Bakersfield educator, community builder and arts advocate Rita Gomez died Tuesday afternoon after battling a recurrence of cancer. She was 57.
“She had been diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago,” said her son, Jason Gomez, on Wednesday. “It had metastasized to her bones, but she had had surgery, a mastectomy, and everything went back to normal for the last five years. It had just made its resurgence in the last couple of months."
Gomez said relatives, friends and co-workers filled the house over the weekend to be with his mother, who died with her family around her.
“When she passed, she was very peaceful, and there was no pain,” Jason said.
Gomez was president of the Bakersfield Youth Symphony Orchestra and director of special and migrant education at the Fairfax School District, where she worked for 18 years.
“Anything that Rita did, she did with passion and love and pursuit of excellence,” said Fairfax superintendent Michael Coleman.
“Around Fairfax district right now, all you can talk about right now is Rita and how much she is going to be missed. A lot of tears here.”
During her tenure as president of the youth symphony, Gomez presented the students with a number of opportunities, including performing a concert for the 75th anniversary of “The Grapes of Wrath” at Cal State Bakersfield in 2014. Gomez combined her role with BYSO and as a board member of the Bakersfield Sister City Project to arrange a trip for the orchestra to Bucheon, Republic of Korea, plus a second tour to Great Britain.
“She was a stalwart soul with the youth symphony,” fellow board member Bee Barmann said Wednesday. “She just hung on because she believed in it.”
Gomez was born Rita Csulak on May 9, 1959, in Los Angeles. She married Edgar Gomez in 1986, becoming a mother to stepson Edgar Alexander, now 41. The Gomezes had three children together: Jason, 27; Jackie, 29; and Jessica, 22.
The family moved to Bakersfield in 1992 to take advantage of better economic and living conditions, and started business with the purchase of two Domino’s Pizza Restaurants. Gomez went back to school to earn a teaching credential and started work at the Fairfax School District, where she served for 18 years. In the last years of her life, she began work on her doctorate in education leadership at Fresno State.
“She had just passed her qualifying exams so she could start her dissertation,” her son Jason Gomez said. “She would have finished in December of next year.”
Coleman said no complaint or concern from parents was too small for Gomez to ignore.
“She wanted everything she did to be perfect,” he said. “She was a perfect special education director: She really looked at what was in the best interest of the children in her care, and she trained her teachers the same way.”
That passion for education started with her own children.
“Even from my young age, before she got her teaching credential, she was very involved in my and my sisters’ education,” Jason Gomez said. “She joined the PTA and got involved in the fundraising to support our school and our activities.”
Coleman saw his employee’s duties and interests expand over time.
“She also supported music and arts programs because of her children’s involvement in them, helping raise money for them and keeping them afloat even when the state was making cuts to them,” the superintendent said.
Gomez became involved with Bakersfield Youth Symphony Orchestra through her son Jason, who now performs with the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra. Starting as a parent volunteer, Gomez later joined the board of directors and replaced Karen Blockley as president when Blockley died in 2012.
“Rita stepped up and she finished the year,” said BYSO board member Amy McGuire. “She said, ‘I’ve figured it out now,’ so she stayed on as president.”
McGuire, Barmann and Coleman all expressed shock at the news of Gomez’s passing. Apparently, Gomez didn’t say much about being ill. Both McGuire and Barmann noted they had seen Gomez as recently as Sept. 19 at a BYSO parents’ meeting.
“She was at every meeting and was always very robust,” Barmann said. “The only thing that seemed to slow her down was working on this doctorate.”
Her willingness to take on any project “was such an inspiration to everyone,” McGuire said.
Her son said Gomez was driven to make the community a better place.
“No matter what she did, she did it with determination and service,” he said.
Services are pending.
Besides her children, Gomez is survived by her husband, Edgar.