The Language of Influence
● By Kirby Tello
What creates influence? Everyone is inspired by something or someone. In our everyday lives, however, it may not be common practice to reflect back on who those influential people are and how they’ve affected our journey. In my experience, I’ve found that the people who have made the biggest impact on my life have done so without even knowing it.
In an effort to capture the stories of some of the Coastal Bend’s most influential locals, we set out on a mission to showcase how people’s influence is translated through the magic of just being themselves. You’ll meet five individuals whose influences on our local community are vast. In the roles they hold, they’ve managed to not only enact positive change throughout our area, but inspire countless numbers of individuals along the way, whether they know it themselves or not.
Sara MorganDirector, Art Museum of South Texas
If you already have the pleasure of knowing Sara Morgan, Director of the Art Museum of South Texas (AMST), then you know it would seem challenging to adore her any more than you already do. But lo and behold, getting a chance to sit with her one-on-one, amid her insanely busy schedule, she has a way of making you feel like you are the most important conversation on her agenda.
Morgan is cool, calm, and collected. Her authoritative, yet approachable, exterior is clothed in an all-black ensemble – a fitted pencil skirt, open toe booties with a chunky heel, topped with a cropped leather jacket. The t-shirt she is wearing underneath her leather reads, “The Future is Female,” a sentiment that has become the binding thread for her impact and influence in our community.
A Corpus Christi native, Morgan discovered her love of art in the seventh grade, right here within the walls of AMST. Finding her calling at this young age prompted her decision to attend University of California, Santa Barbara, majoring in Art History. She quickly went on to work in various galleries, exhibitions, and design firms between Los Angeles and Houston. Moving back to Corpus Christi in 1990, she spent a few years outside of the art world and then came across an unexpected opportunity to serve as AMST’s Assistant Director six years ago. As of October 2019, after a nationwide search, Morgan was chosen to serve as the new Director of the museum.
Her love of art is truly the motivating factor behind her enthusiasm to ensure that AMST thrives for many years to come. “The [Art Museum] has always been special to me,” says Morgan, “from the architecture to the gallery space, I just love this place.”
There is a new, youthful energy flowing through the halls of AMST’s executive offices. Yet the vitality of the group feels tangible in every department, whether the staff member has served 20+ years or a mere 20+ days. The culture is shifting. A new tone to the museum is being set. This wave of vibrancy is something Morgan finds inspiring.
“What I love most, and also find admirable in others, is a sense of humor, honesty, a solid work ethic, and an energy and forward momentum of people who get things done,” Morgan says. She goes on to explain that she gathers inspiration from young women who aren’t afraid to go after leadership positions within the community, which is no easy feat.
The barriers women still face in this day and age are ever present, but seeing changemakers like Morgan hold the Director position at the museum is the type of representation young women need to see in order to know this kind of advancement is possible. She eagerly makes herself available to offer advice and mentorship to the next generation of movers and shakers. “Sometimes having someone [in an executive or influential position] notice and take interest in you is enough,” says Morgan. Being seen as valuable and capable by someone whom you look up to makes all the difference in finding the confidence to go after your dreams fearlessly. And the influx of women occupying executive positions in some of the major organizations in town is charting the course for the younger female generation.
I ask Morgan if she realizes what some of the young women I am surrounded by think of her and she is genuinely and humbly unaware. I tell her that it can be summed up in one word: perfection. Without skipping a beat, she says, “If people see me as a role model, I hope that they find in me hope for the future.” Morgan doesn’t spend much time mulling over her strengths and what impact they have on those who look up to her. Instead, she thrives on her innate skill to pick up on what other people do well and encourage them to soar. “It is important to hire people who know different things than I know. I want to find people who are good at what they do and let them do it.”
Even as we sit together, having a discussion that is focused solely on her and her influence, Morgan manages to disperse credit for her successes to the “dream team” she is creating at the museum.
Each individual she gets to hand select comes with a unique set of skills that not only fits her overall goals for AMST, but allows for the creative space for her team to build on the museum’s emerging contemporary audience and strengthen their status as an economic engine for regional science, technology, business, and of course, arts and culture.
