The Socorro community has known Socorro Fire Department Chief Joe Gonzales since his days on the football field wearing that Warrior Blue.
His career in the fire department started in 1979 as a dispatcher and then a firefighter a few months later. In 2005, Gonzales stepped into a more important role when he was named Chief and has held that position ever since.
At the city council meeting on June 21, Gonzales announced that after 42 years of service he will be retiring from the position on September 1. Captain Lawrence Baca will be taking over as interim chief on July 1.
“He’s done a fabulous job,” City of Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker said during city council.
Besides the roles he’s had at SFD, Gonzales has owned a construction business, Build Right Construction, since the early 1980s, was named the county commissioner for District 1 in 2019 and has spent his free time giving back to the community in various ways.
Socorro Fire Department:
Growing up, Gonzales never dreamed about being a firefighter.
It wasn’t until his in-law’s neighbor mentioned that there was a job open at the fire department that he thought about being a firefighter. Gonzales said he decided to apply for it because he and his wife were expecting their first child and he needed a job with insurance.
“I can’t say that as a little boy I wanted to be a firefighter,” Gonzales said. “Once I was in and seeing what they did, it intrigued me. Especially the aspect of helping people. When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it.”
Gonzales started as a dispatcher on July 1, 1979 and only held that role for a few months. He had a shift twice a week from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. and a 24-hour shift on the weekend.
Then, a firefighter position opened up and both Gonzales and the other dispatcher tested for the position. Gonzales tested higher and was offered the job.
He spent the next 25 years as a firefighter and moved through the ranks to Lieutenant and Captain.
During his time as a firefighter, now-captains Mario Amaro, Matt Brannan and Baca started their careers at SFD.
“I learned a lot from him at those times,” Brannan said about when Gonzales was a captain. “The department has always been really community oriented and trying the best that we can to support the community and at the same time, as Chief likes to put it, two words he tells us all the time is, to remember to stay humble and to have that ability about us.”
For Gonzales, his favorite part and the toughest part about being a firefighter were the accidents and the fires that he had to respond to.
“You have to embrace what you are doing because you do find yourself in unique situations,” he said. “There is always that additive of everyone is running out and you are running in. You are there sometimes when people aren’t at their best for whatever reasons and you are just trying to get them through it.”
In March of 2005, Gonzales retired from SFD. Then, a few weeks later, then-Chief Bob Brunson announced that he would be retiring. On May 1, 2005, Gonzales was named Interim Chief and then took over the position on July 6, 2005 according to the City of Socorro.
“There were things that I felt could be done here at the fire department that needed to be done,” Gonzales said.
Bhasker said that Gonzales was chosen as the next chief because he had the most seniority.
“At that time, I really didn’t know the qualities that he has now, that have bloomed in the last 15, 16 years,” Bhasker said. “I really didn’t pick him for that. I basically picked him because he was the next in line… I just felt like he could handle the job. Obviously, it did well.”
Since Gonzales took over as chief, the Socorro Fire Department has seen numerous upgrades to the firehouses and the equipment.
The remodeling of the upstairs of Station 1 started when Brunson was still chief. Once Gonzales took over, the department finished the remodel of Station 1 and Station 3. They also did upgrades to Station 2.
“The main thing was really better living conditions,” Gonzales said. “Being in the construction field a little bit, I knew I could make it better, more comfortable.”
The firefighters helped with all of the remodeling at Station 1 and 3, which included making the bunk rooms into private rooms for each firefighter, upgrading the kitchen, adding a gym to Station 1, adding the building on the side of Station 3 and much more. The heating and cooling also needed to be upgraded along with fixing leaks in the roofs.
“This building is over 100 years old and by the looks of it, you wouldn’t be able to tell it,” Baca said of Station 1. “That’s part of his construction profession side of things. He’s helped do a lot of that stuff on his own and got us involved as a department to help do those things.”
Every three years, the ambulances are upgraded to ensure that they are always up-to-date and they won’t break down on the way to or from an accident or the hospital.
Gonzales has also secured new blood pressure monitors, pulse oximeters, heart monitors, extrication equipment and more. The bunker gear is also replaced regularly.
