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Community icon leaves charitable legacy

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Mary and Johnny Gonzales are shown being interviewed at a TV station on Sept.1st, 1984. Born into poverty, Johnny Gonzales was widely known in Roswell for organizing holiday and back-to-school giveaways, and known statewide for his prison ministry work. (Submitted Photo)

The holiday season was always a busy time for Johnny Gonzales. After organizing drives for Thanksgiving dinners, he turned his charitable enthusiasm to gathering Christmas presents for needy children. While the year’s various holidays kept him busy, distributing presents to wide-eyed children at Christmastime was perhaps his biggest reward, like he was a fun-loving kid himself — all over again.

Johnny Gonzales, shown here at a prison tent revival, died last week after leaving a legacy of charity in Roswell and beyond. His wife, Mary, shown to the left, said she and her family plan to continue with local holiday giveaways after a period for grieving and remembrance. (Submitted Photo)

On Nov. 25, at 2:30 p.m., Gonzales left his earthly home, his beloved family and a legacy of charity in Roswell that is sure to be remembered.

A candlelight prayer vigil was held for him last week. His funeral services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at the Anderson-Bethany Funeral Home & Crematory. A reception in his honor is a possibility. The family is running a GoFundMe campaign to help with funeral expenses.

Gonzales’ health began to decline at the beginning of the year, but the golf-ball sized tumor on his liver was not discovered until Oct. 3, when he was diagnosed with cancer, already in stage four.

“He was my main concern,” said his wife, Mary Gonzales. “God showed me I had to take care of Johnny 24/7 or the Thanksgiving dinner. I chose Johnny.”

Mary had been with Johnny every step of the way since 1971. They met through Johnny’s mother, after Johnny was released from prison and set on a life-long quest to help and minister unto others.

“We got married in ‘72, but got together in ‘71. I tell everybody, you better be sure I am going to count that year,” Mary said. “We were married for a long time, 46 years. We were always together in the beginning of the marriage.

“He’d take me to a restaurant and have a cup of coffee. He would eat crackers and butter, that was his thing. We had already eaten supper. Matter of fact, that Roswell Inn, he loved to go there. That’s what we did. Always together, the grocery store, with the kids …”

Charitable man

Mary said it was an honor and a blessing to care for a man who took care of others.

“He kept me laughing, with tears rolling down my face,” she said. “We had a great love from the Lord. We were very close and always thought about each other’s needs and wants. We always thought to ourselves, ‘What does the other mate need?’”

Speaking with the Roswell Daily Record Friday afternoon about Johnny was difficult, Mary said.

“Talking about him is hard, and I say it with an aching heart, that I miss him,” she said. “God and my family are taking care of me.

“Johnny was a blessing to everybody, his family, the community — his heart was always taking care of everybody else — always with a smile. He needed our love and understanding. Getting told the community was thankful was enough for him to go home to Jesus.”

Mary said people loved Johnny’s “joking around and his smile.”

“That was his gift, to bring joy into your life, and us, too,” she said.

Final thoughts

Michelle Martinez, Johnny and Mary’s daughter, said her father’s last thoughts were of needy children.

“In the last days, he was in and out of the present, so he would be sitting here and just going back to the previous in his mind,” Martinez said. “Nobody was in front of him, but he would say, ‘Come here.’ He’d bring the little kids to him. He’d look off to who he was supposedly talking to, and bringing the kids by him, and holding them and looking out and saying, ‘I’m going to help you today. I’m going to help you get what you need.’”

Pete Perez, Johnny’s cousin from Artesia, grew up with Johnny. Perez said the young Johnny Gonzales was “always wild and grew up fighting,” and was raised by his single mother, Ramona Acosta, in an impoverished household.

Perez’s father and uncles helped Johnny’s mom after Johnny’s father, Manuel Gonzales, left.

Perez said Johnny told him his education went up to the third grade at Roselawn Elementary School in Artesia, and, after that, Johnny moved to Roswell.

“He was a normal boy. He had a rough life and just got in a lot of trouble at a young age,” Perez said. “Anybody can turn around, if they serve God.”

Prison ministry

Perez said one of Johnny’s aunts told Johnny that she saw him preaching in the future and prayed for him. Perez said after, Johnny was born again after attending a tent revival in Hobbs in 1990.

Perez said he was hesitant about helping Johnny in the prisons because he felt that he could not relate to the inmates.

“Johnny said, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about Jesus,’” Perez said. “Johnny was a blessing wherever he went. He blessed so many people. I am very grateful. I learned so much from Johnny. I learned how to use my faith and live by faith.”

Perez said Johnny would take children and volunteers to prisons all over the state to minister. Perez also said the ministry was sustained by Johnny’s faith and those who were compelled to make monetary, food or any other type of donation.

The tent revival ministry was extended to “Thanksgiving, Father’s and Mother’s Day, Easter, Christmas food giveaway, toy giveaways, school giveaways, school supplies … Johnny always had an idea,” Mary said.

