A good man

When I heard last week that former Presidio County Sheriff Abe Gonzalez passed away, I fondly recalled the time he threw me in jail.

Booked, fingerprinted, posed for a mugshot and placed in a holding cell.

I got a speeding ticket outside Van Horn about a year earlier and simply forgot about it. Abe reminded me when he came for me in the newsroom. He didn’t handcuff me, but said to get myself down to the jail muy pronto.

For the record, that was the only time I’ve seen the inside of el bote, outside of conducting a jailhouse interview with Rick McLaren, the ambassador and chief counsel of the Republic of Texas after the violent standoff in the Davis Mountains Resort, and taking a tour of the then-new Presidio County lockup.

I paid my traffic fine and was released within an hour.

I’ve always thought it a badge of honor to be arrested by Abe, because I’ve always held him in high esteem. He was the first Hispanic to hold the sheriff’s office in the history of Presidio County, a county that’s Hispanic majority. He helped right the county ship in troubled waters after the former sheriff pleaded guilty to smuggling 2,400 pounds of cocaine and was sentenced to life in federal prison.

Abe was a good man in a storm.

Here’s what I wrote about Abe in the March 28, 1996 issue of The Big Bend Sentinel:

I ran into Presidio County Sheriff Abe Gonzalez in his yard Sunday. He was in his work clothes with a paint roller in his hand. We exchanged pleasantries and eventually the election came up. He waxed philosophic about his defeat and said he wasn’t bitter at all. He said he was proud of his tenure in elected office, not only as sheriff but as justice of the peace. It’s a tough job being sheriff, he said, also being a JP. He said he had no regrets.

He first was elected north county JP and then was appointed sheriff in the Thompson matter.

In a four-man race, Abe won the Democratic primary when his closest challenger declined to pursue a run-off election. He then defeated his Republican opponent in the general election.

This may be a touchy subject, but Abe is the first Hispanic to be Presidio County sheriff. It only took more than 100 years. He opened the door for other qualified and deserving Hispanic law officers, including the sheriff-elect. Abe took us through some troubled times and restored honesty and integrity to a once-tarnished post.

Sure, his administration –– and he’s got nine months more to go –– has had its ups and downs. Don’t we all. He inherited the jail problem and two of his former subordinates went astray. His weakest characteristic politically (and this is a sad commentary of our times) is his strongest attribute in every other way: his good heart. He likes to give people a second chance.

Abe took me into his barbershop and showed me his athletic trophies from his youth. There are top-placing trophies from when he boxed and ran long-distance in Ciudad Juarez. There are basketball trophies from his award-winning Blackwell School team.

I finally saw more of Abe than his time in office. He’s courageous and compassionate. A survivor. I left feeling melancholy for his defeat but encouraged by his outlook and his peace of mind. It was one of life’s lessons God sends your way at times. We said good-bye, Abe’s handshake strong as a rock.

Robert Halpern is the former editor, publisher, and co-owner of this newspaper.