By Ty-Eshia Johnson
Felix Gonzales, mortuary science department chair, has been working as an undertaker for 41 years, but music was his first love and he aspired to be a world-famous opera singer.
Gonzales pursued opera singing in college, participated in opera productions and sang in the San Antonio Mastersingers.
That dream didn’t work out so he took up teaching music in public school.
In May 1973, Gonzales quit his public school job without any job prospects in teaching or elsewhere. “At that point in education, money was very, very tight,” he said. Music and art were being defunded, adding “What little funding there was, was being reduced, and it was very demoralizing,” Gonzales said.
“The fact that, you know, try as hard as you may … you didn’t have the support of the school district where I worked and … I didn’t want to go through it again,” he said.
Gonzalas said he wasn’t making much money to begin with and,“It got to a point where I wound up having to spend a lot of my own personal money to buy (sheet)music for the students to use. And I said ‘no, this is not for me,’”
“I loved it. I loved the students, but I just couldn’t go on in that kind of environment so I quit.”
After quitting his job — where, he won’t say — Gonzales said he sought employment at other school districts, but they were in the same situation.
“I enjoyed being in education and I enjoyed being in music,” Gonzales said. “I think that if I’d been in music education anywhere else, I would have been happy as well,” he added. “It wasn’t leaving that school necessarily but leaving that type of environment because the students were responding so well,” he said.
Gonzales said the school never had any achievement or success in artistic endeavors, but he got enjoyment from seeing the drive of the music students. “Apparently, the educational system at that time didn’t think it was important, so I didn’t mind leaving that.”
In their most obvious aspects, teaching music is considerably different from undertaking, but Gonzales’ church spanned the gap.
During choir rehearsal at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church downtown, the choirmaster made an announcement about Gonzales’ situation. There were no available positions at the church but he thought his choirmaster wanted to help in some way because of the diversity of the choir. “It was probably the best thing he ever did for me and didn’t even know it,” Gonzales said with a chuckle.
After the rehearsal, two women approached Gonzales with an offer. Their parents owned a funeral home and could use help.
He accepted the offer and began working there the following week.
“It was supposed to be temporary,” Gonzales said. He had no intention or desire to work in a funeral home and planned to only work there for a few months but began to enjoy his job.
“I was hungry for food,” Gonzales said about his career choice. He didn’t worry about the kind of job he was going to do but felt anxious about the place he was going to work in. He felt OK with the skills but lacked knowledge of how funeral homes operated.
“I guess because I was just so ignorant…what it is that we did…how much we did,” Gonzales said. “I didn’t realize the challenge it was working in a funeral home.”
He worked part-time in the funeral home during the summers doing paperwork. Gonzales believed he was very proficient in office skills but never thought of working inside a funeral home.
Gonzales said he was quickly exposed to other aspects of the business after having to assist bereaved families with inquiries regarding funeral services and other related subjects.
Gonzales saw it as an opportunity to learn more. There were constant learning opportunities and he was never uncomfortable experiencing the other side of funeral homes.
“I grew up in a barrio in the ghetto … and we had deaths occurring,” he said. “We had a lot of real elderly people in the neighborhood and people back then died a lot at home,” said Gonzales. Gonzales, his mother and other relatives would visit the homes of neighbors who were not expected to live much longer.
“Very often we were at a death scene,” he said. “I was taught never to fear the dead; always fear the living. So I never grew up with any fear of dead people.”
Though Gonzales struggled when his parents died, he thinks dealing with an anonymous death is different. “It’s always easier to deal with somebody else’s loss when it’s removed,” he said. It’s not the same dealing with the death of someone unrelated.
“Last summer, right before the semester started, I had a stroke,” he said. Gonzales remembers receiving a call from a former student and friend working in northern Texas at the time who was devastated after finding out through others.
“It was nice to know that people appreciate what you’ve done for them and to actually care that much,” he said. “Not so much for the ego but to see the influence that you have in making somebody else’s life better,” he said.
The mortuary science program provides educational and training opportunities for students seeking careers in the death-care industry. Students who meet the curriculum standards are awarded an Associate in Applied Science in Mortuary Science but must also pass a state board exam by the completion of their last semester.
The mortuary science department teaches students early in the program that life is too short.
Gonzales said he likes to emphasize living, and no matter what the situation, people should make the most of their lives.