Those who knew Jose Gomez describe him as a visionary, a hard worker and a trickster.
About 100 people — friends, family co-workers and students — gathered in The Evergreen State College’s Longhouse Education and Cultural Arts Center on Saturday afternoon to celebrate the former professor and civil rights activist’s life. Gomez died Sept. 14, 2014. He was 69.
Gomez worked as an executive assistant to Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers during the 1970s, founded an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) organization at Harvard Law School, and co-founded Boston’s Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. He was the first openly gay person elected to the national board of the American Civil Liberties Union.
At the Saturday event, Evergreen professor Greg Mullins said Gomez was incredibly ethical, and he described him as the conscience of the campus.
“Throughout his career, Jose advocated for true equality and liberty,” Mullins said.
Gomez learned that code of ethics and the value of hard work as a child growing up in Wyoming, said Oralia Mercado, one of Gomez’s seven sisters. Their father worked in the coal mines during the summer and in the fields during the winter, and Gomez was often required to work, too.
Gomez graduated from high school in 1962, and from the University of Wyoming in 1965. He then traveled to the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua on a Fulbright fellowship. There, he participated in peaceful protests and witnessed several protesters being shot, Mercado said.
“I believe it was that event that launched him into social activism,” Mercado said.
In 1970, Gomez began working with the United Farm Workers as they advocated for collective bargaining rights, fair wages and better working conditions. He worked his way through the ranks of the organization and eventually became the executive assistant to Caesar Chavez.
He left the organization in 1975 to work for California Gov. Jerry Brown during his first stint in office.
“That seemed to please our father a little more because he could wear a suit,” Mercado joked.
Gomez graduated from Harvard Law School in 1981 and joined the Evergreen faculty in 1988 as an academic dean. He eventually became a professor at the college, teaching constitutional law and federal Indian law.
But people shouldn’t remember him as being “all work, no play,” Mercado said. He had an incredible sense of humor that he shared with family, friends and students alike.
Mullins said there was one trick in particular that Gomez liked to play on his students. During the fourth week of the semester, after his students had grown used to him, Gomez would inhale helium from a coffee cup. He would then deliver his lecture in a high-pitched voice.
“He expressed his love through the laughter he brought the world,” Mullins said.