“I really want people to recognize the changes we are making here, and it starts with us internally,” she adds. “Then, the community will start to become curious about what we are doing and develop more interest in coming to view our exhibitions and participate in our programs.”
Her mission for 2020 also includes strengthening the long-standing relationships AMST has with community partners and welcoming new ones. With some new, fresh blood voted into the museum’s Board of Trustees in December of 2019, the stage is being set for increasing AMST’s commitment to innovation by listening more closely to how the community is consuming art nowadays and being responsive and communicative in ways that best reach current and future museum members.
As our time together comes to an end, I feel as if I am floating when I exit Morgan’s office. So much so that I immediately go back to my computer to capture the story within the story – that is, the contagious artistic energy that Morgan doles out freely and for which she takes little credit. It is the essence of her humility and her passion for encouraging others that lathers those around her with a desire to be just like her. Although, if you’d tell her that, her response would likely involve explaining to you how inspirational she finds you – just the way you are.
Richard LomaxPresident & CEO, Water Street Restaurants
I dash into Water Street Oyster Bar for my meeting with the restaurant’s president and CEO, Richard Lomax. From the outside, the restaurant seems quiet, as there haven’t been any diners frequenting the space in some time. The oyster bar is getting a complete overhaul.
Our managing editor and photographer are in stitches, obviously reacting to something funny Lomax has said. The laughter is contagious. I can’t help joining in although I’m not yet in on the joke.
In the light, jovial vibe that permeates the group, Lomax is setting the tone. I can tell from the way we suggest he poses for the camera that he’s done this before, but he isn’t keen on having the spotlight on him. He is used to working his magic behind the scenes.
In 1983, Brad Lomax, patriarch of the Lomax enterprises, opened Water Street Oyster Bar with the intent to work his own hours and support his family (and his surfer lifestyle). Back then, Richard never really imagined that he would eventually work for the family business; although, after years of city living in Houston and working for the oil and gas industry, Lomax realized just how much he missed the Corpus Christi bayfront and how much he wasn’t cut out for the eight to five life.
Having had the experience of growing up in the restaurant industry, Lomax returned to the family business with some institutional knowledge. However, the importance wasn't lost on him of understanding every single position in the restaurant from chef to front of house, server to dishwasher, or general operations to building maintenance. “I think the staff appreciates my enthusiasm and interest in every aspect of the business,” says Lomax. Therefore, his team can “take a beating” so to speak and persevere through critical feedback because they know Lomax has been in their shoes and knows what it takes to deliver the best value to the customer.
As Lomax tells me his story, he says, “I know I talk a lot.” And while I, from a journalist’s prospective, soak it all in, praising this as a strength, Lomax humbly admits that he is working on being a better listener. “Sometimes I struggle with not understanding the pace of change,” says Lomax. He is a big picture guy and when he sees a vision for the future of the company, he’s motivated to jump on the opportunity fast.
“Being able to understand the landscape of change within our community, and adapt to those changes, is the most valuable tool I can offer my staff and our customers,” Lomax adds. He believes in staying ahead of the curve by anticipating the needs of those around him in order to deliver on exceptional customer and employee experiences. His ability and willingness to be malleable in an environment as unpredictable as the restaurant business has rewarding payoffs, and the gift he’s most proud of and excited for is the personal fulfillment of his passion.
Lomax recognizes he dreams big. He also surrounds himself with stabilizing people—meaning, when goals seem lofty, his team serves as a grounding force, offering realistic solutions to achieving the greater objective. This is where Lomax derives his deepest inspiration. When the “true north” becomes clear to him, he is able to encourage his staff to excel in each of their respective areas. “When it all comes together, each moving part, that’s when it really clicks for me.”
I ask Lomax a bit of an unexpected question. “What do you know to be true that almost no one else agrees with you on?”
“The only limiting factor to our growth is our people,” Lomax says after he takes a moment to craft his answer.
