FEATURED: Gary Gurwitz, center, is joined by his colleagues on the Board of Trustees, South Texas College, on Tuesday, April 26, 2022, as they paid tribute to his 29 years of service on the governing board. He did not seek reelection this year for another six-year term as District 4 trustee, which represents north McAllen, northwest Pharr, Palmhurst, northeast Mission, and southwest Edinburg. Three candidates are seeking to succeed him later this spring. From left are: Danny Guzmán, District 7; René Guajardo, District 6; Victoria Cantú, Secretary, District 2; Gurwitz, District 4; Rose Benavidez, Chair, District 1; Dr. Alejo Salinas, Jr., Vice Chair, District 5; and Paul R. Rodríguez, District 3.
Photograph By BENJAMIN BRIONES
Gary Gurwitz, appointed by Gov. Ann Richards as one of the seven founding member of Board of Trustees, South Texas College, retires after 29 years
By JOEY GÓMEZ
Nearly 30 years ago, Gary Gurwitz said he looked at the small cluster of buildings located near the heart of McAllen and considered all the limitless possibilities of a budding campus.
In those days, unemployment hovered around 24 percent in surrounding communities and became even higher as you traveled further west into Starr County. It was 1993, and then Gov. Ann Richards had just signed legislation creating South Texas Community College, which established the 50th community college in Texas and the first ever campus in Starr County.
Gurwitz was among those founding members she appointed to improve access to higher education in Hidalgo and Starr Counties.
Founding trustees at the time included Manuel Benavidez for District 1, Rosalinda González for District 2, Glen Roney for District 3, Pearl Mathis for District 5, Dr. Amparo Cárdenas for District 6 and Rubén Hinojosa for District 7 prior to his election to Congress.
South Texas College is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and offers more than 127 degree and certificate options, including associate degrees in a variety of liberal art, social science, business, math, science, technology, advanced manufacturing and allied health fields of study.
Additionally, South Texas College is the only community college in the state of Texas to offer five baccalaureate degrees. South Texas College has a faculty and staff of more than 2,700 to serve 28,000 students, on the college’s six campuses, two higher education centers, and one virtual campus.
Gurwitz represented District 4, which includes north McAllen, northwest Pharr, Palmhurst, northeast Mission and southwest Edinburg.
On Tuesday, April 26, 2022, state and higher education leaders, along with students, paid tribute to Gurwitz, an accomplished attorney, during a Retirement Celebration and during the board of trustees public session at the Pecan Campus in McAllen.
“I was honored to join Gary’s family and friends, fellow STC trustees, and many in the community,” said Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen. “We paid tribute to Gary’s leadership, guidance, commitment, and his many contributions to the growth and development of South Texas College over the past three decades. He has been a leader in education and serving the community.”
As the only founding trustee left from 1993, Gurwitz was among those charged with converting the former Texas State Technical College campus, located on 10 acres in McAllen, into a locally-governed community college.
While success in establishing the college didn’t come easy, early challenges still offered a glimpse into what was to become a long and successful journey on the board, Gurwitz said.
“Back then, we were a branch of Texas State Technical College that was almost all technical with no academic courses that could transfer anywhere. We had no faculty of our own, no income of our own, no computers, no library, no bookkeeping. We just had these buildings, so virtually we started from scratch and with less than 1,000 students. Some of our first classes were in old laundromats,” Gurwitz said. “Once, we thought we might not be able to make a payroll and had to take out a short-term bank loan.”
South Texas College has come a long way from those early classrooms in laundromats.
South Texas College has become a hub for industry training and workforce development in the region, currently serving nearly 30,000 students with a faculty and staff of more than 2,700, offering 127 different degree and certificate programs, five bachelor programs, six state-of-the-art campuses, two higher education centers and one virtual campus.
Now after almost three decades of having served South Texas College, Gurwitz completed his service as a trustee at his last regular meeting of the Board of Trustees on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.
Gurwitz had been reelected to the board ever since the start of the college for an impressive five terms.
“Gary Gurwitz has been a devoted public servant to this college and this community. This institution and its many successes serve as a proud legacy,” said Dr. Ricardo Solis, President, South Texas College. “The Rio Grande Valley and our students past and present owe him a debt of gratitude.”
During his time as a trustee he has served as Chair, Vice Chair, Secretary, and Member, Board of Trustees, South Texas College, and has sat on South Texas College’s Facilities Committee and Education and Workforce Development Committee.
When asked about the reasons for establishing South Texas College nearly 30 years ago, Gurwitz recalls the tremendous need for a community college that could operate in a different way from a four-year university.
Since that time, he said it has been extremely satisfying to see massive growth at the college.
