This piece was originally published in Hilltop Views.
My four-year routine of reserving Monday nights for contributing to weekly print editions of Hilltop Views ended this week. Crowded together on computer screens, my staff and I work through writing, designing and editing. Around midnight, the majority start dwindling out of the office.
Tuesday around 3 a.m., janitorial staff tidied up the newspaper office at St. Edward’s University. I know them personally, as they’ve often walked in on me tackling page details in solitude. A short nap and a few classes later, my staff and I made last-minute copy edits before sending page proofs to our publisher Tuesday afternoon.
This morning I am savoring the smell of fresh ink, reading my byline in print one more time and sipping from a can of Diet Sunkist. Someday is today. As a journalism student, I have developed a passion for crafting profile features, so it’s only fitting that my final collegiate story pays tribute to the one who has made me feel most confident as a professional writer: Joel “Joey” A. Gonzalez.
My Uncle Joey’s congratulatory texts on a big story would signal a job well-done. His seal of approval meant more to me than any recognition I’d receive from the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association or the College Media Association.
Serving as editor-in-chief of Hilltop Views has been a privileged honor, and I can only hope to have carried myself with a fraction of the courtesy and integrity bestowed by my mentor.
Media marks a timestamp of relevance. A collection of facts or call to action, the Fourth Estate focuses on accountability, geopolitics and spreading the light of truth. Exemplifying breadth and depth, journalists connect people to news.
When writing a profile, I have a uniquely rhythmic approach. I find a song that reminds me of the subject, possibly a lyric relating to their personality or the interview topic. Then I play the song continuously as I type, until I’m satisfied with the article’s quality.
For this profile, I chose “Legends” by country pop artist Kelsea Ballerini, a song I listened to the evening of Joey’s death on Jan. 10. By definition, a “legend” is a well-known protagonist who excels. In my sports journalism class, I was taught to reserve this word for the true one-in-a-million.
Joey: A simple man, a father, son, brother, uncle, cousin, friend, compadre, padrino, confidant, leader, servant, hard worker, banker, valedictorian, coach, sports fan and inspiration — an angel who means so much to so many.
“We wrote our own story.”
When starting a new semester, my routine preparations would often include joining him for lunch in my hometown of Pharr, Texas, the week before my departure to Austin. Our conversations revolved around sports chatter, la política and future pursuits — embedded with mindful listening and heartfelt advice.
In early January though, I visited my Uncle Joey at the hospital instead. A healthy, active 51-year-old with outstanding intellect, he had just suffered a series of minor strokes, plausibly linked to his high-school football days as an All-State safety.
Despite undergoing two extensive cranial operations a day apart, he seemed perfectly fine. Doctors were optimistic to see him walking, talking and pursuing a quick recovery. It was the beginning of a new year, and he eagerly awaited clearance to return to his fulfilling life as a meticulous banker, humble community leader, devoted friend and most importantly, a respectable father of twin college graduates, Justin Alec and Jenna Alexandra.
As I walked into his room at the ICU the following evening, he was sitting up listening to a basketball game surrounded by loved ones. Although he was a little groggy from surgery, his stimulating demeanor was up to par, as he jokingly said, “Amanda, I’ve been waiting for ESPN to come write a concussion story on me, but I can call them off now that you’re here.”
We briefly talked about his surgeries’ complexities, as he deflected to a topic he felt was more relevant — the Texas primaries. When nurses came to check his vitals a few minutes later, it seemed like a good cue to let him rest. As I squeezed his hand farewell, he told me not to worry and proposed a lunch rain-check for spring break.
Less than 24 hours later, while walking with Jenna in the hospital, he collapsed and suffered from a massive pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lungs preventing oxygen from traveling to the brain.
His compassionate doctors gave their best efforts, but without medical options or miraculous progress, Justin and Jenna knew their dad would want to help families one more time, and decided to donate his organs after circulatory death. They found comfort in knowing another family would be receiving the gift that was their father, which is what he would have wanted.
Over a span of eight days, his busy life of integrity abruptly paused, then ceased. It wasn’t fair. He had unfinished business, pending good deeds and loved ones left behind.
Being from a small town in a tri-city school district, consoling comments and prayers from our Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) ISD family flooded in — all of which were warmly felt.
Upon arriving to Austin the day after the funeral, I officially stepped into the role of Editor-In-Chief at Hilltop Views — my big announcement I didn’t get to share with him at the hospital.
Writing for our student publication has been my badge of honor, as I’ve accumulated more than 225 articles since 2014. Always up to date with news, he was a diligent reader of mine. One time even being the first to inform me that my feature on a PSJA alumnus working at NASA had been printed across South Texas in The Monitor.
His morning routine included working on the crossword puzzles in the newspaper. Those within his tight circle turn the games pages into a friendly competition to sharpen the mind and escape the day’s stresses.