Many of his mentors, influencers, and peers tend to disagree with this assertion since technical value is so highly revered in his industry. However, Lomax sees the benefit of fostering people skills not only within himself, but within his staff, too. “It’s the will of the people that determine how far we can go,” he says.
Lomax has a way of very eloquently explaining his business, passions, and goals for the future of the business and his staff. I hang on every word as the stories he tells have an almost melodic element that paint a vivid image in my head of what day-to-day life is like in Lomax’s world.
I tell him this and he laughs, saying, “my brother is going to rib me for this interview,” referring to fellow local entrepreneur/restaurateur, Ben Lomax, who is behind the uber contemporary bar, B.U.S. on N. Chaparral.
In response I offer that the brotherly banter will be well worth it because I can’t wait to give my best attempt to convey to you, the reader, just how mesmerizing the intricate details of his formula for success really are when explained through his lens.
It doesn’t escape Lomax how much responsibility he carries, having a staff of 200 people and a family reputation and legacy to uphold in Corpus Christi. This realization is the root of what he defines as his obligation to stay on top of his game. “Rising tides float all boats,” says Lomax. “We are stronger with the pack and when we win, everybody wins.”
Dr. Kelly QuintanillaPresident, Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi
The Bend Magazine team arrives on campus and enters Dr. Quintanilla’s office suite – or really, office lair. The expansive layout of the President’s executive chambers feels weighty. One can feel that important business is conducted here.
From down the hall, a bout of laughter sneaks around the corner, and there she is, Ms. President, escorting guests from her previous appointment to the exit. All of a sudden, the heftiness and formality of the room is lightened by Dr. Quintanilla’s presence. She has a way of making the space comfortable and accessible. If you know her, you will already know this to be true. However, this is my first opportunity to meet Dr. Quintanilla one-on-one – and I am pleasantly surprised to find that while she is stately, and certainly commands the space in which she stands, she is delightfully down to earth.
Dr. Quintanilla is a 26-year Texas transplant who loves being a South Texan, but is very grounded in her Yankee roots (her words, not mine), as she is originally from Pennsylvania. As an eternal optimist and first-generation college student, there is no question that she is a true believer in the power of education. She discovered her passion for higher education as a professor one month into a graduate assistantship for her Master’s in communication, where she was required to teach two courses. At that point in her career, she had no intention of becoming an administrator, let alone the President of the university. However, when she was asked to serve as interim dean, and began the journey that led her to her current role, she was grateful for the opportunity to serve the university in new and exciting ways.
Her origin story comes in response to the simple question of “So, who are you?” However, it is actually the second answer she gives. First, and without hesitation, Dr. Quintanilla says she is a proud mother to an amazing 16-year-old daughter. With an insane level of professional responsibility that more times than not requires well over a 40-hour work week, Dr. Quintanilla’s dedication to the most important role she plays as a mother has never taken a backseat.
“Personally, what gets me out of bed in the morning is knowing I will get to have breakfast with my daughter,” she says. “It guarantees that every day will begin in a joyful way.”
On a professional note, Dr. Quintanilla finds inspiration through the students, who motivate her to give her all – every single day. With the 24 hours given to her in each day, the president makes sure everything she does is for the greater goal of helping the students succeed and doing everything she can to make the island university the best educational institution it can be. It is her privilege to empower faculty and students in helping her create an environment where each individual can contribute their unique skill set and abilities to take ownership and pride in being a part of the educational legacy of success.
This is a privilege Dr. Quintanilla does not take lightly. She is keenly self-aware in that she knows the overall prosperity of the university is not created by her alone. Instead, it is an effort in which she leads by encouraging everyone around her to be their best.
“I admire those that do not back down from adversity,” she says. “Those that rise to meet the challenges that come their way – I see it every day among the students at A&M Corpus Christi.” Like her, many of the students are the first in their families to attend college. Some may need to work multiple jobs to cover the cost of tuition. She’s seen some students who are responsible for taking care of family members and some that are dealing with their own health issues. Regardless of their challenges, they come to class, hit the books, and sleep whenever they can. But at graduation, Dr. Quintanilla sees their faces. She gets the gift of shaking each student’s hand as they cross the stage congratulating them for persevering through every obstacle. To her, this is the best part of being President.
