Frank Gonzales sold us beans and burritos. Then he sold us Buicks.
But mostly the friend we called “Pancho” sold us on the spirit of Tucson, an indomitable energy and warmheartedness unique to this community.
Pancho died this week at 66 after a long illness. The last time I saw him was at Rincon Market several months ago. He was having coffee with friends and he looked like a ghost – a very tall ghost with big feet.
“Panch,” I said, “what’s the matter?” He told me about his illness and said, “They can’t do anything about it, Cork.”
He said he was a churchgoer and “that’s all taken care of.”
His last trip to church was Friday, where immediate family, the Tucson Conquistadores, family and friends gathered for his funeral mass at St. Augustine Cathedral.
Pancho was in the restaurant business for 41 years, owning and operating a number of eateries bearing the family name. The main one was Pancho’s on Grant Road, a Tucson landmark.
In 1971, he joined the Conquistadores, which sponsored the Tucson Open golf tournament for many years, and worked his way up to the top. Conquistadore Bill MacMorran recalled that Pancho was one of the group that started the tradition of early Sunday breakfasts before each final round.
Pancho would cook, of course, along with Richard “Sandy” Sanderson and Don Hickey, who competed in ferocious pancake duels each year.
Gonzales retired as a restaurateur and in 1994 became a salesman at Royal Buick on Speedway. “Sure, I miss the restaurant business,” he told us once. “But I don’t miss the problems and laws and regulations and insurance.”
Pancho said that in selling automobiles, he no longer had to worry “about who burned the beans or why the refrigerator didn’t work.”
“Besides,” he said, “thanks to the best boss in town, Paul Weitman, I’m very happy selling cars.”
He sold me a couple of them. The last one I bought came after I insisted on a test drive – in a Hummer. I told Pancho I couldn’t afford a Hummer and even if I could, it wouldn’t fit in my garage. Those things are w-i-d-e.
But he agreed to the test drive and got permission from Weitman. Then I bought the Buick.
On Sunday, my wife, Marge, and I were on our way home from Missouri and Kansas when the left rear tire of that Buick blew out. We were on Interstate 10 in New Mexico, about eight miles from the Arizona line. I had never seen the spare tire, had no idea how the jack worked or even how to find all that paraphernalia, hidden in the trunk.
We pulled over to the side of the road, literally inches from enormous semis and other vehicles rocketing past at well over the speed limit.
While I was probing the mysteries and complexities of a tire tool – after finally finding the darned thing, buried under one of those tiny spare tires that look like it came off some kid’s little red wagon – Marge was on her cell phone calling our roadside insurance company.
I heard her tell the people on the other end of her call, “My husband is pretty old, he has a touch of arthritis and has no idea how to change a tire.” Something like that.
No husband could back away from such a challenge.
But the whole thing was a scene of chaos and comedy worthy of a Marx Brothers movie. Me, bending down and turning handles, getting dirty and then trying to remove the carcass of a very heavy, very hot tire . . . Marge on her cell phone explaining our plight and for all I knew, talking to somebody in India to whom the matter had been outsourced.
We finally solved the issue – without roadside assistance – and came home, as the old World War II song went, “on a wing and a prayer.”
There was a message on our answering machine from Linda Carter, one of the great amateur golfers in Tucson history, telling me of Pancho’s death.
And I realized that while I was dodging semis and trying to fathom the intricacies of tire-changing, there was this very tall angel with very big feet Up There laughing his wings off.
Rest in peace, Panch. You will be missed.
Retired Citizen sports columnist Corky Simpson writes every Saturday.