One of his closest friends was Tito Ramirez, a local insurance agent who knew Joey since Little League days in middle school. Years later, they coached their kids together for 13 years and would routinely have lunch at local restaurants a few times a week.
“He loved to do the jumble and crosswords daily… And I believe he got his mother into it,” Ramirez said. “I would joke with him at the gym because he would even do them on the bike when he was cycling.”
“If I got stuck on a word, he’d give me the first letter and let me figure out the rest,” Joey’s mother Manuela “Meme” Gonzalez said, acknowledging that his crossword hints are of the small things she misses most.
These friends and family are also the ones he’d proudly share my Hilltop Views articles with, especially during my two years as sports editor. I knew this, but I didn’t realize how far the chain extended — not until his funeral services. It touched my heart at how many people provided contact information so I could continue sharing articles with them directly.
“Neon in a gray crowd.”
Joey never shied away from saying he grew up from humble beginnings. His father Carlos was a self-employed welder with a small mechanic shop, while his mother worked as a library clerk and elementary school volunteer. His life-long best friend and brother Javier “Harvey” was two years older.
Harvey notes that his little brother was a fast learner and would be paying attention in the background when Harvey and their mom would be working on math or spelling homework. On grocery trips to H-E-B, their mother would buy each of the boys a 10-cent Little Golden Books.
From a young age, Joey wanted to be a banker. He and his brother would deposit their nickels and dimes into their savings accounts, which made an impression on him. The inviting building had air conditioning and lax 9 a.m.-2 p.m. hours that appealed to a six-year-old.
Harvey explains that their dad is a product of the hot-rod era in the 1950s, which granted the boys a passion for loud cars. The two boys worked long hot hours in the garage throughout high school to be able to afford and later refurbish ‘72 Corvettes; Harvey’s is elkhart green and Joey’s light blue. Their dad’s rationale for having two of the same car was if one wasn’t working, parts from one could salvage the other. About 25 years later, the brothers co-founded the Valley Corvette Club in 1997.
“He had one canny ability that not too many people could touch,” Harvey said, referring to it as a gift that allowed him to have a memorable impact on many people. “I’m good with numbers and remembering what people drive, and Joey could remember everyone’s names and tell you who was related to who.”
Upon graduating from PSJA High School as the Class of 1984’s valedictorian, Joey attended the University of Texas at Austin before transferring to the University of Texas-Pan American, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Finance in 1989.
Joey wasn’t related to long-time Board Member of Lone Star National Bank, Oscar R. Gonzalez, but I am related to him through my dad’s side of the family. Oscar knew Joey’s dad, and Joey went to school with his daughter Melissa and nephew Roy Salinas.
When Joey was in college at Pan American, Oscar sparked Joey’s banking career by hiring him as an internal auditor at Lone Star National Bank to help make sure all departments of the bank were following procedures and to fix any problems before they worsened. Later Joey went into the field of lending, which Oscar explained was a higher-paying job, followed by years serving as a loan officer and then a commercial lender at other local banks.
“Customers would follow him because he treated everyone right,” Oscar said, saying that Joey would handle his personal loans as well. “What a bank wants is people who could bring in more loans, and he would do that… He would really take good care of his customers, and they trusted that he would do the right thing.”
To honor their late Senior Vice President, his colleagues at Texas Regional Bank opened the “Joel Gonzalez Scholarship Fund” (Account No. 1308907) to honor his passion for service and initiated a golf tournament scholarship fundraiser in Joey’s name.
Passion for our jobs is something we had in common for the human aspect. Listening to someone’s life story of perseverance during interviews, as well as late-night Ed Sheeran jam sessions with fellow editors in the empty halls of Andre Hall and Holy Cross Hall were my favorite parts of being a student journalist.
For him, besides crunching numbers, the most rewarding aspect of his 30-year banking career was knowing the loans he made would jumpstart someone’s opportunity to buy their first home or start a new business.
“It didn’t matter if you have $5 or $50,000, Joey treated everyone the same,” Harvey said. “Joey touched a lot of hearts… He was careful with his money, and careful with the bank’s money.”
His office door was always open or his phone number available to guide people through several tough decisions. Asking smart questions, the right questions, he’d raise your level of excellence with each encounter. Saludaba a todos, and genuinely wanted to know how you were doing.
He made the most loans across the Texas Regional Bank branches in the Rio Grande Valley in 2017, a bragging right he never boasted. A simple man with punctual routines, he ate the same strawberry-flavored poptarts every morning and found out the final scores of a big game before falling asleep. He’d always order sweet tea, a small 6-ounce steak, and a baked potato with sour cream and butter only.
Sundays were reserved for mass at John the Baptist Catholic Parish in San Juan, Texas, and having lunch with his mother and Harvey’s family, as well as washing his car and yard work. Monday Night Football would happen at his dear friends Romeo and Janet Robles’ house, who also serve with the PSJA Education Foundation.