It is only when the cameras are off and the rest of the team has wrapped up that Dr. Quintanilla offers even more of her time to me alone, to make sure I get the story I am after. This sentiment is what embodies her as a President, a woman, a mother…a human being. I do not take for granted the time people give me to converse with them for the magazine. So, when Dr. Quintanilla invites me to sit down in her office and continue getting to know her, I feel a wave of appreciation for her extending our time together. She takes a seat right next to me at the round conference table in her office. Before we dive back into our conversation, she congratulates me on my growing belly – a nod to her ever-present number one priority, her daughter. I tell her it’s a girl and we share an intangible glee for a moment.
I ask what seems to be a difficult question among the influencers I’ve sat down with so far: “What would you say people most admire about you, and what do you think those same people would say drives them nuts?”
After a moment to collect her thoughts, she says, “I think people admire that when I fix a problem, I go to the root. I am very good at following up and making sure it gets resolved.” And with every stellar gift comes a perceived curse. “I can get into the weeds, though,” she says. “My staff and colleagues sometimes think I spend too much time getting to know the intricacies of an issue, but that’s how I am able to really understand a problem and better solve it.”
Make no mistake, Dr. Quintanilla loves being President, but most people don’t believe her when she says the best position she’s ever held on campus (among many) is being a professor. She finds something extremely special about being in the classroom. She is fortunate to be able to continue teaching with every administrative role she’s held, and has no plans of stopping while she holds the presidential office. “It is important to always remain directly connected to the reason we exist: educating students.”
With the recent acquisition of the old JC Penny building downtown, TAMU-CC is making their connection with students even that much more accessible. This is the first time the university will have a presence downtown and Dr. Quintanilla expects a flood of innovation and vibrance to come along with it. As for the building itself, Dr. Quintanilla has revealed that while classes will not be held at the downtown location, what she has in store is a mixed media space, part of which will be used as a gallery space to house and sell students’ artwork. Her vision for the entire space has yet to be publicly revealed, but knowing her, she will surely create a place where the Islanders will remain at the forefront of this city’s wave of change.
Nueces County Judge
Ever the social butterfly, Judge Barbara Canales is a phenomenal woman who manages to tackle tough community issues, make public appearances, and preserve the history of Nueces County all in a day’s work. The fact that she arrives promptly, dressed to the nines with that glowing, contagious smile we all know and love, is icing on the cake. But for her, it is all she knows. She is genuinely excited about the issues that come across her desk, and those lesser-known challenges that don’t. She has her ear to the ground in a way that only she can. If you’ve had the pleasure of being in her presence, for any reason at all, really, then it will be no surprise to you that she was chosen as a part of this spotlight. Her influence is both tangible and intangible – positive, encouraging, and real.
When we arrive at her office in the courthouse, Canales is finishing up a call, but she waves us in anyway. She wraps up a call with one of her daughters, immediately stands up and gives us each a hug. We all know her from various scenarios in our lives, but for some reason, the fact that she remembers each of us so intimately and fondly makes me feel seen. I can only conclude that my teammates experience a similar sentiment, since we all come away from her embrace smiling.
“How does this look?” Canales says, switching gears to her outfit. “I wanted to do something a little different for this article.” She is in black slacks and a blue snakeskin silk top. There is a satin blazer on her coat rack that she has waiting in the wings for wardrobe options. We tell her to bring it along, but want to get shots of the unique fierceness that is her snakeskin blouse. She pauses in the hallway and gives us her power pose. What’s funny is that she’s barely even giving a pose; she’s just standing there, looking into the distance – and that right there is Judge Barbara Canales. Her presence alone commands respect and attention but more so, there is a light emanating from her that inspires hope.
Judge Canales is part of a long family history of changemakers in Nueces County. Dr. Hector P. Garcia, for example, is her uncle. Dr. Clotilde P. Garcia, her grandmother. And many, many more who may not share the same notoriety at the aforementioned but continue to do the work to uphold the family legacy in Corpus Christi. She attributes her successes to all of those influential people who have come before her and makes it a point to be that kind of role model for others.