Two boxes for boxer

Jim Teel, who knew Johnny for more than 40 years from his work in Roswell, said Johnny had open access to any prison in southeastern New Mexico.

“His heart was broken by people not caring,” Teel said. “He gave to the community every year. This was for the people, not for him. His mission was preaching the love of Jesus. He was outgoing and well-determined. He was a friend to everybody and he wasn’t afraid to say I love you, that God loves you. It was known that he was in prison, but he paid his time and more than made up for his wrongdoings. He worked until the last minute. The community is going to miss him.”

Perez said Johnny’s time in prison made him highly relatable to inmates.

“He went everywhere — didn’t care if you were rich or poor — to tell people about Jesus,” Perez said. “He could talk to anyone because he understood them. His language would change from slang to Spanish to English. He was a great speaker.

“His heart for Jesus was so big — he fed people, helped them get free from drugs. At a Thanksgiving dinner, a volunteer refused someone a box of food because the person hadn’t registered. The man punched Johnny. Johnny got up and gave the man two boxes of food. The man didn’t know how to act.

“He deserves to be recognized. He never would stop. If anyone deserves it, it is Johnny. Let him rest. God used him in amazing ways.”

Back to prison

Teel said Mary Gonzales is a powerful woman who backed up and encouraged Johnny at the prison tent ministries.

“He loved to go to the prisons—he loved it,” Teel said. “But then he started the community service with all these events and he fell in love with that too, so really wherever his heart was.”

Mary Gonzales said the prison ministries started in 1979, after Johnny had a vision.

“He said, ‘You know what babe, we have to go to prison,’” Mary recalled. “I said, ‘For what?’ ‘Because I feel like God is telling me to go there.’”

Mary said Johnny was initially uneasy about speaking with prisoners.

“We first went to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was me and four other people — his face was drawn,” she said. “We had to talk to him at first. He was spacing out. Afterwards, when he turned loose, we had so many prisoners in the gym, we could not fit in there. He started ministering to them and everything. They heard Johnny Gonzales was coming, they called him ‘Juan Loco.’ They were all just waiting for him.

“He said, ‘God took me out of prison, and then he put me right back in there.’ That was his calling for a long time. He was forgiven and he was pardoned both.”

Church family

Glenda Rodriguez had volunteered and ministered with Johnny at tent revivals since she was 10 years old. She and her father, Salvador Hernandez, who was Johnny’s childhood best friend from Artesia, were involved with Johnny’s work.

Rodriguez saw Johnny as a “part of our lives and our family, a loving, crazy, amazing man of God, and father figure.”

Johnny encouraged Rodriguez to minister, sing, helped her be sure of the man who would become her husband of 22 years, and helped her through the loss of her child and her father, who also died of cancer.

Glenda and her husband, Rudy Rodriguez, minister at R.O.C. Church in Hobbs.

“This October, Johnny came to visit our church in Hobbs,” Glenda said. “Johnny said, ‘Glenda May, I have to come to your church!’”

Johnny preached at that service after Glenda’s husband.

“We took him out to eat,” Glenda said. “He’d had no idea he was sick. He sat with us and said, ‘This is a church family. You sit together, eat together, and share the word of God.’ I forever remember this in my heart. He was a great man of God. They called him Juan Loco. He loved you, no matter what kind of life you walked.

“He was always about the community. He was a very giving person. Johnny’s family was always there for him. We need to pray for his family. Johnny was always there for his family. He had them within a hand’s reach. All they had — was love for him. There was no resentment — they knew he was a man of God. They supported him. It wasn’t only his calling — it was his family’s, too.”

Continuing legacy

Glenda hopes that the community and city of Roswell will keep Johnny’s legacy going by continuing his holiday giveaways.

“It didn’t stop in Roswell,” she said. “Everybody knew Johnny. Johnny always lit a fire in the city, and someone kept it going.”

He worked in Artesia, Carlsbad, Hobbs, Lovington, Las Cruces, Las Lunas, Santa Fe and Española. He also traveled to Fort Stockton, Pecos, and Tulia, Texas, and even further to Hawaii, Mexico, and the Bahamas to feed the homeless, build churches and minister at prisons.

Mary said Johnny’s vast legacy with the Prison Doors Ministry and Community Volunteer Program will continue on with his family and many people in the community. She said within a year the family will start with something small and then continue the momentum.

“He always said, ‘I don’t know who to hand it to,’” Mary said. “I said, ‘Hello, I’m here. I’ll lead it while I’m here.’ I will continue it all, everything will go on, but now we are honoring Johnny. There is a healing process that has to happen. Right now, we are missing the loss. We miss him a lot. We have cried many tears. In his last day, he made us cry — he made us laugh. It was a blessing to take care of him. It was a joy.

“Now, it’s me and my daughters, and, of course, my sons-in-law are going to help us, too. We are going to run it the same way Johnny had us going on. He taught us a lot: Never give up. You move on it. He goes because ‘while there is still day, you can do something.’”

For the community to continue the legacy, Mary said, “Keep supporting others. Do not ignore the fact there is a lot of need in Roswell.”

City reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.