According to Gonzales, having better gear and equipment helps with the department’s ISO rating. The rating determines how much community members pay for fire insurance for their house.
Prior to Gonzales taking over as chief, Brannan said there was one captain and three lieutenants for the whole department. Gonzales changed that to one captain and one lieutenant per shift.
Brannan said that in order to be promoted, the firefighter has to go through additional training and classes which brings a higher level of experience and education to the community.
Gonzales also implemented the standard operating procedure manual, Brannan said, which specifies what apparatus and personnel go on specific calls.
A couple years into being chief, the shift schedule changed from 24 hours on and 48 hours off to 48 hours on and 96 off. The chief also used to wear a white polo whereas Gonzales changed the uniforms to the closest blue he could find to Warrior Blue for the whole department.
“I don’t like separation among groups,” he said. “I knew who my bosses were. I knew who my leaders were in my football days and all that stuff. The person makes the uniform and the clothes, not the other way around. That’s how I look at it.”
In 2020, the stripe on the ambulances was changed from orange to Warrior Blue.
“That is the only regret that I have. I can’t believe it took me 15 years before I changed that to Warrior Blue,” Gonzales said. “That should have been done a long time ago. For that, I apologize to all the kids… Once a Warrior, always a Warrior.”
Besides changing the stripe to support the community, Gonzales has supported his firefighters over the years.
“The reward is in the relationships that you make with your coworkers and with the people that you serve,” Gonzales said. “That is why it means a lot to me. I was raised that way. We are here to make each other better and to help each other. This is just an extension of the way my parents raised me.”
Gonzales said that part of helping the firefighters is allowing them to move onto bigger departments to further their career.
Former SFD firefighter Resen Messer said he started with SFD in May of 2015 and then went to work for another department for six months. Messer then lost his job and Gonzales immediately allowed him to come back.
“He took me back right away and gave me a second chance. That set the tone for the rest of my career as a firefighter and really the rest of my life,” Messer said. “Thankfully he believed in me and gave me a second chance. Now, I’m still working as a firefighter and I’m doing good.”
In February of 2019, Messer decided to join Albuquerque Fire Rescue and credits Gonzales for being able to take that step in his career.
“He was glad to see that I was going to move on and further my career,” Messer said. “He was just glad that he could be part of my life and help contribute to me becoming a good citizen and doing better for myself and my family.”
Lieutenant Daniel Pacheco said that over the years Gonzales has helped him grow up and be a better person as he started with SFD at an early age.
Pacheco said he got into trouble early in his career and Gonzales helped him get through it.
“It forced me to realize and take a step back to realize that I had to change my ways,” Pacheco said. “I could have easily been let go… Luckily for me, he allowed me to stay and continue my career. After that, I’ve flourished. I kept going with it. I kept learning every day. I got a second chance so I wasn’t going to ruin it.”
Due to how Gonzales has helped him over the years, Pacheco and other members of SFD see Gonzales as a role model.
“He wants to see you get better. He wants to see you improve,” firefighter Dustin Aldrich said. “He’s done that for me in so many aspects in my life with knowledge, with work ethic, with a career. It’s been countless things. One of those men I’ve wanted to learn from.”
For Brannan, Gonzales being a father-figure comes from the open door policy that Gonzales has. Brannan said every firefighter has Gonzales’ cell phone number and can call him anytime — day or night — if they need anything.
“He’s always been open to us reaching out to him and seeking any guidance or a shoulder to cry on or somebody to speak to in those times of need and (it’s) known that anything we say to him is kept in confidence that it’s silent and it won’t be spread around,” Brannan said.
Having that open door policy helped Lieutenant Humberto Lucero when he joined in 2013 and Messer during his time at SFD.
“He believes in his firefighters,” Messer said. “He has guided us and he was always there for you if you needed someone to talk to. He would always be there for you. He’s like a father figure in a way. He’s been a father to, I think, a lot of firefighters.”
Over the years, Gonzales has not only given the firefighters personal advice, but has helped them learn fire and EMS techniques that Gonzales learned during his training.
“Every single fire I’ve been on with him, he teaches me something new, something different, a different way to look at things,” Lucero said. “A lot of people say it’s old school, but it never ages in the fire department because things that they learned still work today.”
