Honoring COVID lives lost: Gene Gallegos, a sought-after educator

All week, KCRW is sharing remembrances of some of the lives lost to COVID-19, as told by the people who loved them.

Growing up in rural areas of New Mexico and Colorado, Gene Gallegos was familiar with the world of agriculture. And according to his daughter Emma Gallegos, he often told stories about his days in the fields.

“From a very young age, he was working in fields and was a farm worker. He came from an incredibly poor family,” she says.

In high school, Gene used his track and field abilities to secure scholarships, and he went to college. 

“He went into the educational field, and then spent the better part of his life trying to give back to students that were like him. He was a teacher, principal, and a college professor, and worked on issues around educational equity.” 

According to Emma, he was a sought-after educator for Latinos in the 1970s and 1980s, working in districts across Texas and Colorado. Then he traveled to California State University, Bakersfield. He made tenure and lived in the Central Valley until his retirement. 

Gene Gallegos during his first communion. Photo courtesy of Emma Gallegos.

“My dad is kind of like that superintendent. He was a stickler and was always put together. He was always very fastidious. He was the tough guy. We had a difficult relationship, but we loved each other.” 

That strict nature was remembered by his students decades later. Recently, a former student of her father’s shared a story about weighing whether to show up late to the elder Gallegos’ class. It turned out that his mom also took classes with Gene.

“He wondered if he could come a few minutes late. And he asked his mom and she said, ‘No, no, no, you can't. You can't come a few minutes late to his class. That's not going to fly in Dr. Gallegos’ class.” 

Gene Gallegos with his daughter Emma Gallegos. Photo courtesy of Emma Gallegos.

After Gene decided to retire, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He then checked into a retirement home in Arcadia, California. Following a minor hip surgery in 2020, he stayed at a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation. That’s where he caught COVID-19. 

“The skilled nursing facility … it looks like a death camp to me. So many people have died. So many health care workers have had COVID. There's always cases,” Emma says. “It just happened overnight almost. No symptoms. No fever. Nothing. And then all of a sudden, it was like, he's so bad.” 

Emma, who was still in Northern California when she heard the news, tried  to get into contact with Gene. “I called a nurse, and I said my goodbyes with my mom over FaceTime. My dad wasn't conscious. He seemed to jerk a little bit, and I'd like to think that he heard me. I told him I loved him, and he died. He died that night.”

Emma says one of the hardest parts about losing her father is hearing public comments that seem to disregard people with underlying conditions. 

“He was diabetic. He was in a skilled nursing facility. He had Alzheimer's. It makes me feel like they're talking about people like my dad, almost like they're disposable. And I've wondered if we lived in a different kind of place or different kind of society, if my dad would still be alive.” 

Gene Gallegos died on September 5, 2020 in Anaheim, California. He was 80 years old.