The daughter of a single working mom, diligent student Elizabeth S. Gonzales dropped out of a Corpus Christi high school when she became pregnant.
“A lot of my passion about education comes from that experience,” says Gonzales, now 63, who put a young husband through pharmacy school, then raised three children on her own while working full time.
She earned her GED diploma and attended community college, then triumphed in business while becoming two-time chairwoman of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and volunteering for area charitable groups. She says of her work across those fields: “I teach people to help themselves.”
Gonzales was raised with three other siblings by a mother, Maria Casso Hiten, 83, who waited tables. The current New York Life insurance agent first arrived in Austin in January 1967. She worked as a cashier at Walgreen’s for $49 a week.
She landed a better job at the Sears cosmetics and wigs counter. “People remember that it was right by the escalator,” she says.
When IBM opened shop on what is now Burnet Road, they needed a bilingual receptionist. She was the last applicant they interviewed.
“God always presented me with better opportunities to learn and to grow,” she says. “And I had a family to feed.”
Among her more memorable jobs after that was working for what she calls the “Holly Street Gang” — three lawyers with an office at Holly Street and Interstate 35 who also dabbled in politics: Gabe Gutierrez, Alberto Garcia and Juan Duran.
“We had fun,” she says. “I was there almost eight years managing that office.”
Another three years were spent trading commodity futures. An agent she met at a madrigal dinner tried to persuade her that New York Life was where she should be.
“I knew enough people in Austin and everybody needs it,” she says of life insurance. “One of the best moves I ever made in my life, besides moving back to Austin, was joining New York Life. I didn’t want a job. I wanted a career. That’s what they offered.”
She started working on commission April Fool’s Day 1986.
“I had just three months salary in the bank to live on and three children, one at every school level,” she recalls.
Split long ago from her husband, Gonzales, who lives off South First Street near Slaughter Lane, now coddles four grandsons. Yet she has no intention of retiring any time soon.
“I do love what I do in my business,” she says. “People are usually better off when I leave the room than before I got there. I’ve never been high pressure. That’s not the way I buy or the way I sell.”
Her supervisors tell the hyper-organized Gonzales — always carefully coiffed and appointed — she could be even more successful if she transferred the energy she devotes to volunteer work to selling more insurance.
“To me, it’s more important to be involved in the community,” she says. “You spend what you make, so if my obligations are met, I don’t really need more money.”
She joined the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce 31 years ago because “it had the loudest Latino voice in the city.”
“It was there to represent Latinos outside of politics,” Gonzales says. She now serves on the board for the chamber’s foundation, which deals with education, leadership, health and wellness.
“I really like the way the chamber looks these days,” she says. “Lots of young professionals earning six figures, leaders, lots of new blood revitalizing the organization, which is to the good.”
For 20 years, Gonzales has held an appointed position with the City of Austin Retirement System, which manages almost $2 billion for 10,000 city employees and retirees.
“We’re underfunded like everybody else, but the city is pitching in more these days,” she says. “We had a good last year. But three good years can get wiped out by one bad year.”
One of her favorite charities is the Southwest Key program, which includes a charter school, East Austin College Prep Academy.
”Juan Sanchez has an incredible vision and heart for kids and education,” she says. “And also for those who have not had the same opportunities and exposure. We expect excellence from our students and get it.”
Never remarried, Gonzales found the “God of my understanding” in the Course of Miracles and has attended its weekly meetings for 20 years. A regular traveler, she’s taking salsa dancing lessons and wants to learn country western style.
“I love to dance,” she says. ” Tejano dancing is what I learned first. My Daddy taught me. It reminds me of home and him.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places and history.