Aldrich came into the department in 2011 without any knowledge of EMS or firefighting and said that it can be “overwhelming at times” to keep up with the amount of information that Gonzales has.
“I didn’t know anything about that so it’s been a lot to just know how much he holds inside that brain of his and he can just regurgitate it at a moment’s notice. It’s really hard to do,” Aldrich said. “It’s like when you learn your favorite song and you memorize all the words and everything, now times that by a whole album in his brain.”
As they are running out the door to a call, Brannan said Gonzales will ask them if they know who that patient is and will remind them of the medical conditions that person has.
After a call, Gonzales would critique calls the firefighters went on to help them improve.
“I tell them to not sweat the small stuff and everything is small stuff. What that means is just having a calm disposition when you are out there,” Gonzales said. “I’m not an x’s and o’s guy. I’m all for training, but the hands-on, the human interaction with the public is the part that I think I try to convey to them and hope that they learn.”
To help improve SFD, Brannan said Gonzales communicated with each firefighter individually. Gonzales would use the strengths from each person for the greater good of the department while helping the firefighters improve their weakness.
On calls, the firefighters work towards their strengths. For Gonzales, that strength is being able to step back from a scene, walk around it, get a mental picture of what is happening and then formulate a plan. He then gives directions and tasks to the rest of the firefighters. He would also check in with the firefighters to see how they were doing.
“Me and Chris Padilla, one of our retired captains from here, we were inside a fire one day and it was pitch black,” Amaro said. “We were fighting the fire and all of a sudden we heard from a window, ‘are you guys alright?’ We looked over and we didn’t see anyone so we looked over and there (Gonzales) was sticking his head in the window to make sure we were OK.”
Amaro said that Gonzales’ leadership on calls and at the firehouse has helped him become a better firefighter and captain.
“When he was a captain he showed you and as chief he took it a little further,” Amaro said. “When I became captain, he showed me what I should be doing as a captain.”
Aldrich said he has been able to learn a lot from Gonzales just by watching him while at work because he leads by example.
“It’s really impressive to be around a man like that,” he said. “They say surround yourself with men that you want to become or men you want to look up to and he’s definitely one of those men that has always just held himself to a standard that I want to hold myself to.”
Gonzales has spent much time showing the firefighters how they can better assist the community and how they can improve from mistakes they have made in the past.
“He’ll be the first one to give you the shirt off his back to anybody,” Baca said. “Are we always in the right? No. We make mistakes, but he’ll be the first one to take the shirt off his back and help you get through it and get you past it and help you grow.”
Messer said that Gonzales has helped him grow by teaching him to give others a second chance just like Gonzales did for him.
“He’s helped me be able to look at my life that way instead of saying, ‘these people are just like that.’ Look at what’s happened and try to look at the situation and maybe that’s why whatever happened instead of just saying, ‘that’s why these people are like that.’ Things happen from circumstances sometimes that are beyond our control and try to look at things like that,” Messer said.
The leadership and teaching style that Gonzales has implemented at SFD has made him an inspiration for Pacheco.
“Eventually, I would like to be in a top position like him,” Pacheco said. “You just see his leadership style. You take into consideration that he loves his community, he loves his department. He does everything with his heart and soul into it. When you see someone with a character like that and putting everything into it, that’s something you pride yourself (with) and you eventually want to grow into one day.”
For Lucero, the type of character that Gonzales has, has earned Gonzales the utmost respect in the Socorro community and within SFD.
“Everyone respects him, his opinion, respects his view on things,” Lucero said. “When he has something to say, everyone just listens because most of the time he is right and he likes to say that too, that he’s right most of the time… Everyone pays attention to him. Everyone listens. Everyone knows Joe and everyone respects him and knows what kind of person he is and he’s a very respectable person.”
The firefighters also know once they have earned the respect of Gonzales.
For Aldrich, that came when he first earned his badge.
Aldrich recalled how he was at the fire academy for his Fire 1 class and that one day Gonzales pulled him out of class. Aldrich said he was worried he did something wrong or was in trouble. Gonzales then walked him outside and asked him how the class was going.
