Trustee Profile: Maria Gomez

Always a public servant

Maria Gomez has an impressive curriculum vitae that speaks highly of her leadership and administrative skills. She has been a state commissioner and assistant commissioner of human services, a health care purchasing director, a workers’ compensation manager and a health policy analysis director, and she has served on many health care and education boards.

But when you ask Gomez to describe herself, she offers a much simpler title.

"I am a public servant," she said.

"When I started public service, I knew that was my calling and always would be my calling. I say that in the sense of one who tries to make a difference in the quality of life in the community and who is compassionate to those who need help. That was what I was called to do."

A state employee since 1976, Gomez started as an intern in what then was called the Department of Public Welfare and is known today as the Department of Human Services. She has worked in that area or in the Department of Employee Relations for 26 years, including a stint as human services commissioner from 1993 to 1996.

Her job today, as assistant commissioner in charge of a special initiative on aging, is perhaps her favorite because it gives her the opportunity to provide services for the elderly and disabled.

"The community cannot be whole if we separate the elderly and the disabled from everyone else," she said. "They are part of who we are. Their rights as individuals don’t disappear, and just because you are 65 doesn’t mean you have to be in a nursing home even if you have some physical challenges. It is our job to provide people with a range of options and figure out what they want to do, not what I want them to do."

Gomez has looked out for others since her days as a youth in Cuba.

Maria Ponce was born in 1941 in Matanzas, 60 miles east of Havana, the daughter of an Army accountant and a homemaker. She attended a Catholic high school and married Ramon Gomez in 1959 after he graduated from North Carolina State and returned to Cuba as an engineer. They immigrated to the United States in 1960.

Fidel Castro’s regime began to crack down on what Gomez called "non-sympathizers," and her parents and 15-year-old brother were imprisoned following the Bay of Pigs incident in 1961. Her father developed a kidney infection and died after his release from jail, and her mother decided it was time to leave Cuba. She bought a 17-foot boat and shoved off for Flordia with her son, two other teenagers and the family dog. They battled storms and fierce seas for four days before deciding to return to Cuba.

"They could see the lights of the island, and my mother asked the boys to pray that everything would be okay," Gomez said. "The sea had been very rough, but as soon as they started back, the sea became like a mirror and the wind began to push them away from Cuba. My mother had packed one dress, and she cut it up and they improvised a sail. Sure enough, they sailed through the night, and on the dawn of the fifth day, a Coast Guard cutter appeared."

The family joined Gomez, her husband and infant daughter in North Carolina. Her husband later worked for DuPont in Virginia, and she enrolled at the University of Virginia. She received her bachelor’s degree in romance linguistics from the University of Miami at Coral Gables in 1970.

She went to work for the Florida Division of Family Services to help deal with the influx of Cuban immigrants. As many as 500 families a week were arriving in Miami, "and there was a big need for bilingual social workers," she said. "We were hired and trained even if our degrees weren’t in social work. I had been admitted to law school, but the family services work appealed to my interests and my passion to help my people."

Her husband took a job with 3M and was transferred to Minnesota. "We talked one day and I asked him how it looked, because I had no idea what Minnesota looked like," she said. "There was silence at the other end, and he said, ‘Do you remember Dr. Zhivago?’ "

Once Gomez settled here, she earned a master of social work degree from the University of Minnesota and worked for the state. She held increasingly important positions in Human Services until 1992, when she became workers compensation manager in Employee Relations.

Gov. Arne Carlson appointed Gomez as Human Services commissioner in 1993. She served three years before moving to Employee Relations to work on health care purchasing projects, and returned to Human Services again to tackle the department’s Project 2030 initiative on aging. It is there where Gomez has shown her true strengths, according to one longtime colleague.

"Maria is such a futurist," said Julie Brunner, deputy commissioner for the Minnesota Health Department. "She always has been on the fast end of responding to what’s going on. A good example is her work in aging services; she’s looking 10, 20, 30 years ahead. She is the consummate thinker and the intellectual catalyst for state policy development in so many areas."

As busy as Gomez has been with her job, she also has been active in volunteer efforts. She founded the Cuban Refugee Committee after Mariel boatlift refugees were moved to Minnesota and Wisconsin, and she worked with social service agencies such as Catholic Charities to provide basic services. Gov. Al Quie gave her his Outstanding Citizen of the Year Award in 1980.

"Maria is a fine, sweet woman," said Monsignor J. Jerome Boxleitner, retired executive director of Catholic Charities. "She has such charm and sincerity. She was a commissioner who came over to see us. We didn’t have to go to see her. She always was intensely interested in what we did."

As she draws closer to retirement, perhaps in 2004, the Gomezes will spend more time with their four children — two live in Minnesota, one in California and one in Washington — and seven grandchildren. Her sea-faring mother, 87 "and one tough lady," lives in St. Paul. Gomez travels each year to Spain, from where her great-grandparents emigrated in the 19th century, and she admits to "obvious curiosity" about Cuba.

"The children want to go," she said, "but I am ambivalent. I have memories of growing up in a little city by the sea, being with my friends, going to dances and the beach. Things have changed so much that I fear all those mostly good memories would be replaced by memories that might not be so good. It’s not a big priority."

Her priority, she said, remains simple — to continue to work on behalf of the less fortunate, the elderly and the disabled.

She is, after all, not just an administrator and a bureaucrat.

She is a public servant.

Maria Gomez and St. Thomas• Elected to board of trustees in 1998.• Serves on Audit and Finance Committee.• Believes it will be challenging for St. Thomas to balance its commitment to maintain its character as an urban Catholic university that serves the community while pursuing regional and national recognition for many of its programs.• Says St. Thomas must respond to the increasing ethnic and racial diversity of the Twin Cities area "in a way that isn't patronizing or paternalistic but that enriches the university and the community. That will be a tall order."