LAS CRUCES — Jesse Gonzalez, a New Mexico native who served as superintendent of Las Cruces Public Schools for more than 11 years before leaving at the turn of the century, died last weekend at age 85.
Retired educator Del Hansen said Gonzalez’s tenure, from late 1989 to August 2001, encompassed “the glory years” at LCPS: “We were at the forefront of a lot of ideas of leading edge in education, and I think Jesse made that happen.”
Gonzalez left Bernalillo Public Schools to succeed LCPS Superintendent Harold W. Floyd and remained in the new century before leading the Compton California Unified School District for several years until his retirement in 2007. At the time of his death, Gonzalez resided in Georgetown. , Texas, according to his family.
Following his departure, the district was upended as two school board members and three former members faced criminal charges in 2002, accused of violating New Mexico’s open meeting law when they approved $390,000 in incentive compensation for Gonzalez in 2000 and 2001. Board members Jeanette Dickerson and Mary Tucker were recalled by voters in 2002.
Gonzalez has not been accused of wrongdoing and has denied requests for restitution of payments.
“His tenure has been a very positive and shining light in the history of Las Cruces Public Schools,” Hansen said. “He was a good man. I didn’t agree with him on everything, but…he supported his staff, he supported his managers, and I think we went in the right direction.”
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Gonzalez’s nephew, Randy Granger of Las Cruces, recalled his uncle’s distinctive laughter and love of jokes, but said he also saw how driven he was.
“His background was tough,” he said, “but it was his work ethic and his integrity that was key in everything he did. … When he asked you a question, he listened – really listened – when you were answering. I don’t remember my uncle ever speaking ill of anyone, even his harshest public critics.”
A “hand-to-mouth” childhood
The man who eventually led three school districts was born Jesus Gonzalez on a pecan farm in San Miguel, NM — where his father worked as a foreman — on March 29, 1937.
The seventh of 11 children, he later described the family’s existence as “hand to mouth” with the entire family living and working at Stahmann Farms. Gonzalez changed elementary schools frequently while harvesting at different locations in Doña Ana County.
Gonzalez’s father, a Spanish-born farm worker, died when he was a child. His mother, from the city of Chihuahua in Mexico, fell ill a few years later and the family separated when he was 9 years old.
In a 1997 autobiographical article for the Southern New Mexico Historical ReviewGonzalez recalled how he and his peers were treated in class:
“We were seen as ‘different’ from the other students. The teachers humiliated us in front of the class in order to control us. piojos (head lice), made us drink milk in front of the class because we were supposedly malnourished, then put us in a corner at the back of the room because our clothes weren’t clean.”
Gonzalez graduated from Hobbs High School in 1958, after the family moved to be near the oil fields where his older brothers found employment. While he proudly claimed to be the first Hispanic high school alumnus, his description of those years was heartbreaking:
“They called me pepper belly, wetback, beaner, spic and other names – all new to me. I could only attend one theater in town. For many years I couldn’t go to the Jackson’s Drug Store, the favorite haunt of students. When I was allowed in, I had to sit in the back of the store. I couldn’t open dates with Anglo girls. When I went into nearby towns in Texas, I was not served at some restaurants or hosted at motels. I was able to escape the pain of day-to-day living in the new world reading opened up to me — thanks to the helpful people at Stahmann Farms who taught me English.”
Gonzalez earned a bachelor’s degree at New Mexico State University in 1964, exploring law school before turning to education with additional study at Eastern New Mexico University. Soon after, he began teaching Spanish, United States History, and Social Studies.
In 2001, he told the Los Angeles Times he drove a bus to make ends meet, “for the school district he would one day lead”.
He went on to complete an advanced Spanish studies course in Spain, a degree in school counseling from Pepperdine University in California, and two other graduate degrees: a master’s degree in school administration from California State University, Fullerton in 1976 and a Ph.D. from NMSU in 2000.
During Gonzalez’s time, Hansen said, “it wasn’t easy for a Hispanic person to rise to that level of leadership — and he did.”
A difficult mission in Compton
From those early years, Gonzalez grew as a teacher, administrator, coach, personnel manager for Hobbs Schools, and Superintendent of Bernalillo Public Schools, all before taking the job at Las Cruces.
Hansen remembered Gonzalez as a leader who allowed school sites to make independent decisions.
“It was quite refreshing,” he said. “He empowered schools, especially high schools. He said, ‘I want to see something different. I want to see something new. I want to see something that will put our school district forward; “And he said, ‘Do it. Come back to me.'”
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Gonzalez eventually left New Mexico’s second-largest school district for an even more daunting task running Compton Public Schools.
At the time, Compton Unified was one of the worst performing districts in California and just emerging from a state takeover. The district also struggled to obtain textbooks, maintain its physical facilities amid high unemployment and economic hardship in the community, gang activity, and violence at school sites and in the community.
Current Compton School Board President Micah Ali said the board observed a minute of silence in Gonzalez’s honor at its Tuesday meeting.
“There is no doubt that we indeed stand on the shoulders of the former superintendent and are saddened by his passing,” Ali wrote to the Las Cruces Sun-News, adding that Gonzalez was “a valuable contributor to the education of tens of thousands of alumni in the district. Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
During his tenure at Compton in 2003, Gonzalez hosted former President Bill Clinton, whom he had previously met in New Mexico, at a new elementary school named in Clinton’s honor.
With Gonzalez at her side, Clinton told the children in attendance, “You can learn more than you think, and education is the key to anything you want to do.”