“He says, ‘I just want to tell you that you are doing good and I’m proud of you and congratulations,’ and he gave me my badge,” Aldrich said. “That has always been a really sentimental memory for me. It was an honor. There wasn’t 100 guys clapping and doing all the stuff. It was just me and him standing outside and I just felt like I had made him proud in that moment, which made me feel like I earned a little bit of respect from him.”
While it’s normally down to business for SFD, there are times when the department gathers just to have fun with each other.
Over the years, Gonzales has worked hard to make SFD very family orientated.
“That is what a fire department is supposed to be,” he said. “You are part of the community. You are only as strong as your weakest link and we don’t want to be that weak link. We aren’t that big of a department and sometimes we all need to pull together and have each other’s back.”
Every year SFD has a Christmas party which always involves a white elephant gift exchange.
Lucero recalled how Gonzales always does a prank gift and then gives the firefighter their actual gift.
“It’s so funny,” Lucero said. “He does that every single Christmas. That’s my favorite memory of him because he does it every single Christmas.”
Gonzales said it’s his way of keeping the firefighters on their toes.
“I always get the last laugh and never let them see you sweat and never let them know your next move,” he said. “I just like doing that. They think I got them and then there is a reward with it.”
The department will also put luminaries around Station 1 for Christmas and host a Fourth of July celebration.
If a firefighter’s child has a birthday when that firefighter is on shift, all of the families are invited to Station 1 for a birthday celebration. Occasionally they also get together for barbeques.
Once in a while Gonzales will bring in breakfast or lunch for those who are on shift.
“We are like a big brotherhood and that means everything to him,” Lucero said. “He’s a big family man and that’s trickled down onto us because we like to hang out with each other. We are like a big family here. It’s like our family away from home.”
When Gonzales is not on shift, he will occasionally go golfing with the firefighters.
“Just like anything else, he makes that experience just that much more better,” Baca said. “I’m not the greatest golfer so I’m always afraid to play with people who are better than me, but he just welcomes you with open arms with whatever it is that you do with him. It’s just fun being around him.”
Pacheco said that the days spent on the golf course with Gonzales are some of his favorite memories.
“Don’t let him fool you. He says he’s not good, but he goes out there and he’s good,” he said. “He’ll trick you if you’re not careful.”
As Gonzales prepares to step down as Chief, Baca said that Gonzales will be missed at SFD because of how he has helped everyone throughout the years.
“Just being around him, just knowing that he cares and you know you’ll always have somebody to fall back on and if you ever need something he would do anything for anybody,” Baca said. “He’s just a big hearted guy and it’s fun to be around him whether it’s outside the door of the fire station or at the golf course. No matter where you are at, Joe is very positive and willing to do whatever for anybody.”
When Ibrahim Maiga looked up into the stands during his senior football game at Eastern New Mexico University he saw Gonzales and assistant coach Chuck Zimmerly.
“That was huge because those are the guys that basically brought me up in the football thing, in terms of high school,’ Maiga said. “Seeing them at my senior day in college was pretty cool.”
Gonzales helped Maiga find his love of football and also showed up at the memorial for Maiga’s dad.
“It was big because it just shows that he cares and that it’s bigger than football,” he said. “He cares about me and my father.”
Maiga said that during the service Gonzales told Maiga a story about his father that he had never heard before.
“I guess when I was in high school and still playing, my dad had seen him at the post office or something and my dad ended up telling him, ‘my boy loves football and I don’t know why, but he loves it and I appreciate you coaching him.’ I thought that was kind of funny because my parents are from Africa so they were never really big on football,” Maiga said. “My dad never understood the game as much until I started playing.”
Gonzales played football on a little league team and then didn’t play again until he was a sophomore at Socorro High School. He also participated in track and field for all four years.
He said he joined the football team because he enjoyed going on trips with the track team and wanted to go on more.
“I joined it and it’s funny how life is,” Gonzales said. “You think you do things for a reason and it just teaches you and guides you and shows you, ‘surprise.’”
Ever since, Gonzales has compared life to the game of football.
“You approach it the same way. Nothing is handed to you. Those are the words of my dad and my mom,” he said. “You have to get up and get ready every day and see what happens. Those are the words of my mom. In today’s society, everyone wants everything handed to them it seems like. To me, there is more reward, the only reward I think, the only reward is hard work and sticking to something.”