While the family legacy does come with a certain amount of responsibility for which Canales feels she must uphold, she carries it well and with pride. Part of her overall goals for the city are to focus on the restoration of some of Nueces County’s long forgotten historical landmarks. Her passion for the city and the community stems from a deep love of the opportunities that have revealed themselves to every Corpus Christian, largely due in part to paths paved by close members of Canales’ family. Her running for County Judge was a role in which she felt called to do, and the best way she could facilitate real, lasting betterment for our county.
Judge Canales’ role in the community is vast. She tends to hold offices that have traditionally gotten little to no outward recognition, because truthfully, they are roles that allow for the individual occupying that seat to fly under the radar; meaning, little to no public association required. However, Canales firmly believes that in order to make the community fully aware of what is happening around us, these roles must be publicized. “Many people do not know what the County Judge does,” she says. “Part of my job is to make the community aware of what it is I do, and how this role affects the community.”
As we tour her office and the rest of the courthouse together to shoot photos, I use the opportunity to walk and talk. Knowing Canales personally prior to learning about her on a professional level, I know that even though she may walk fast and talk fast, she enjoys the time and space with others and would never want anyone to feel as though her capacity for them is limited.
I fully expect to leave with my team post-photoshoot, seeing as it is now after 6 PM, the courthouse is closed, and I assume Canales is ready to call it a day. She’s been going since before most of our alarm clocks even rang for the first time. Instead, she invites me into her office to visit a little more and thank me for the opportunity to be part of this story.
I tell her that I just have one follow-up question for her: “What do you admire most in others, and what about others inspires you?”
“I find that our county is pleasantly surprising me all the time,” says Canales. She sees Nueces County as a place of pride for everyone who lives here and also a place we can take pride in for tourism. There are so many historical gems left in this city, she adds, we just need to restore and update them. Canales shows me a vintage photo of the old county courthouse as she speaks.
In reference to what inspires her, Judge Canales explains that “real people who truly love what they do” are motivation for her to keep putting her best foot forward. She is a big believer in surrounding herself with passionate people who can tell her something she doesn’t know. “I find myself always increasing my ‘sphere of influence,’” Canales explains, “where people with all sorts of valuable expertise, various industries, and all sorts of different walks of life can join forces to be the catalysts for real change in the community.”
Canales has a way of drawing people in and unearthing their desire to be a part of this city’s legacy. She sums it up in one word: cariñoso. In English, this translates to “caring” or “affectionate.” Canales carries cariñoso in her heart, and the people feel it. Her genuine care and concern for her community is the influence she possesses, and the inspiration she shares with every being she encounters.
Mark GonzalezNueces County District Attorney
Upon learning that I got to meet Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez for the first time face-to-face, I challenged myself to dig beneath his public persona and uncover the real man behind the title. A part of me should have known that Gonzalez truly is a “what you see is what you get” type of guy, but there is nothing more reassuring than experiencing it firsthand.
As I wait in the lobby of his office down at the courthouse, I sense quick steps coming towards me from down the hallway – it’s Gonzalez. He’s in deep blue denim pants and a black button-up shirt with a black and white patterned sports coat. Looks simple and stylish enough, although it wouldn’t be Mark Gonzalez unless a little flair is present. Sure enough, a black fitted baseball cap tops his head and his footwear are black leather lace-up shoes with crisp white soles that accent the on-trend sneaker tread. Ladies and gentlemen, our DA has arrived.
There is a welcoming aura that surrounds Gonzalez – a comfort that is instantly relatable. He is aware of his presence and the fact that his constituents typically feel his approachability upon meeting him. It is something he is proud of, and attributes to his innate commitment to never forgetting where he comes from.
Born and raised in Agua Dulce, Texas, Gonzales is a first-generation college graduate and so far, the only member in his family to become a lawyer. However, the path he has taken is no longer rough terrain, and therefore, the younger generation of his family are following in his footsteps in higher education.
