Writers: Kelly Roberson and Lisa Rossi
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
For as much as the media glamorizes the epic highs and lows of youth, the hard-won wisdom and confidence that comes with aging deserves its own turn in the spotlight. Especially when you consider how Greater Des Moines has grown over the years, you’ll recognize many of the gifts the city’s senior leaders have passed down to help our community thrive.
At dsm magazine, we’re proud to salute seven of these leaders, all of whom have channeled their energy, expertise and resources to effect positive change for Central Iowa businesses, cultural institutions, charitable nonprofits and countless residents. Collectively, they’ve founded or enhanced a remarkable range of influential programs and organizations, including the Des Moines Art Center, Greater Des Moines Partnership, Latino Heritage Festival, United Way and Urban Dreams.
We honored this year’s Sages Over 70 during an awards ceremony today Nov. 7 at the FFA Enrichment Center on the DMACC campus in Ankeny, where each honoree shared a few insights and thoughtful advice for the next generation of leaders. We invite you to read about them here.
Joe Gonzalez, director of the Latino Heritage Festival
Joe Gonzalez was the oldest of seven and, as a child, served as interpreter for his parents, who brought the family to Des Moines from Mexico in 1957. “Having been born in Mexico and coming here is like living the American dream,” he said. “I always wanted to give back.”
He was one of the first Latinos to serve in the Des Moines Police Department, starting at age 18 in the cadet program. Later as an officer, he helped create the Hispanic Outreach Neighborhood Resource Advocate (HONRA) program so Latinos would “have a voice,” he said, “so they wouldn’t be afraid to report things as things were going on.”
Gonzalez spent 42 years with the department and retired after being crushed by a truck in 2013. “Time just stood still,” he said. “I thought I was actually going to die right there.”
The accident broke 13 ribs, collapsed both lungs, lacerated a kidney — and galvanized his sense of purpose. “I guess there was a reason I was saved, that I didn’t die,” he said. “Now I have multiple places to give back. So I’ve tried even harder to do more and more.”
After he retired from police work, he became director of the Latino Heritage Festival. Under his leadership, the annual festival now draws visitors from across the Midwest and donates $25,000 each year to organizations that serve Latinos.
One of the benefits of Gonzalez’s long career is the chance now and then to bump into people who were once into drugs or crime. “You see them later and they thank you for how you treated them,” he said. — L.R.
- Graduated from the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute, now Lead DSM, and received its Community Vision Award.
- Received the LULAC Latin Heroes Award and recognition from the Domestic Abuse Coordinating Council, Iowa Attorney General’s Office, Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance and the United Latinas for a New Dawn.
- Named Police Officer of the Year in 2003 by the Des Moines Rotary Club.
- Received the Distinguished Service Medal Award from the Des Moines Chief of Police.
Gonzalez said he always thinks of the Mark Twain quote: “The most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
“To the world you might be one person, but to one person you might be the world.”
“You have to be able to treat everybody the best you can. You never know the difference it might make.”
“Joe’s commitment to education, workforce training and economic mobility for the Latino community is unmatched.” Ahmed Agyeman, director, Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families
“Every person who was mentored by Joe became a friend and considers him a lifelong resource and connector. I’ve also personally been fortunate enough to count him as a friend and mentor, and consider him one of the kindest, most humble leaders I know.” Amy Jennings, executive director, Lead DSM
“Joe has navigated adversity, especially when he had his accident of getting trapped behind a truck. He’s used those experiences … as motivation to keep doing more to benefit our community.” Daniel Zinnel, CEO, Proteus Inc.
Originally published by dsm Magazine
Read the rest of the profiles of the other 2023 honorees here