Wednesday mornings, he’d read the Advance newspaper hot off the press and attend monthly board meetings with the PSJA Education Foundation. Thursday get-togethers at Texas Roadhouse for lunch with banking friends. Friday night dinner dates with his daughter or watching his son coach a basketball game.
In terms of how we’re related, Joey’s grandfather and my grandfather were half-brothers, but he and my mom Letty were just a few months apart in age and closer than our complicated family tree suggests.
Joey’s hardworking parents are my mom’s beloved padrinos de bautismo who lived a few blocks away from her childhood home in Pharr. With many of his relatives three hours north in Poteet, Texas, and my mom’s relatives three hours southwest in Linares, Nuevo León, Joey and his brother Harvey were some of the few cousins my mom and her brother Jerry had in the Rio Grande Valley.
Joey became a banker, Harvey became a state auditor. My mom became a librarian at PSJA ISD and my Tío Jerry became a welder. Their kids are not too far apart in age, but over the years, our lives became busy and we didn’t see each other as often as we should. The fondest childhood memories I have with my cousins are Easter egg hunts at Tío Beto and Tía Olivia Gonzalez’s house.
Similar in character to Joey, my encouraging Tío Jerry was the uncle I was closest to during my childhood, until his death on Feb. 9, 2011, also at the young age of 51. After my uncle Jerry died, I sought a formative mentor — and Joey stepped up to the plate.
“Didn’t do it for the fame or the glory.”
At the time, I was a freshman who would take photos from the sidelines for the yearbook at PSJA North High School and his kids were two years older at PSJA High, so we’d all see each other at the cross-town rival Bear-Raider sporting events where Jenna was a Bearette and senior class president and Justin was a tri-sport athlete.
“He taught me how to balance school work and sports,” Justin said. “I was not allowed to go to practice unless I was done with my homework and passing my classes. That was always motivation for me to excel in school.”
Joey lived a few doors down from current PSJA School Board President Ronnie Cantu in the same subdivision. Although the two were previous business acquaintances, they became closer friends watching Justin play football and basketball his senior year. Joey then started accompanying him to more sporting events in support of PSJA teams.
In fact, I interviewed Cantu over the phone as he was heading to a playoff softball game in Harlingen a few days ago on a drive he likely would’ve made with Joey if he were still here, noting that Jenna and her fiancé Scott Guzman would have likely joined them.
The year the twins graduated was when the former Tri-City Coalition officially became the PSJA Education Foundation, a larger board strategically comprised of city commissioners from Pharr, San Juan and Alamo, as well as school board members and resourceful community members.
As one of the co-founders, Joey spent the last five years of his life serving as the foundation’s president helping to provide students scholarships and teachers mini-grants.
“Joey and I worked really hard on the Foundation because it was his passion and it also became mine,” said Cantu, who serves as vice president for the PSJA Education Foundation. “You know Joey and his attention to detail, not just in raising money, but in reading the many scholarships and mini-grants [applications] necessary to select the best in each category. He did all the dirty work that people don’t often see a president do, that sometimes a president will delegate. He felt he had to be involved in all facets of the Foundation to make sure everything went according to plan.”
The Tri-City Coalition would operate with funds from an annual fundraiser and consistently provided a set number of scholarships. But Joey wanted the numbers to show linear growth. From providing $30,000-40,000 a year under the Coalition, the new PSJA Education Foundation raised $150,000 in the first year and close to $200,000 the past four years, per Cantu.
“I can easily say that because of Joey and Trino Medina and what the board has done by encouraging the community to take ownership of our district, we’ve raised over $1 million in the last five years that the Education Foundation has been in place,” Cantu said.
During my junior and senior year of high school, I would help Joey with promoting the scholarship applications on campus and across social media. As our paths started to cross more frequently, he started introducing me as his niece to simplify the relation explanation, and I grew accustomed to calling him Uncle Joey out of respect, (compared to my goofy dad, who is five years older and playfully called him Uncle Joey when he would stop by Car Check, my family’s local mechanic shop). Since we shared the same last name, no one ever questioned it, and neither did we.
Rewarding students for their well-rounded efforts and teachers for their creativity in the classroom was a meaningful responsibility. He was a strong supporter of reading, and would always be in attendance at the BRIGHT Summer Reading Awards Ceremony, of which I was a four-year winner.
Since he now had an official role with the district, he would be the very first to congratulate me from the side of the stage or give me a proud shoutout over a microphone.
“My dad always taught me that as long as I tried my best it was okay,” Jenna said. “That was good enough for him. That always made me feel loved and showed that he was proud of me.”