The 1977 football team at SHS was rewarded in a big way when they won the state championship.
“That is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life because I put a lot into it and believe in something and it happens, it’s just good,” he said.
When Gonzales started playing his sophomore season, he played any position that they asked him to. For the rest of his high school career, he mainly played defensive back.
During his three years of playing, Gonzales received many individual and team awards. The Warriors were state runner-up his junior year. His senior season, Gonzales was named to the all-district and all-state teams along with being one of the team captains.
“There was a statement made by one of the coaches at an award ceremony and I think it summed it up,” former teammate Joel Haley said. “It was basically that the heart of the person is what determines good leaders and he was always committed and dedicated. He had that drive and that heart for not only the game, but for his teammates. That is what makes good leaders. People want to walk alongside him.”
Haley said that when Gonzales was on the field, he was an intellectual thinker.
“By that I mean he mentally could place himself in the right positions to make plays as opposed to seeing and just having to athletically react,” he said. “He’s great to play with.”
Chuck Zimmerly — who coached Gonzales in track and football and also currently coaches football with Gonzales — said that Gonzales was “an overachiever to the max” on the football field.
“He was a big hitter,” Zimmerly said. “He had the speed to cover. It was hard to get deep on us because we had so much speed back there. They would come up and strike you. He was excellent as a defensive back. He took a lot of pride in shutting down receivers and doing his thing as a corner.”
Now, as an assistant coach for the Warrior football team, Gonzales mainly works with the defensive backs.
Gonzales said he started coaching after he was approached about the opportunity because he spent many hours on the sidelines during games and practices because of the fire department.
He has stayed coaching throughout the years because it is another way to give back to the community and to help the kids.
“To see them excel when they work hard and get a reward,” he said. “Life is what it is, but they are still out there and they want to be part of something. Football is a positive distraction from life.”
When Gonzales played football, his nickname was “Little Joe” and now he is known as “Grandpa Joe” because of the generations he has coached and for the way that he treats the players.
“It’s rewarding,” he said. “Every year I say that I’m not going to do it any more and there is always one kid that brings you back. One or two and sometimes there are more than two, but there is always one. The thing that brings you back the most is the kid themself, the situations that unfortunately some of them are in and they just keep showing up. If they can show up, I need to show up too.”
He also currently coaches with Damian Ocampo who was one of Gonzales’ athletes.
“Joe is one of those special guys,” Ocampo said. “You come across guys like him every now and again. He’s a man of few words, but when you get to know him, he has a great personality, he’s funny and he has a knack for getting into kid’s minds.”
Ocampo and Maiga both said Gonzales mainly focuses on technique during practice and would lead by example.
Maiga said one memory that sticks out to him was a practice his freshman year of high school where they were running routes. Gonzales went over to give him words of encouragement and to compliment him on how he did certain things with detail.
Outside of practice, Maiga said players would occasionally go to Gonzales’ house for pizza parties, to watch film or to do various team building exercises.
Maiga would also spend time with Gonzales to talk about personal happenings in his life.
“Any time I wanted to talk to him, if it was outside of football he always had time to talk,” Maiga said. “He was always open. Open arms. I could ask him any question. He always made time to talk, whether it was about football or life in general. Same thing with the door at his house, his door is always open.”
Since the beginning of the football program, the Warriors have been in five state championships and Gonzales has been part of all of them – two as a player and three as a coach. Zimmerly has coached in all five.
“They have been through Socorro football, the highs and the lows,” Ocampo said. “They’ve seen it through. Coach Zimmerly and Joe Gonzales, they call him Grandpa Joe, those two guys are the legacy. They mean the world. They’ve been through the ups and downs and have stuck with us no matter what.”
Ocampo said that Gonzales being part of all five championships helps the Warriors because he knows what it takes to bring back the blue trophy.
One way it helps, according to Ocampo, is that Socorro is occasionally overlooked due to being from a small town and not always having the facilities or money that other programs have. He said Gonzales will remind the athletes that they have what it takes to get past those challenges.
