Former McAllen track star Ruben Gonzales will be inducted into the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Ruben Gonzales looked up to his older brother, Roque Jr., and wanted to run track just like him. Well, somewhat like him.
“He wasn’t doing too well,” Gonzales said. “But I was on the elementary school pole vault team, and I couldn’t jump over 6 or 7 feet, either.”
Whatever Roque Jr. may have lacked in ability on the track, he more than made up for with sage advice for his younger brother.
“He thought I’d do better in the hurdles,” Ruben Gonzales said. “I took his advice, ran the hurdles and got first place. At that time, the hurdle races were only 50 yards long at the elementary level. But he was real proud of me.”
There, in 1940s McAllen, a Hall of Fame career was only beginning.
Gonzales grew up in a household of 12, where his father’s earnings as a full-time truck driver and a part-time farmer were somehow enough to sustain the family. Gonzales made his presence felt on the track in middle school and began to turn heads as a freshman at McAllen High.
He qualified for the state meet during his freshman year and came in second place to a high school senior from the Fort Worth area who would eventually perform on bigger stages than a track meet.
“The guy who beat me was a man named Van Williams,” Gonzales said. “He wound up going to TCU and became a big Hollywood star.”
The now-deceased Williams guest starred on popular television shows such as “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Gunsmoke” while also starring in his own 1966 series “The Green Hornet” alongside famed actor and martial artist Bruce Lee.
“If I won that race, I could have been a movie star,” Gonzales joked.
In all, Gonzales made the state track meet three times as a Bulldog. At his last state finals in 1953, Gonzales finished third in the 180-yard low hurdles with a time of 18.8 seconds. The race’s top three finishers broke the then-national record, which had stood at 18.9 seconds. Given Gonzales’ success on the track and completion of high school in three years, TCU liked a lot of what they saw and offered him a scholarship.
Gonzales was focused on graduating with a bachelor’s degree in geology. However, his mind was forced to shift elsewhere just six college credits short of completing his undergraduate degree.
“I was drafted into the Army in May of 1958,” Gonzales said.
Thanks to what was then called the Universal Military Training and Service Act, Gonzales was an Army draftee. After his selection, Gonzales wanted to get a deferred extension, since he was still a college student. But he soon learned that wouldn’t be an option.
“A (job) recruiter looked at my grades and asked me if I had my service out of the way. I said, ‘No,’” Gonzales said. “He told me they couldn’t hire me because if the Army called after I took the job, they’d be losing money on me. So I decided to go the Army.”
Gonzales spent two years at three different installations: Fort Carson near Colorado Springs, Colorado; Fort Monmouth in Monmouth, New Jersey, and Sandia Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He specialized in atomic weapons.
Following the end of his service and bachelor’s degree, Gonzales began a 35-year career as an educator. He spent his first 15 years as a teacher, supervisor and counselor, and he somehow found time to earn a master’s degree five years into his teaching career. The final 20 years were spent as a special education director at a co-op for the La Joya, Sharyland, Hidalgo and Valley View school districts.
Gonzales retired from education in 1995 and will turn 83 in August. Before he celebrates another birthday, Gonzales will be inducted into the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame this Saturday afternoon at the Boggus Ford Events Center in Pharr.
“I’m honored but kind of nervous, since I have to give a speech,” Gonzales said. “I’m still glad I was chosen.”