Tony Gonzales was that little kid who coerced his mom into dressing him like a cowboy throughout Elks Rodeo week. As a teen, he performed on the Elks Rodeo stage. As he came into adulthood, he continued supporting the rodeo through volunteerism. Through it all, he looked up to those old Elks honored on the grand marshal float as pillars in the community.
Now, it’s the kids looking up to Gonzales and Jay Turner, who will serve as co-grand marshals of the 78th Annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo Parade. The parade along Broadway from Mill Street to Enos Street starts at 8:45 a.m. Saturday.
“Both of these gentlemen have played incredible roles in the success of our rodeo in the last several years. They remind me of the Clarence Minetti generation. They’re like the young Butch Simas. It’s amazing to see young folks step up and carry on the tradition that Clarence and Butch left for us,” said Elks Rodeo Chief Operations Officer Tina Tonascia.
Though Turner and Gonzales never worked together on the air, their shared respect is evident.
“I love Tony. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love The Chief. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Turner said.
Tonascia said Turner and Gonzales have been particularly integral to the growth of the rodeo and its associated events in the years leading up to the COVID shutdowns.
“Their untiring efforts, no matter what we need, they’re there. Their contributions have been incredible. We wouldn’t be where we are today without their contributions,” Tonascia said.
To be mentioned in the same breath as Minetti and Simas is beyond the pale for Gonzales.
“It has been a lifelong dream to be a grand marshal in the Elks Rodeo parade,” Gonzales said. “I’m proud to be a Santa Marian. It was passed to me from people I grew up seeing and idolizing.”
Elks Rodeo week has been a lifelong love for Gonzales.
“I was that little kid who made my parents get up early Saturday morning to get our chairs on the parade route so we could sit right up front. When I was in high school, my parents would let me take the whole week off school so I could hang out at the rodeo, go to the dances, have a ball,” he said.
By the time he was 14, the fifth-generation Santa Marian was singing country music when Elks member and long-time rodeo head Ted Scott invited him to perform after some of the rodeo events.
“I met Tina Tonascia, Debbie Jeffers, the Righettis and Minettis and (Bobby) Acquistapace were all there. There’s this Mount Rushmore of Santa Maria where I see the Righettis, Minnettis, (Keith) Barks and Acquistapace. But the kids nowadays, Tina told me, they see me because I’ve been doing it so long. I’m honored to be able to look at the mountain with them. I’m pretty stoked. It’s pretty cool,” Gonzales said.
That same year, he caught the radio bug when local radio personality Andy Morris showed up at career day. Gonzales started hanging around KSMA, shadowing Jeff Harris and anyone else at the station who would give him something to do.
After broadcasting school, he joined the team at KDDB 92.5, a country station out of San Luis Obispo. Tom Keffury, long known as an on-air advocate for local causes, was his teacher, mentor, and boss. Within three months, Gonzales had been dubbed “The Chief” and was on the air overnights.
He wasted no time using his microphone for the good of community, and soon found himself dedicating his personal time as well.
“I love the parade and the bull riding and the dances are legendary, but the Minetti Mini Rodeo is my favorite because it’s 6,000 third-graders out there yelling and having a good time,” Gonzales said. “Rodeo represents family values. It’s all about America. It’s a sport you go to where they pray, they don’t kneel for the flag. It’s good, family fun and I don’t ever want to see that stop in Santa Maria.”
Gonzales ran the Elks Rodeo Mutton Bustin’ event, served as emcee for the annual Elks Beard-A-Reno, ran the rodeo media stage, led the business folks’ pony races, works his tail off as chairman for the Santa Maria Kiwanis candidate for Elks Rodeo Queen, and had no compunction about jumping into a clown outfit.
“First, it’s the kids: the money goes all to local youth, so that’s always been huge. We’ve sent kids to college who would never have been able to go without that financial support. We’ve supported youth activities throughout the community. Plus, rodeo was always that thing that came into town where they all knew your name, you had a great time and it was just great,” Gonzales said.
Now facing early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Gonzales says he knows his years are numbered. He’s retired from radio, and spending more time on the things he loves: family, making memories with his wife, Kori, and supporting his favorite local event.
“Kori and I had a talk and if I have 10 years left, I don’t want to stop rodeo as long as I can,” he said. “For me, if I can continue doing mutton bustin’ and be part of the rodeo all the way to the end, I’m there. It’s such a happy thing to me when you watch a child see a horse or cow for the first time. Elks Rodeo is the best thing in our town right up there alongside tri-tip barbecue.”