“What Joe means to me is the legacy of a tough, hardnose Socorro young man,” Ocampo said. “He was taught not just by the community and his family and everything else, but he was taught by a great man, coach Castaneda who we both knew and played for, and because of guys like Joe, the spirit of masculinity, the spirit of selflessness, the spirit of being a great person, a great father, a great leader, a great husband, all that stuff that he learned through his coaches and his family and everything, he’s portraying onto the kids.”
While Gonzales is on the sideline coaching football, the firefighters are on the opposite side of the field in case an athlete is injured. The firefighters also help with soccer matches. Occasionally, SFD will go to events just to support the athletes.
“We always have to watch the football games,” Pacheco said. “He’s always with us. He’s the Chief at our department, but he’s always Grandpa Joe over at the football field. We always see him across the field yelling and screaming and giving high-fives. If someone gets hurt, he’s the first one out there to check on the patient.”
Gonzales said he has at least one season of coaching left in him.
“Everything comes to an end and as far as the fire department, that game is over. The other one is probably in the fourth quarter,” he said.
In 2016, Gonzales along with the ambulances and fire truck pulled up to the house of Cowboy Clarence’s parents to surprise him with a SFD badge.
Cowboy Clarence is a handicap member of the Socorro Community who always wanted to be a firefighter.
“I’m a firefighter,” Cowboy Clarence said. “I’m one of the first responders. I always wanted to wear a badge. When the fire truck and the EMT guys, they went over to the house and presented the badge to me. They made me an honorary member of the fire department.”
Gonzales gave Cowboy Clarence a temporary badge while his custom made badge with his name at the top and No. 1 at the bottom was being made.
“It made me feel proud, like it was an honor to have the badge,” Cowboy Clarence said.
Gonzales and SFD have given back to the Socorro community in many ways. Every year around Christmas they hold a matanza.
After the light parade, the firefighters would make food for the community and all the money the event raised went towards buying Christmas gifts for children who may not receive any otherwise.
“It was very rewarding,” Messer said. “It felt so good to help some kids out, especially kids who weren’t going to have a Christmas. Just to see the excitement in their eyes and in their voice. It was just an amazing feeling.”
Lucero said they would take the children to Walmart on the fire truck with the sirens blaring. Each child had a set amount of money they were able to spend.
For Gonzales, taking the children Christmas shopping holds a special place in his heart.
“A little girl knew what she wanted and she went straight for the bikes and she drove it and we had to catch her. There were those kids who went in there and they went to buy groceries and that was good too,” he said through tears.
Over the years, Gonzales has donated to the football program and has also helped other sport programs at Socorro High School.
He has bought meals and paid for hotel rooms for the wrestling team along with donating to the basketball teams. He has also helped with equipment for various teams. For the golf teams at SHS and New Mexico Tech, he will sponsor holes when they host a golf tournament.
During this past school year, he helped make sure students could connect to the internet due to having to attend school online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They needed some hotspots so I helped them get some of those for the kids who couldn’t afford them,” Gonzales said.
He has bought many raffle tickets over the years and said he has eaten way too many enchiladas as some organizations have enchilada fundraisers.
“Someday I’m going to win,” he said.
Gonzales has also helped people while he was on shift for SFD. He would help people get where they were going or put them up in a hotel room for a night because they were stranded or a loved one was in the hospital or was being transferred to Albuquerque.
“It’s not who or how much, it’s about the moment,” he said.
After graduating from high school, Baca was looking for a summer job to earn money for college as he was attending New Mexico Highlands University for his teaching degree. He turned to Gonzales who allowed him to work for Build Right Construction each summer between Baca’s college academic years.
“I remember this and I don’t even know if Chief remembers this, he was a big influence of pushing me to go to school, Baca said. “He wanted me to do better and keeping me motivated to go back to school and whatnot.”
During the summer before the start of Baca’s senior year, he had his first child. He said he drove up to Highlands and then immediately turned back around because he couldn’t leave his 1-month-old child.
“I remember Chief being upset with me when I came back,” Baca said. “I was probably as afraid of him as I was my parents because when I came back, he motivated me to go back to school and he wanted me to finish school. When I came back, I don’t know if he was disappointed in me and I don’t even know if he remembers this story, but he was upset that I didn’t go back and finish but he understood.”