Over his time as a trustee, Gurwitz said he has watched the Rio Grande Valley transform from a region with unemployment rates higher than 20 percent in Hidalgo County and more than 40 percent in Starr County, to a bustling destination for families and businesses in large part attributable to South Texas College’s impact on communities.
Gurwitz believes that if you talk to the head of any economic development council, any mayor, or any elected official, they will tell you that the single most important thing that has happened to our region in the last 28 years is South Texas College.
“Education is the foundation or catalyst or main ingredient to everything. You’re not going to improve your community as a whole without it. You have to have education to get any employment, but to educate our community we knew it had to be convenient (and) reasonably priced, but that wasn’t readily available back then,” said Gurwitz.
Gurwitz is particularly proud of the hiring of Dr. Shirley Reed and the establishment of the Dual Credit Programs, which has since grown to encompass 21 school districts and 70 high school partners across Hidalgo and Starr Counties.
On Thursday, November 19, 2020 – Reed, who was the founding president of the higher education system which serves Hidalgo and Starr counties – announced her retirement, which went into effect on Monday, January 4, 2021.
“After an incredible twenty-six years as the founding president of South Texas College, it is time to announce my retirement from this outstanding institution. I am so very proud of what we have done together,” Reed publicly reflected on her decision a year-and-a-half ago. “South Texas college was founded to address profound needs in our communities: high unemployment and low educational attainment contributed to generational poverty for many families through the Valley. Over nearly three decades, we have disrupted poverty; through workforce and academic programs, we have helped thousands of families break cycles of poverty.”
As one of the largest Dual Credit Programs in the state and since its establishment in 1997, more than 11,000 certificates and/or associate degrees have been awarded to more than 115,000 dual credit students saving families over $278 million in tuition and fees.
The Dual Credit Programs at South Texas College provides the opportunity for eligible high school students, in a participating school district, to enroll in college course while still attending high school.
Dual credit courses, offered at high school sites, are provided at no cost to students.
Rose Benavidez, Chair, Board of Trustees, South Texas College, offered her congratulations on behalf of her fellow trustees to Gurwitz prior to his last meeting as a South Texas College board member.
“I think one of the strongest benefits and assets we have had as board members has been having someone who has been there from day one, and who has been an exemplary example of governance, integrity and quite frankly just leadership as a whole,” said Benavidez. “He (Gurwitz) was able to bring his perspective on the accelerated growth and impact that was taking place so we could shape our policy moving forward. It has been extremely helpful to have someone who has been there, who had seen the beginning of the college and who could see its growth today and into the future.”
During the Tuesday, April 26, 2022 board session, Benavidez continued her praise for Gurwitz
“The accolades have not concluded, sir. We want to, first of all, absolutely acknowledge the fact that there is a lot to be said about an individual that commits a third of his life to an institution and to a common mission,” said Benavidez, whose late father, Manuel Benavidez, was part of the first board of trustees.
“We are only privileged – and by standards of Gary Gurwitz’ world and South Texas College – and we are happy that you have chosen as this as the place to share your expertise, to share your knowledge, and to share you passion,” she said.
Among his many lifetime achievements and credentials, Gurwitz is a former managing partner of Atlas, Hall & Rodríguez of McAllen, has more than 50 years of litigation experience representing corporations, banks, insurance companies, medical professionals, and individuals in cases involving a wide variety of legal issues, including commercial and business law, trusts, class actions, medical and legal malpractice, product liability, and personal injury.
He expressed his appreciation to his colleagues, but especially to the professionals and students who make up the South Texas College community.
Addressing staff members in attendance in the boardroom, Gurwitz shifted the praise away from himself.
“You did a great job. You’re fantastic. You have to have people of your quality, your dedication and determination, and your abilities for us (board members) to look good,” he addressed staff members in attendance in the boardroom. “It has been a great ride. thank all of you, keep on keeping on.”
Other highlights of his professional and personal lives are, according to his biography on the Atlas, Hall & Rodríguez website, follow:
Gurwitz is married to Bailey and they have three children.
He was born in San Antonio and raised in Three Rivers, Texas.
He attended the University of Texas at Austin and received his B.B.A. in 1958 and his JD, with honors, from the University of Texas Law School in 1959, where he received the Honorary Order of the Coif Award and was a member of Phi Delta Phi.
He was an Associate Editor of Texas Law Review.
He was admitted to the Texas bar in 1959 and has practiced in McAllen since that time.
