By Rocky Garza Jr.
Mentor. Leader. Professional. Professor. Family. Friend.
These words defined former mortuary science Chair Felix Gonzales, who died Sept. 22, at the age of 72.
“Mr. G,” as his students referred to him, originally received a bachelor’s degree in music and education from Our Lady of the Lake University and taught music in the public-school system for four years.
Gonzales began his funeral service career in 1977 performing clerical duties and eventually becoming responsible for insurance and pre-need funeral sales and marketing.
Gonzales realized the need to obtain a professional license to advance his career, and soon enrolled at San Antonio College, where he graduated with an associate in mortuary science.
In 1985, Gonzales was hired in the mortuary science department and served 35 years as faculty and chair of the department.
Interim Chair Mary Mena said there is not a single funeral home in San Antonio without a director who was a former student of Gonzales.
In addition to his teaching, Felix served on numerous accreditation teams and as a consultant to the Texas Funeral Service Commission and the State Attorney General’s office on legal issues related to funeral service.
In an interview with The Ranger, mortuary science program Coordinator Darrel Woody and Mena discussed Gonzales’ impact on people’s lives, the contributions he gave the mortuary science program, favorite memories and the type of person Gonzales was in their eyes.
Mena and Woody shared a special bond with Gonzales because of the journey that took them from being his students in the program, to becoming his colleagues, family and friends.
Mena and Woody both expressed appreciation toward Gonzales for the impact he had on their careers. Mena said Gonzales was a mentor for her because Gonzales coached her into the professional she is today.
The main value that Gonzales transmitted to Mena was that it was always about the students. The students always came first to Gonzales, and he always ensured his students were taken care of.
Woody said the impact Gonzales had on his life started when Gonzales first presented the atmosphere of the mortuary science program to him as a student. Gonzales gave Woody the excitement to pursue a degree in the program.
Gonzales would later recruit Woody to join the mortuary science department and Woody told the Ranger that if it were not for Felix, he would not be in the position he was today.
Gonzales always had a big vision for the mortuary science program, and his presence was felt from his colleagues, students and the program itself.
Gonzales’ colleagues said he made work exciting and enjoyable, and they loved the attitude he brought to work every day. The way Gonzales connected with co-workers made them feel like they were his family. Gonzales established a tradition for bringing tacos to work every Friday, Mena said.
Gonzales was able relate to his students because “he kept it real,” Woody said.
Woody recalls Gonzales telling him he knew that their program was one of the top in the nation because the students actually experience the work in a funeral home, and he believed it helped prevent the students’ misconceptions of their future profession. Gonzales emphasized the mortuary science program is a profession and not an industry, and he always led by example.
Mena recalled how Gonzales also was able to relate to his students when he told them that he was from the barrio. He knew what it felt like to be poor, but his mindset was that you can choose to continue to be that way or make a better life for yourself. He went on to explain that if a guy like him who lived right around the corner from Lanier High School can make it, then anyone can.
The program benefitted from Gonzales’ presence throughout his long-time career and one of his biggest contributions included his push for the program to operate its own funeral home.
But the law in Texas stated that funeral homes were not tax-exempt properties.
The college was already a tax-exempt property, but Gonzales wanted a funeral home for his students to experience the full range of funeral services.
Mena recalls asking Gonzales about the law on how they were going to get the law changed in the state of Texas, and Gonzales responded with “we are going to change it.”
The mortuary science faculty travelled to Austin to push their agenda but had doubts about whether they could even get to talk to government officials.
Gonzales knew they were not going to be able to talk to them but went on to network with the interns of those officials.
Gonzales’ determination proved to be beneficial as they were able to accomplish the change in law to create tax-exempt funeral homes.
The funeral home was soon created for the program and students were able to gain hands-on experience in handling bodies.
The other additions Gonzales oversaw was a merchandising classroom that taught students how to present casket options; a state-of-the-art prep room for their embalming that has also been the site of conferences for universities throughout the U.S.; a new computer lab and anatomy lab for human dissection; and the creation of the club, Rho Sigma Gamma.
Rho Sigma Gamma’s purpose is to enable mortuary science students to further the aims of reverence for the dead, service to the living and growth of self.
Rho Sigma Gamma takes on a project each semester that focuses on giving back to the community. The most recent project saw their members pass out toiletries such as toothbrushes, hand sanitizer and hairbrushes for the residents of the nursing home.
Gonzales believed the three aims of Rho Sigma Gamma signified the aims of the funeral service profession.
Woody and Mena shared their favorite memories of Gonzales.
One day Mena went into Felix’s office where classical music usually played and at first thought Gonzales was having a seizure because of his strange head movement. Mena asked if he was OK and asked him to turn up the music. Mena had caught Gonzales jamming out to Kumbia Kings in his office. They would go on to dance together and, in that moment, Mena said she felt happy in her friendship with Gonzales.
Woody said that the ultimate memory he will keep is being able to witness Gonzales’ passion to transform the program.
Mena and Woody are happy to be able to live in the legacy Gonzales left for their program.
Woody and Mena also will treasure their last moments in the hospital with Gonzales.
Woody recalls cracking jokes and talking about life with Gonzales during his visit, and Woody saw Gonzales clowning around with the hospital staff.
He knew that was Gonzales’ way of showing emotions to the nursing staff and his way of showing he liked someone.
Woody said the time he had with Gonzales where he knew he had his mentor’s attention for those two hours meant the most to him. He said the thing he will remember the most is Gonzales ensuring that his students will be OK, and his colleagues who were family to him also would be OK.
Woody said Gonzales was not fond of the sugar and salt portions the nursing staff were giving him with his meals.
Gonzales preferred heavy portions of salt and sugar in his meals, and Gonzales pleaded with Mena to grab him more salt and sugar.
Mena told The Ranger that it was most memorable for her because the memory of her going to the nursing staff and requesting as many packets as she could get for him was comical to her. The staff denied her at first, explaining to her that he was in a bad state of health.
Mena told them Gonzales knew he was in his last moments and she just wanted him to be happy. Gonzales got his extra sugar and salt packets and seeing him happy made them both feel good.
Gonzales was a mentor, leader, professional, professor, family and friend who impacted lives that ranged from the mortuary science program, the San Antonio College community, the funeral service profession locally, nationally and internationally.
Gonzales was committed to his profession and every task he had in his life. He would lead by example and was always the type to walk the walk, Woody said.
To recognize his legacy that he left for the program, Woody told the Ranger that there are discussions to offer the Felix. B Gonzales scholarship for mortuary students who are in their last semester. The criteria for this application would be based on academic performance and what they have done for the school. Community service was considered as part of the criteria, but because of COVID-19 it would not have been fair for all students.
The Felix B. Gonzales scholarship will pay for their national exam fee to get certified in Texas as a funeral director and is only going to be offered to one student. Woody and Rho Sigma Gamma are in discussions to offer it this semester, but no other details are available.
Gonzales is survived by his sister, Ofelia Olsen; nieces and nephews, Art Jr., Thomas, Patsy, Rita, Carl, Kenny, David, Carol, Ramona; and numerous great nieces, nephews and friends.
A service was Oct. 3 at Agape Christian Church and burial was at Sunset Memorial Park.
To make a memorial donation to Rho Sigma Gamma, click the link below: