Former state Rep. Roberto Gutierrez accompanies Gov. Ann Richards at a ceremony at South Texas College in McAllen. (Paul Vazaldua | Special to The Monitor)

In many ways, it’s hard to imagine what the Rio Grande Valley would look like today without the efforts of Roberto Gutierrez.

Gutierrez, who died Dec. 28 at the age of 83, served the region for 14 years as state representative of District 41, promoting legislation that was essential in founding South Texas College and the UT Regional Academic Health Center.

The Mission native served in the military as a sergeant in the 49th Armored Division of the U.S. Army and attended school at Pan American.

He served 10 years in the Texas National Guard, and worked as a teacher, counselor and businessman at various times in his life.

Gutierrez was preceded in death by his wife, Cecilia.

Gutierrez’s daughter, Gilda Gutierrez Romero, said his upbringing in the Valley inspired his devotion to education.

“My father had very humble beginnings, but he knew in order to pursue the goals that he had, he needed a good, solid education, and with an education, he was able to achieve those goals and help others in the community,” she said. “With that good education, he passed it forward, by helping others to achieve their goals through education.”

Gutierrez’s passion for scholarship was reflected in his work as a representative, where he increased funding to higher education in the Valley, worked on bills to expand educational opportunities locally and championed bills intended to protect young people.

“There were really three things that were of high focus to my dad,” Romero said. “One of those was good access to education for everyone in our community. Another was making sure that health care was available to the community, and another was safety. Those were his big goals for the community where he was born and raised.”

In many ways, that commitment to enabling others to improve and educate themselves was epitomized by one of Gutierrez’s favorite sayings.

“One of the sayings that he always shared with us at the end of every life lesson was ‘dale gas,’ and it really meant to us that you would go forward, and pursue and take that lesson forward,” Romero said.

Romero described her father as gentlemanly and cordial, recognizable by his silver hair.

“He always taught us to do the right thing. As an educator, with students, he would always teach them to do the right thing,” she said. “There were many times he told us that you could run away from a situation or you could run towards it, and that no matter what the consequences bring, if you do the right thing you will be successful at the end of the day.”

Former State Rep. Roberto Gutierrez speaks at an event in this undated photo. (Paul Vazaldua | Special to The Monitor)

That commitment to principles was illustrated in times when Gutierrez bucked the norm and stood out as a political maverick, sometimes fighting alone for what he believed in, Romero said.

Gutierrez was remembered by legislators and educators across the state following his death.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa said he was saddened to hear of Gutierrez’s death and complimented the late representative on his legacy.

“He served our community in the Texas Legislature from 1991 to 2002 and also served our country as a member of the Texas National Guard for 10 years. As a state representative, Rep. Gutierrez was involved and a key player in beginning the process for what is now the UTRGV School of Medicine,” Hinojosa said. “His service and contributions to our district helped make the RGV a better place to live and raise our families. My condolences to the family and loved ones of Roberto Gutierrez.”

Veronica Gonzalez, who succeeded Gutierrez on the legislature, said she too was saddened to hear of his death and spoke highly of him.

“He was a strong supporter of education, and that was so wonderful for the community college and the university,” she said. “Having been on appropriations, he had the ability to get funding and make sure that we were not forgotten as a region, in terms of the types of funding for higher ed.”

Gonzalez also commented on the caliber of Gutierrez’s character.

“He was always a very cordial gentleman and a very dedicated public servant. I also got to know his family, and he was a dedicated family man,” she said.

David A. Diaz, who served as a legislative consultant for the city of McAllen and later for the city of Edinburg, worked with Gutierrez on major legislation for those entities during the 1990s.

“Rep. Gutierrez was an outstanding person and a very effective legislator, who successfully carried dozens of proposals that became law, not only on a statewide level, but especially on behalf of the Valley,” Diaz said.

Diaz added that Gutierrez took special pride in his work promoting education in the Valley.

“He was very proud of being the first legislator, through his House Bill 68 in November 2014, to file legislation calling on the University of Texas System to expand its medical education programs in the Valley, which helped lead to the Regional Academic Health Center,” Diaz said. “Eventually, the Regional Academic Health Center served as the foundation for the establishment in 2013 of the UT Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.”

According to Diaz, Gutierrez’s legacy as a statesman and promoter of education in the Valley will live on in the area for years.

“He also carried the legislation in the House of Representatives that in 1993 created South Texas Community College, which is now known as South Texas College. But what also stood out about him is that he always shared the credit with his fellow lawmakers for his legislative successes, and that spoke volumes about his character, integrity, and dignity,” he said. “His positive impact on the Valley, just through the RAHC and STC legislation, which will be felt for generations.”