A Local Profile in Courage

"In a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, 'holds office'; every one of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities."

"A man does what he must - in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures - and that is the basis of all human morality."

Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy.

These two excerpts from President Kennedy's book, Profiles in Courage define the life of Benny Martinez, a Goliad native who passed Sunday Evening, December 29th. Benny lived most of his life in Houston after his father Placido Martinez in 1946 moved his family of eleven children there in pursuit education and opportunity.

Benny was ten at the time but was already a business opportunist. He always found a way to work and sold newspapers around Goliad. One wintery-rainy day as he shivered but continued to complete his route he was stopped by the Parish Priest who asked "how many papers do you have left to sell my son?" Benny counted his papers and announced "ten". Since they were sold for a dime each the Father handed Benny a dollar and told him to go home. Benny thanked him. When the Priest was out of site he shuffled off to a local watering hole and sold the remaining papers to the men inside. At an even earlier age Benny used to notice that men would gather under the river bridge out of site for hours to play dice. On days when he saw them there he would carry a bucket of clean water and would sell it to them to drink. He always found a way to make a dime.

In Houston Benny joined the United States Army before completing high school and served in the Korean conflict. While on the battlefield he suffered injuries and scaring from booby traps and razor wire that would adversely affect him for the rest of his life. He was honorably discharged and returned to complete his high school education. Benny continued his studies and became an LVN. Eventually he completed his bachelor's degree at the University of Houston. Inspired by his father who helped form some of the original chapters of the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and GI Forum Benny delved into public service by joining and supporting organizations which fought for and promoted civil rights, justice and equality. He used these avenues to continue his service to his country and fellow man and thus began to build his "Profile in Courage". Participation and support of many of the organizations was sneered upon by the vast majority of the population because it promoted equality and inclusion in a time when prejudice and discrimination was rampant. As a member of LULAC for over fifty years he worked diligently to ensure that Latinos enjoyed equal rights and that their children had the opportunity of education. Many Goliad residents recall his many hours of selling hamburgers on the square or at festivals to raise scholarship funds. He excelled in his work to right the many wrongs that were brought to his attention. He courageously visited many schools and institutions where he alone addressed issues in support of Latino children, demanding corrections and assuring that he would return if necessary. Because of his dedication he was awarded National LULAC Man of the Year in 1996 and then again in 2015. Benny was instrumental in developing and forming "The Little School of 400" in the Houston Barrios. Children who could not speak English were being ignored by the schools thus not advancing. The program helped these children master 400 critical words in English that gave them the base needed to continue to learn the language and participate in their respective classes. The school was a resounding success. He also worked tirelessly fighting for voter rights and literally registered hundreds of voters over the years. Benny was adept at bringing to the forefront valiant efforts of his fellow Hispanics who for years had been forgotten or ignored. He helped rename 69th Street in Houston to Staff Sgt. Macario Garcia who one of the most decorated heroes of World War II and a Medal of Honor recipient. He also helped rename 67th street to Cesar Chavez Blvd. Cesar Chavez was an American Civil Rights Activist and Labor Union Leader. He led the effort of naming a new elementary school in Houston Raul C. Martinez, who was the First Hispanic Houston Police Officer and subsequently a Harris County Constable for many years. Arguably in terms of Hispanic recognition Benny was most proud of his efforts as a member of the Tejano Monument Committee, an effort that spanned over ten years and resulted in the placement of a grand monument of the Hispanic contributions to the formation and development of Texas on the front lawn of the state capital. Benny was in his 70s yet rode his horse a hundred and thirty miles from Goliad to Austin to raise funds for the building of the monument. Eleemosynary organizations that Benny has served in and awards that he has received include: The Knights of Columbus for over fifty years, The Willie Velasquez Excellence Award - Southwest Voter Registration Project , Congressional Certificate of Recognition - United States Congress, National Mexican American Historical Society Zaragoza Award, served on the Houston Community College Advisory Board, GI Forum Hall of Fame College, Child Hero Award - Texas Education Agency State Board, served as Precinct Judge - Harris County, Fort Bend County Vaqueros Award, was a founding member of the General Zaragoza Trail riders, LULAC Council 60 in Houston and LULAC Council 21 in Goliad where he also served as District Director, was the LULAC District 18 Rey Fao, and recently was awarded a ZECA Award for Citizenship by the Goliad General Zaragoza Society.

Benny continuously built his "Profile in Courage". He as part of a small group he arranged for the first meeting of President John F. Kennedy with Hispanic Leaders. Sadly this event occurred in Houston the evening before the assignation of the President. Throughout his live he kept himself healthy and physically fit and was always ready and able to help those in need. He successfully performed emergency deliveries of babies on two different occasions on the streets of Houston. He rescued a child who had accidentally slipped into a storm drain and was inches from falling in deeper. He resuscitated a Houston Oil Tycoon who was succumbing to a heart attack effectively saving his life. He never hesitated to fulfill his citizenry responsibilities and always performed despite obstacles and pressures.

The only other things as important to Benny as his God and Country was his Family, He lost his first wife Helen, the love of his life to cancer when she was forty-two. Benny continued to raise and care for his two daughters Loretta and Melinda. He enjoyed time with his extended family and was talented enough to sing and play several instruments which he did on occasion with his Brother Albert who led a conjunto band.
The world knew him as Uncle Benny as he is referred to around Goliad and in the County Courthouse where he worked as a Bailiff, his last job before his final retirement. I am proud to say that Benny Martinez was truly my Uncle as his sister Estella Zermeno is my mother. In completing his profile Benny Martinez always did the right thing and in most cases he made sure that you did the right thing too! May God rest your soul Tio. You have earned your peace and deserve the eternal rest. The world is a better place because you were here.

By William Larry Zermeno, Goliad, TX