Baca said doing construction with Gonzales has helped him both at the fire department and personally as he can now do projects himself that he would normally have to pay someone to do.
Gonzales has also helped Aldrich and other firefighters by allowing them to work for Build Right Construction.
“The effort that they put forward, they knew they weren’t going to show up at construction just to be handed a few extra dollars. They knew they had to earn it,” Gonzales said. “Some of them thanked me and really appreciated learning something that they took into their daily lives.”
Aldrich started doing construction two years after becoming a firefighter as he needed his roof repaired. He was taught how to do the repairs and what he would have been paid was taken off the total cost of his roof.
He has been working with the company off and on ever since.
“It’s fun to work with him at both,” Aldrich said. “At the station, you see one side of him — he’s very, very polite and orderly. At the construction yard, he lets loose a little bit more and he will take jabs at you and make fun of you a little more, which is enjoyable.”
Besides the firefighters, Build Right Construction has helped many people in the community.
For Gonzales, making a profit was not his biggest concern as he built some houses for little to no profit to help the homeowner be able to afford it.
“Even to the last day that I made bids, I put things together and, ‘that’s a lot of money. How can people afford that?’ I think it just has to be good enough for everybody,” he said.
The first house Gonzales ever built was his own and then through word-of-mouth began building houses for other people.
In 1997, Gonzales built a house for Michael Lalla in Las Cruces as the two of them have known each other since their days of running track and field in high school.
“He’s a good friend of mine and probably one of the most honest and hard-working guys that I know,” Lalla said. “When he tells me something, it’s going to happen. He’s pretty up front and the quality of the work is top notch. He wouldn’t cut any corners.”
Lalla recalled how Gonzales put the construction crew up in a condo for the duration of the project and that the house was built quickly and within budget.
“Just everything came out really, really good, sturdy,” Lalla said. “We knew we weren’t going to have any problems with anything. Here, 24 years later, we are still really happy with it.”
Gonzales also built a house for Lena Chavez and her husband. Chavez said she was amazed that it only took four months for the house to be completely built.
“Thanksgiving Day, Joe and his son Josh are working on the dirt at my house to get my house going on Thanksgiving Day,” she said. “They were on it.”
Prior to building houses, he remodeled bathrooms and kitchens, poured patios, put up walls and much more. Gonzales said he has done just about every type of construction besides irrigation.
One bathroom he remodeled was Cowboy Clarence’s to make it more handicap accessible.
Anita Montoya, Cowboy Clarence’s mom, said they received money through a medicaid program for the remodel and hired Gonzales as a contractor because Gonzales previously replaced their roof.
“I feel like he is an honest person,” she said. “My husband feels like he’s an honest person. We just have that confidence in him. When you’re in a small town and you know the family, you tend to lean that way. Joe went out of his way to make my son feel inclusive in the community.”
During the early days of the construction business, Gonzales would bring his wife and their kids to the construction sites.
They would make family trips out of the drives to go get construction supplies from out-of-town.
“We used to go — all of us — and go pick up supplies and make it a mini vacation,” he said. “The trunk would be loaded and we would go to the movie theater and have our own snacks. Times were good, but income was short. I remember we paid the guy $5 to watch our truck while we watched a movie. Those were good times.”
Gonzales would get a lot of his supplies from Tabet Lumber in Belen and then Keith Stowe opened RAKS Building Supply in Socorro. Stowe previously worked at Tabet Lumber.
“Before RAKS opened, he was a customer of ours and he was a loyal customer before RAKS opened here in Socorro,” Stowe said. “He was one of the reasons we looked at expanding down here because we were doing quite a bit of business with him back then.”
Stowe said it’s been great getting to know Gonzales and seeing his work ethic as Gonzales would come in with supply lists and just orders the materials unlike other customers who come in with only the blueprints.
According to Stowe, Build Right Construction has been the busiest construction business in town the past five years and Gonzales always made sure his employees had jobs lined up and thanked those that helped with projects.
“It’s not uncommon for deliveries to go out and then have Dominos deliver 10 pizzas or something like that from him, just saying thank you for stuff,” Stowe said.
City of Socorro and Socorro County Commission:
Socorro County Manager Michael Hawkes has known who Gonzales was since his days of playing football for Belen.
“He was the cornerback that tackled me on the half-yard line for the only touchdown that we eventually ran in for,” Hawkes said. “The only touchdown that we had against Socorro that year. They beat us 42–7. I always wondered who that was because I hit him as hard as I could and he was a little bit smaller than me. I hit him as hard as I could and he didn’t even budge on one of the plays.”
Hawkes said Gonzales continues to beat him, except now it’s on the golf course.
“When I think I’m going to win a hole, I’ll get within a foot of the flag and it’s the story of my life, if I’m within a foot of the flag, he gets six inches,” Hawkes said. “I’m like, ‘I still have nightmares of you tackling me on the half-yard line. You’re never going to let me go.’
For Hawkes, the personal relationship has helped their working relationship as they first worked together in 1982 for a year when Hawkes was stationed in Socorro with New Mexico State Police.
Hawkes returned to Socorro in 1992 and the two of them have worked together off-and-on since.
While their jobs overlapped occasionally, they have worked together on a regular basis since 2019 when Gonzales was named the county commissioner for District 1.
Gonzales said he decided to run for county commission because he couldn’t participate in city council due to being chief for SFD and that it’s another way to give back to the community.
During his time on the county commission so far, Gonzales has supported the local industries, economic development and the employees having higher wages.
“The ones that we have, just make sure they stay here and the local small businesses,” he said. “Buy as much as you can locally.”
Hawkes said having Gonzales on county commission has been a “godsend” because of his knowledge of the county and the city.
“Having him, to say it’s been a pleasure is a real understatement,” Hawkes said. “He just has that insight and knowledge. His demeanor, he understands global perspective and he doesn’t try to intervene on issues that shouldn’t be.”
The city government has had a similar experience with Gonzales as he will go over to city hall to give his perspective and advice on matters.
For Ruby Lopez, Finance Director for the City of Socorro, Gonzales’ advice has been very helpful as she has only been in the position since 2018. He would also go over to city hall to run numbers with her on various budgets.
“His history, I would ask him in the past if a situation came up and he would give me a little spiel on it and he would give me some information, which helped my job a lot,” she said. “I appreciated him a lot.”
For Chavez, him going over to city hall meant she was going to laugh and smile at a joke he said.
“There are good people in the world, but working with Joe, you see it everyday,” she said. “You do see it everyday. You just see how he is with the kids, with the community, with his employees. You just see the compassion every single day. I’m going to miss his jokes because he is funny. He really has some crazy jokes. That I’m going to miss.”
Her favorite memory of Gonzales was when the city and SFD threw him a birthday celebration a few years ago and they got the date mixed up.
“We got Joe to city hall and we sang happy birthday to him,” she said. “His guys came over, sang happy birthday to him and it wasn’t his birthday… We did the whole shabang and he was like, ‘it’s not my birthday.’”
Chavez said even though the day was mixed up that everyone had a great time.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gonzales was able to use his experience as chief and as county commissioner to help set up testing and vaccination clinics.
“I saw what had to be done in the realm of the fire department and how we could assist and how it was going to be at the state level, taken care of so to speak. I said, ‘that can’t work. We are too small and don’t have the resources. We need to be one group between the emergency manager’s office, which is the county, the state DOH, which is the state, and the fire department, which is the city,’” Gonzales said. “The last piece is the community and the volunteers. They were all as equally important.”
The fire department did testing clinics throughout the pandemic and hosted vaccine clinics every Thursday from January 7 until May 6. They still host vaccine clinics as needed.
When the pandemic started, Emergency Manager Gail Tripp had only been in the role for a month. She said Gonzales made setting up the clinics easier and less stressful due to the years of experience he has in emergency situations.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “He’s just such a very noble person. His heart is in it, to the max. He lays it all out there to get it done. That’s a trait that is astonishing to see the lengths he went through to make sure we were all taken care of.”
At the county commission meeting on May 25, Gonzales recognized Tripp and all of the firefighters at the Socorro Fire Department for their work during the vaccine clinics.
“As emotional as he got, this community just means the world to him,” District 3 Commissioner Manuel Anaya said. “You hear it in his voice. You see it. He’s all about Socorro.”