Gustavo "Gus" Garcia, a former Austin school board trustee, City Council member and the first elected Hispanic mayor of Austin, died early Monday surrounded by his family. He was 84.
At a memorial service at the Gus Garcia Young Men's Leadership Academy, Mayor Steve Adler remembered Garcia's years of service to Austin.
"He really was one of our civic giants," Adler said. "He brought equity and access issues to the forefront. And then in my entire term, he has been a real close friend and a mentor."
“We will forever say the last three lines of our creed with so much power,” the school's principal, Sterlin McGruder, said. Ten students wearing the school’s uniform then recited in unison: “I look good. I feel good. I am a Gus Garcia man.''
Superintendent Paul Cruz asked that all AISD schools lower their flags to half-staff. He said Garcia had a lot of pride: "Pride in the work that he was doing. Pride in his family."
Born in Zapata in 1934, Garcia later moved with his family to Laredo. He attended Laredo Junior College before flunking out and eventually joining the U.S. Army in 1954. He went back to Laredo Junior College after a two-year stint in the military and then enrolled at the University of Texas in 1957. He started his own accounting firm in Austin in 1965.
Garcia was elected to the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees in 1972, later serving as the board's president for a year in 1977. He was the first Hispanic trustee elected to the board. His legacy with the district was cemented in 2007, when the district named a middle school after him.
Garcia was elected to the Austin City Council in 1991, narrowly eking out a win in a runoff election with 50.83 percent of the vote. He was re-elected to council in 1993 and 1997. Then in 2001, he became Austin’s first elected Hispanic mayor, serving until 2003.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who said Garcia was his personal accountant for several years, called him a "gentle but forceful voice for public education."
"We can best salute Gus’s valued legacy by continuing to work for an inclusive, just community that lives up to his vision of what our city can be," he said in a statement.
In a 2012 interview with former AISD Trustee Paul Saldaña, Garcia said his life in politics was driven by a need for equity in Austin – particularly among Austin ISD students. Garcia recalled his former friend, Victor Ruiz, being surprised by his forcefulness on the Austin school board when meetings were broadcast on KUT – namely that Latino kids had "the same right as white kids to quality education."
"I said, 'This is a democracy, Victor. We have to put our issues on the table so that everybody hears it and hears it loud and clear that we’re here asking that our children receive the same quality education — or whatever education necessary for them to have success in this country.'” [Ruiz] said, “Well, I just didn’t know that we were allowed to say those things.”
Garcia told Saldaña, who worked in his office for 10 years, he was most proud of his work on the school board. There were "40 Mexican-American teachers when I started. When I left, there were 600."
"It was all an effort to change the way things were being done here," Garcia said. "And I think if I look back and just sit back and look at it, I think it was very successful."
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Garcia as Austin's first Hispanic mayor. He was the city's first elected Hispanic mayor.
Listen to the 2012 interview: