Ruben Gutierrez was working his prison shift at the Coffield Unit a few years ago before his retirement when suddenly, the power went out.
The prison near Palestine is so large (4,050 inmates and spread over 20,518 acres) that the state of Texas gave the prison its own post office and ZIP code.
It was pitch-black dark in his unit and Gutierrez, a corrections officer, was alone with the inmates.
A search of the inmates at Coffield Unit has a common theme, prisoners are in for either capital murder or the worst sexual abuse crimes and they all have “life without parole” at the end of their rap sheets.
The terrifying silence was broken by one of the inmates who said to Gutierrez, “Mr. Miyagi, it’s fine. You have nothing to worry about.”
Gutierrez earned that respect from the prisoners, just like he earned the respect of the residents of Flint, in Smith County, and everywhere in Texas as he traveled, to spread the word about being active as a voter and being a good American citizen.
And he had every right to do the opposite.
Ruben’s mother, Zoila, was unjustly deported as part of the Mexican Repatriation Act during the Great Depression, years before Ruben was born.
Zoila met Jose Gonzalez Gutierrez when she returned to Mexico and they married, starting a family.
Jose worked in the mines and the conditions were unsafe. He did something unheard of in Mexico: He led a march on Mexico City to protest the conditions.
Jose continued to work, knowing what could happen.
He died in a mining accident.
Zoila knew America was the best place to raise a family and work, despite what happened to her.
She moved back to America with the kids, where Ruben started school with other Mexican children.
He knew how important it would be to continue his father’s legacy by learning to speak English. He took a year off school just to learn the language.
His English was so good that he became an English as a Second Language teacher.
He then started learning a little about politics when he was used as a volunteer to translate for the Mexican Consulate.
Ruben loved his country, he loved music and Willie Nelson, and he wanted others to be involved. His first official taste of politics was running for justice of the peace.
He eventually became a precinct chair and held a top position for the Smith County Democratic Party.
He was a champion for the people.
He believed in and volunteered with Justice for Our Neighbors East Texas.
And he kept peace at the prison.
Mr. Miyagi was a nickname given to Ruben by the prisoners. It’s the Pat Morita character in the movie “Karate Kid.” Despite being small in stature (and balding), Mr. Miyagi was wise, respected and used his strength only when needed.
After retirement, Ruben turned his attention to being an activist, traveling around Texas and making sure everyone knew how to vote.
In September, he knew he had a chance to interact with 200,000 visitors at the East Texas State Fair. So he volunteered in the Democratic Party booth to sign people up to vote.
He didn’t have an agenda, he didn’t have hate. He just wanted people to get involved. It’s what his father would have wanted.
However, something was wrong where the booth was located. Maybe it was untreated misty water from a hot tub unit, maybe it was from a vent. No one knows.
But what is known is that he contracted Legionnaires’ disease.
Ruben went in the hospital and after two weeks it appeared he was healthy. He emerged from his hospital room not only with a Superman shirt on, but a mock cape. He flexed for family and friends who laughed and captured the moment with a photo.
However, he wasn’t cured and soon was back in the hospital.
There was not a local race that would be hotly contested. Other than a few propositions, it was an uneventful election.
But Ruben knew there is no such thing as an “off” election year.
He also knew being able to vote was not only his duty, but a privilege. He was an American citizen and damn proud of it.
He wanted to vote.
But his health was deteriorating to the point he could not leave the hospital and get to the board of elections for an absentee ballot.
Friends went to the board of elections to get him a ballot.
This can legally happen.
It didn’t happen.
By the time the state was contacted concerning the voting procedure, Ruben had slipped into a coma.
He had one last wish on his deathbed.
He wanted to vote.
Tuesday’s Election Day took place without him. He somehow stayed alive through the day and part of the week before dying on Friday, Nov. 8.
At his funeral, his daughter, Rebecca Gutierrez, performed his favorite Willie Nelson recording, “Blue Skies.” When Ruben’s mother was fighting to come back to America, the original “Blue Skies” was written by Irving Berlin and first performed. How good was the song? There were 28 encores when it debuted, during the time Zoila first heard it. It’s no wonder Ruben attended so many Willie Nelson concerts to hear his version of the song. The lyrics tell you, no matter what you have seen in your life, move forward and see the beauty of the world, the sun and the blue skies.
Rebecca Gutierrez said her father gave her the love for music. But he also taught her to love nature, sports, family and, of course, public service.
The word irony is overused in our society.
However, Jose Gutierrez died doing something he tried to warn his government about.
Ruben Gutierrez died trying to sign people up to vote, and the very system he supported let him down as he tried to vote one last time.
A senior citizen, an injured soldier, a veteran of any age in the hospital, or a great man like Ruben Gutierrez should have their vote counted.
This is not a political issue.
This is not a Texas issue.
This is an American issue.
And the best way to honor Jose and Ruben Gutierrez is to make sure no one is ever denied their right to vote again.
(John Anderson is the editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)