Gonzalo Garza — educator, student advocate, decorated war veteran and namesake for Garza Independence High School in East Austin — died May 17 at age 95.
“Gonzalo was a beautiful human being,” his partner, Judy Barnes, said. “I always thought of him as a ‘holy man.’ He was always gentle and kind and really loved his God, his family, friends and all kids. … He would ask a total stranger if he was in school and what his education and life goals were.”
Garza was born Jan. 10, 1927, on a farm near New Braunfels to Carlos and Victoria Garza, migrant farmworkers.
Some of his earliest memories were of the Great Depression during the 1930s.
“We were really almost starving because there was very little work for my father and food became scarce,” Garza told the University of Texas Voces Oral History Project, which records the memories of Latino and Latina veterans, in 2001. “My uncle, Martin Villareal, was better off, although he had a large family. Finding out our situation, he gave us half a wagon of corn. My mother made corn tortillas that we ate with some shortening and salt for a while.”
As a member of a large migrant family, whose every member worked in the fields, Gonzalo attended many schools in his youth. Garza started his classroom education in 1937 in a one-room country school southeast of New Braunfels known as the “Mexican school.” He began school “not knowing one word of English.”
Military service, education and advocate for students
In 1944 — at age 17 — Gonzalo left Northside Junior High School in Corpus Christi to join the Marines. He served his country with honor in World War II and Korea, earning the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart in combat.
Under Japanese gunfire, his company landed on the islands of Saipan and Tinian. They were assigned to stage a famous diversionary “false landing” on Okinawa to protect the real landing on the other side of the island. Garza later searched for straggling Japanese soldiers in the caves of Saipan.
Returning from service, he earned his GED certificate and studied at what was then called Del Mar Junior College in Corpus Christi.
“I promised myself, if I ever get back, I would graduate from high school,” Garza said, “number one goal, and think about furthering my education and going on to college.”
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With the help of the GI Bill, he attended St. Mary’s University in San Antonio in 1949, and received $90 per month to subsidize his tuition and living expenses.
“The GI Bill has been, I would say, a savior for not only the Hispanic military persons, but anybody who served in the military had the right to claim that bill,” Garza said.
In 1950, another war interrupted the education of the Marine reservist and he was headed to Korea, where in the bitter cold, he developed frostbite on his feet. Sgt. Garza was sent home in November 1951.
At St. Mary’s again, he studied Spanish and history and received his B.A. before teaching at Edgewood Elementary in San Antonio. He got his master’s degree from San Antonio’s Our Lady of the Lake University in 1954.
He taught elementary school in Corpus Christi before becoming an assistant principal and principal there while serving as Nueces County director of the Head Start program. Garza moved his family to Austin in 1969 so he could get his doctorate in education at UT, which he did in 1976.
Garza was hired as an area superintendent in Houston, district superintendent in Eagle Pass and superintendent in San Marcos before moving back to Austin to become associate superintendent in 1981.
He became deeply involved with his namesake high school and was dedicated to preventing dropouts.
“Dr. Garza loved coming to school,” remembered Mamie Hickerson, a retired Garza teacher. “He loved taking time to visit with the students. He always would ask the students how they were doing and what they wanted to do after graduation. At the end of the year, he would return to school to thank the faculty for their hard work.”
“He was an advocate for kids who nearly dropped out of school,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, head of the Voces Project. “My older son, who hated high school, graduated from there. Teachers there really were understanding and caring — a big difference from what we found at other schools.”
Gonzalo Garza: ‘hard work, life, love and success’
Gonzalo Garza married Delores Scott Garza in 1954. They had five children: Charles Lee Garza, Louis Garza, Larry Garza, David Garza and Patsy Mendel.
Dolores died June 21, 2009. Before that, while she was in memory care, Gonzalo visited her once or twice a day. Gonzalo is survived by his five children as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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“His life story is immense and he would always be happy to tell you about it,” wrote friends Melanie and David Kellerman in a joint email. “But Gonzalo never told his story boastfully. His story was always told with humble pride. Gonzalo’s life story is one of hardships, determination, hard work, life, love and success.”
Many memories of Garza revolve around his devout Catholicism. He attended Mass every Sunday and said the rosary at least twice a day, Barnes said. He organized a “Holy Family” group at St. Helen Catholic Church in Georgetown.
“We all would meet monthly with him to share stories and our faith,” Mike Douglas said. “Every meeting was a unique opportunity to fully appreciate this self-made American hero who filled every meeting with humor and humble life experiences that we will well always cherish.”
Several friends and family members emphasized Garza’s sense of humor, as well as his love of televised sports and Westerns. The game of horseshoes was another passion. He earned several medals in the sport at the state and national Senior Olympics.
“He woke up in the morning always happy and ready for any adventure,” said Barnes, who became Garza’s companion after his wife’s death. “He was funny and delighted in reactions to his endless jokes. From the time I met him, I have never laughed so much ever.”
A funeral for Garza was held in Georgetown, and a gravesite service with military honors followed at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.