In life, we all leave a trail. Rarely is it the perfectly landscaped. More often, it is replete with its pastoral and eye-appealing parts but also those patches we surely could have worked harder to improve or, at least, maintain. We are, after all, only human. But as humans go, the late Rich Gonzales, Denver’s first Latino fire chief, was one heck of a human.
Gonzales, 67, died August 13th after a long battle with cancer. He the city’s first Latino or minority fire chief. At 36, he was also its youngest. He was appointed in 1987 by Denver’s first-ever Latino Mayor, Federico Peña.
“He was intelligent, respected and had new ideas,” said Peña. Gonzales brought “a refreshing approach to the fire department.” At the time of his appointment, Denver, like scores of other cities was ready for new blood and new ideas. Gonzales was not afraid to shake things up. Back then, fire departments were trapped by generational practices and traditions as ingrained as tree rings.
While confident that Gonzales could do the job, Peña was also fulfilling a promise. ‘Imagine a great city,’ the iconic slogan from the Peña campaign meant not only having one that was efficient and competitive but also one that “reflected the community.” At the time of his election, Latino leadership in city government bore little or no reflection to the city’s Latino population.
Gonzales was a 21st century executive in the 20th century. He emphasized new techniques in firefighting; outfitted the department in the best equipment for both fire and emergency services, said retired Denver Fire Chief Nick Nuanes. Gonzales shook the department out of institutional lethargy.
“He implemented culture change,” said Nuanes. He took the department where it had not been before. Gonzales made Denver a national model in firefighting. He tossed out old practices that rewarded individuals based on longevity, not qualifications and made “education and certification” essential for promotion. He “professionalized the Denver Fire Department,” said Nuanes. Also, under Gonzales, minority representation, including women, grew in DFD.
Gonzales also recognized talent, encouraging and challenging younger firefighters to focus on climbing the DFD ladder. Nuanes bought in. He took Gonzales’ lead, leaving what could have been a long and secure job as the department’s Public Information Officer. He climbed the ranks, running the department’s DIA operations before being appointed chief in 2007.
Despite having a hotline to high ranking government and business leaders, including governors and senators, ‘Chief’ or simply ‘Rich,’ as countless people addressed him, never forgot his roots or his old northside friends, often grabbing a bite or having a drink with one or a group, and not surprisingly on the northside.
But despite his many accomplishments; vice president of Denver’s United Way or serving in Governor Bill Ritter’s cabinet, Gonzales was comfortable being just ‘one of the guys,’ telling a joke, having a laugh, loving the moment. But nothing was more than family.
Gonzales inherited three step-daughters when he married Mary Kanan, a fellow North High graduate he met at his twentieth reunion. He also had four children from a previous marriage.
Professional accomplishments aside---and there were many---Gonzales was simply a warm, affable and gentle man, quick to smile and engage as easily with an old friend as with a perfect stranger.
But if he had one glaring fault, it would be---as many teased him about over the years---his lifelong affection for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the ledger of good is on his side and this, too, can be forgiven; not forgotten, but forgiven.
Rest in peace. You were a good man, Rich Gonzales. Denver is better because of you.