From humble beginnings to a career largely played out in the local spotlight, Gonzalez takes me on a journey of how he got to where he is now. For many years, Gonzalez worked as a private practice lawyer. In those days, his passion for seeking justice blossomed and it became clear that in order for him to be most effective in achieving his goal of helping people, he needed to run for public office.
“I’m here because the people elected me,” he says. “I feel as though it is my turn to pay back what I owe to the community.” It is his fate, he believes, to serve as the DA for Nueces County, and however long the people keep electing him to be in office, that is how long he will continue in this capacity.
“When I think about the overall picture of what I want my career to be, some days it’s not to be the DA,” Gonzalez confesses. “I didn’t run for office for the title. The perceived power doesn’t mean anything to me.” In fact, Gonzalez goes on to explain that just today he was asked to do an on-camera interview for another media outlet, which he would normally appoint his 1st Assistant District Attorney to conduct. “I have on a baseball cap,” he jokes, “I totally wasn’t prepared [to be on camera], but that’s part of the job sometimes.” At the end of the day, his work all boils down to keeping the needs of the community top of mind. So, if that means putting himself in the public eye, he will rise to the occasion every time.
While Gonzalez’s demeanor is indisputably a strength and allows him a certain relatability that is uniquely unmatched, he does recognize that his familiar roots, contemporary swagger, and the fact that he is a minority can give people a pass to be complacent. When a traditionally underrepresented and systematically disenfranchised group within a community sees an elected official that represents their background and understands their plight, it becomes easy to transfer their hope and expectation for positive change to that or those elected personnel. But it isn’t exactly that simple. Gonzalez works tirelessly to ensure that the community, in all of its various backgrounds and ethnicities, feels represented by having him in office, but he also encourages the public to rise up on his successes and chart our own paths in answering the call to better the community.
“I’m starting to realize the ripple effects of what people do are boundless,” Gonzalez adds. “You never know how impactful even just one small gesture can be.”
I start to peel back the layers of the story he is telling me. He uses film references to add context to many of the scenarios he describes – and when I admit my lack of understanding, explaining that I’m much more of a bookworm, without skipping a beat, he throws a novel reference my way and our conversation continues seamlessly, both of us on the same page again.
Switching gears, I toss what has proven to be my toughest question to Gonzalez and sit silently while he reflects. “What is something you know to be true that almost no one else agrees with you on?” I ask.
“Most people don’t belong in jail,” he says. My eyebrows involuntarily rise higher atop my forehead than I ever thought possible.
“People make mistakes,” he continues, “and the process of going through legal proceedings is an opportunity to learn from those mistakes and seek rehabilitation. People don’t realize that the collateral impact of just being arrested or being required to appear in front of a judge is damaging to not only the accused, but their families, employers … the list goes on.
“Think about it – a parent gets pulled over and taken into jail. That means a child doesn’t get picked up from school, a small business owner loses their employee unexpectedly and for an undetermined period of time.” says Gonzalez. Obviously, this is one example of many possible scenarios, but I understand the point he is making.
Gonzalez’s outlook for the future of the county is ongoing optimism. In his office, he will soon undergo the hiring process of the 1st Assistant District Attorney and the 2nd Assistant District Attorney. His long-standing team members who’ve held those positions have recently moved forward with other opportunities, and Gonzalez is steadfast in that the next team members to hold these positions have big shoes to fill. He describes the loss to me as if he’s lost family members. And in all honesty, he has. When working as a public servant, Gonzalez explains, the work never stops. While there will always be battles to fight in the community, Gonzalez focuses on celebrating the wins and moving the needle of making Nueces County a desirable place for everyone to live, work, and play.
Enthralled by his candor, something finally clicks. The man behind the title is not some brand-new persona that Gonzalez keeps hidden away. He offers his viewpoint without reservation – no matter how controversial or provocative. You just have to be encouraged enough to seek it.
He’s not asking anyone to agree. He’s not suggesting an opposing stance is incorrect. He’s Mark Gonzalez, Nueces County District Attorney from Agua Dulce, Texas, who is making good on the promise he made to his community to fight for justice.