Tito described his best friend Joey as a “sports intellect.” Local editor/co-owner for The Advance Gregg Romero Wendorf would often rely on Joey’s Rio Grande Valley sports background to help him narrow down a game-of-the-week to send a sports reporter to for high school football coverage.
I interned with the PSJA ISD Public Relations Dept. over the summer of 2016, and was assigned several media projects related to the Education Foundation. These fond memories included photographing his sweet smile as he presented scholarship checks, taking notes at monthly meetings, and tagging along at community events.
In 2017, the opportunity arose for me to serve as a legislative intern at the Texas State Capitol with the Office of State Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., a moderate Democrat who represents the Pharr area. As a journalism student, I was hesitant in exposing any form of political bias, but my Uncle Joey’s encouraging opinion convinced me to pursue the internship in Austin, where I gained experience in analyzing the state’s budget.
During the occasional phone call, he’d ask me to articulate aloud the financial concepts I was learning, so that he could clarify details or define terminology I didn’t yet understand. Also to Joey’s credit, I now plan on remaining involved in the upcoming 86th Texas Legislature.
And although he was always quick to shut down the idea, I wasn’t the only one who thought he should run for public office. As echoed in Romero Wendorf’s tribute column, Joey viewed elected officials through a political kaleidoscope, blending shades of red and blue to focus on wrong or right, talker or doer, corrupt or honest.
“He was a good judge of character,” Romero Wendorf said. “He was a walking history of the community.”
To understand him, you need to understand his dedication to volunteering. In addition to serving as the Foundation’s president, he was also a member of the Pharr Rotary Club, Pharr Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis Club. Exceptionally kind-hearted, he spent Christmas Day delivering warm holiday meals to the women and children at Mujeres Unidas, a local shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. He knew the value of time and the value of a dollar.
Whenever we’d talk, he’d fill me in on all the good things his kids were doing, as well as his two accomplished nephews James and John, who mirror several personality commonalities between him and Harvey. He’d give me the latest baseball stats on his godson and Tito’s youngest child Bryan, and a general progress report on all his friends.
“Went down in history.”
In the days after Joey’s death, Justin found the fortitude to coach his young varsity basketball team to an undefeated season for the first time in school history at IDEA Alamo.
A few months later, Jenna found happiness in her engagement to Scott Guzman, a football coach who teaches students to have strong character. Jenna says her dad would often attend her boyfriend’s sporting events with her, and most definitely approved of him.
Justin knows his dad will be watching over him and will continue providing heavenly progress reports at halftime, just as Jenna knows her dad will be watching over her lovingly on her wedding day.
Some of the activities Jenna truly misses doing with her dad are riding bikes and going for long walks, noting that he would have loved the new trails that Hidalgo County is constructing near their neighborhood.
Joey’s sudden death made me realize that words matter in a way I had never grasped before. The stories I wrote mattered to him. His text messages of encouragement mattered to me.
It all mattered — his newspaper game hints, the late nights studying to earn his diplomas, his calculations on financial records, the text on scholarship and grant applications, the x’s and o’s in his coaching playbooks, his hand-written signature on cards.
Losing my Uncle Joey made me realize that we can’t waste time on this earth, but that we also need to make time to stroll through the garden — and thanks to our PSJA Family, we now have not one but two special gardens named in his honor.
“I want students to know that my dad was so proud of the students from PSJA,” Jenna said of those who will earn a scholarship in her father’s name. “He cared so much about the education students received and I think that’s part of the reason he, along with several others, created the Education Foundation. My dad would want the students to use the money wisely. (He was huge on saving money.) He would want them to try their best and excel in school. For him, if they tried their absolute best that’s all that mattered.”
Joey, you had a humble heart, and we all know you would’ve greatly opposed this fanfare, but you’re so deserving of it. You’re the reason why your banking colleagues and the PSJA education community will unite for a scholarship fundraiser on Saturday. You’re the reason why your banking mentor Oscar plans to battle through a sore knee playing in the golf tournament.
You’re the reason why I’ll head home Friday night as soon as I’m done with my final undergraduate essay to help photograph the event. You’re the reason why all your family and friends will serve as volunteers in 90 degrees weather to preserve your legacy by creating more scholarship and grant opportunities for hardworking students and educators.
Thank you sincerely for being the loving “uncle” you didn’t have to be. I looked forward to seeing you at my graduation ceremony, continuing our repartee on the Texas Legislature, as well as sorting through my plans to continue studying communications and public affairs.
I know you and my Tío Jerry will be there in spirit when I receive my Bachelor’s in English Writing with a specialization in Journalism & Digital Media and minor in Spanish from St. Edward’s University on May 12.
Your story was worth writing, and your story is worth reading. The best by Pharr, you made us all tremendously proud, and we will strive to work hard, love deeply, find balance, give selflessly, inspire others and be cumplidos — to live like you, Joey.