all over the place because people smoked pipes in public – in the open air? I seriously doubt it.”

But ‘sticking it to the man’ is not the only item on Valle’s agenda. In the midst of a pro-active response to a policy little supported, Valle also has one more task he accomplishes daily, the opportunity to slow down the world around him and enjoy a break.

“Sitting outside reminds me about that time in the hospital,” Valle said. “It’s like a spiritual awakening and the pipe is the symbol for it. It’s a whole new attitude toward life. I feel so much peace with life, so much peace with death.” Valle then went on to explain how sitting at that corner watching the cars pass by reminds him of when he use to do the same thing from his hospital window.

He then let me be privilege to a little secret that only him and his pipe know about. As Valle said, “I sit on my stool and I say a prayer. I watch the cars pass by, I listen to music, wave to people, enjoy the sun and have fun. A lot of folks love to see me with my pipe. They know what I know.”

And it’s true, the students and faculty all know Valle and his Society of Dead Smokers. In fact not one negative thing has come from Valle’s protest and there have even been a few times where students have joined him for a smoke or a chat at that now infamous corner.

While Valle continues his new found tradition, he also continues to urge individuals to stand up for what they believe in and take a moment to remember what matters most in their lives.

Then Valle expressed a desire that made his wild take on life humble by saying, “I want to be remembered as the guy who had that attitude, that spirit, who smoked on the corner and (people say) it’s such a bummer not to see him anymore.”

As I left Dr. Valle’s office I couldn’t help but think of how much impact he has had on the students of SCC, whether he realizes it or not, and in the little safe haven of our community college resides a professor who truly wants to see students understand they can make a difference.

As I left campus after our interview I drove past Dr. Valle’s corner and I knew although he was not sitting on his stool he would be soon enough, smoking his pipe, saying a prayer and watching the cars pass by.