"Getting to Rice, then getting to Harvard, then being hired on by Vinson & Elkins," Antonio Gonzales said of his brother. ". . . Once he and Governor Bush hooked up, the sky's really the limit for him."
Gonzales attended MacArthur Senior High School in the Aldine Independent School District not long after schools were desegregated in Houston in the mid-1960s, as the Hispanic population was just beginning to grow. MacArthur had only a small percentage of black and Hispanic students.
He was known as "Al" in school and was a member of the National Honor Society, the Christian Student Union, the International Club, and the football and baseball teams. He was remembered by his high school counselor as respectful and self-motivated, pleasant but not particularly outgoing. But at a time when ethnic and racial groups did not mix much, she said, Gonzales crossed those lines.
"We hadn't really been integrated that long, and a lot of the kids stayed within their group. They were reluctant to socialize with other groups, but he didn't have that problem," said Marine Jones, the former counselor and the first African American professional hired at MacArthur in the late 1960s. "He didn't align himself with just Hispanics. He was just that kind of person."
Gonzales was one of the few minority students who took college preparatory classes at the time, even though "there was no money in sight of his parents being able to pay for college," Jones said. "It just wasn't to be."
Given Gonzales's scholastic achievement and interests then and the abilities he has exhibited since, Jones said, "you would think . . . he would have been class president and president of the honor society. But minorities just didn't have that many leadership roles then. They were just there . . . doing the best that they could."
Like many poor black and Hispanic students at the time, Gonzales chose the military when he graduated from MacArthur in 1973, enlisting in the Air Force. In his commencement address to the Class of 2004 at Rice, Gonzales said that if he thought he could have attended college he would not have enlisted.
He was assigned with 100 other airmen north of the Arctic Circle at Fort Yukon, Alaska, a radar station, and within two years, with the encouragement of his officers, Gonzales finally applied to a college: the U.S. Air Force Academy.
He entered in the fall of 1975, but he told the Rice graduates in his 2004 commencement that he tired of the engineering and science curriculum and became interested in politics and law. So he finally applied to Rice. "Ultimately I simply put it in God's hands by applying for a transfer to the school I once dreamed about attending as a boy," he told the graduates. "If accepted at Rice, I would leave and pursue a legal career. If denied, I would stay and fulfill my military obligations. This was my prayer."
An acceptance letter to Rice, dated May 13, 1977, Gonzales said, was "my answer, ending the journey that began as a daydream during those Saturday afternoon football games." Gonzales entered Rice in the fall of 1977, just after turning 22 and exactly one decade after he sold soft drinks at Rice Stadium.
Gilbert Cuthbertson, a political science professor at Rice for 41 years, remembers Gonzales well. Cuthbertson had Gonzales in his American constitutional law class and still uses a legal brief that Gonzales wrote in the class as a model for students to follow. The brief was written about a hypothetical case.
"It is a model of scholarship, organization and argumentation that I certainly use as a model or a standard for current students," Cuthbertson said. "It's one of the most professional jobs that I can remember any of my students having submitted."
Gonzales entered Harvard Law School in the fall of 1979, at a time when the political atmosphere on campus "was still modestly raucous," said a former classmate. But Gonzales was a "solid, sensible, even-keeled person," said Howell Jackson, now a law professor at Harvard.
"Not all the law students were stable and sensible," he said. "It was the late '70s; there were protests and comings and goings. . . . I don't remember him being overtly political. He was judicious as a young law student when a lot of students weren't. His current boss would have been proud of him."