Other examples of his achievements and credentials are:
• State Bar of Texas, 1959
• U.S. District Court Southern District of Texas
• U.S. Court of Appeals 5th Circuit U.S. Supreme Court
• U.S. Supreme Court
•Fellow, American College of Trial Lawyers;
• Sustaining Life Fellow, Texas Bar Foundation;
• Fellow, American Bar Foundation; Member, International Association of Defense Counsel;
• American Counsel Association;
• Association of Defense Trial Attorneys;
• Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers;
• Member and former Vice President of Texas Association of Defense Counsel;
• Past President of the Hidalgo County Bar Association
• Recipient of the Hidalgo County Bar Association Lifetime Achievement Award;
• Been named a Texas Super Lawyer numerous times since 2003;
• Former Director, State Bar of Texas;
• Former Member, State Bar of Texas Board of Disciplinary Appeals;
• Former Member of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law Dean’s Roundtable;
• Member of Executive Committee of the Chancellor’s Council at University of Texas System; and
• Member, Former Director and Vice-President of Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism.
• Founding Trustee of South Texas College and trustee from 1993 to May 2022;
• Recipient of the M. Dale Ensign Leadership Award from the Association of Community College Trustees;
• Longtime former member of the Board of Directors of the Vannie E. Cook Cancer Foundation;
• Recipient of the American Heart Association, Upper Valley Division, Heart of Gold Award;
• Muscular Dystrophy Association, Humanitarian of the Year Award;
• IMAS Collage Legacy Award;
• State of Israel Unity Award;
• Easter Seals Humanitarian of the Year Award;
• Former member of McAllen Planning and Zoning Commission and McAllen Economic Development Corp.;
• Member and past President of Temple Emanuel;
• Former Hidalgo County Chairman of March of Dimes;
• Named City of McAllen’s 2014 Man for the Year;
• Former Director of Texas Rural Legal Aid Association;
• Member and Former Vice President of Texas Association of Defense Council; and
• Member and Former Vice Chairman of Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct Committee.
University of Texas at Austin Affiliations
• Member of the Littlefield Society;
• Member of The President’s Associates;
• Member of the Executive Committee of the Chancellor’s Council;
• Former member of the Texas Foundation;
• Former member of the Longhorn Foundation;
• Former member of the University of Texas School of Law Dean’s Council;
• Past Director of the University of Texas School of Law Alumni Association;
• Former District Director for the University of Texas Ex-Student’s Association; and
• Former member of the University of Texas at Austin Development Board.
SOUTH TEXAS COLLEGE HOSTS 9TH ANNUAL PUBLIC SAFETY EXPO TO PROMOTE EDUCATION, TRAINING AND EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES IN LAW ENFORCEMENT
Four-year South Texas College police officer Teresa Jasso said she is eager to inspire young female students the way she was inspired as a high school student.
Jasso graduated from STC’s police academy in 2009 and served eight years with the city of Mercedes before working with McAllen Independent School District. Ten years later, Jasso said she is excited to serve as a role model for the next generation of public safety officers helping to protect and serve.
“I did the same thing as what these students are doing here and I spoke with a female officer who is still serving to this day. I knew right then and there that is what I wanted to be,” Jasso said. “Pursue your education first and do the best that you can to make a good career for yourself.”
STC held its 9th Annual Public Safety Expo at the Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence (RCPSE) on Wednesday, April 27, 2022, allowing graduating seniors to speak with local, state and federal law enforcement officials about education requirements, employment opportunities and demonstrations of tactical gear and fire safety.
STC alumnus and arson investigator with Pharr Fire Department, Rubén Vera returned to STC in 2021 for the police academy, providing him with critical skills for the job, he said.
“It was a great experience that taught me a lot about the differences between the fire side and police side,” Vera said. “The police program I attended prepared me for the state exams and what you’re going to see in the field.”
Vera adds that having a police certificate helps him on the job when making an arrest.
“As an arson investigator, it is our job to inspect city buildings or in other cases when there is suspicion of arson in fires, we are the ones who are dispatched and charged with making an arrest,” Vera said.
PSJA North High School senior David Martínez, Jr. said he is inspired by family members to pursue a career in public safety.
“There are a lot of great officers here that myself and others can learn from and carry this information into our futures,” said Martínez, who would like to gain employment with Pharr or Alamo’s Police Departments. “I am the oldest of my siblings and I want to help lead others to go to college or enter law enforcement.”
La Feria senior Alyssa Ramírezsaid she takes inspiration from her father’s drive. She plans to be the first in her family to work in law enforcement and is excited to start the journey.
“My dad is a lineman and works really hard,” Ramírez said. “The drive that he has is what I want to take with me in a career in Border Patrol.”
Ramírez plans to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and pursue a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice.
“I want to project others and I think that’s a job worth risking,” Ramírez said.
More than 29 agencies and close to 1,000 students attended this year’s Expo.
For more information about STC’s Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence and programs as well as the training it provides to local law enforcement and fire safety agencies visit:
David A. Díaz contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).