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Energy Nelson Rodriguez, pioneer in Hispanic businesses in Texas, dies at 67

Nelson Rodriguez, pioneer in Hispanic businesses in Texas, dies at 67

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Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

Nelson Rodriguez, the founder and owner of The Nelrod Company of Fort Worth and a leader in the development of Hispanic chambers of commerce in Texas and the nation, died Oct. 22 of cancer. He was 67.

The Nelrod Co. provides consulting for agencies involved in federal assisted housing programs.

Mr. Rodriguez also was instrumental in developing Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, first in his hometown of Harlingen where although he and his brother were running both a grocery store and a newspaper, they weren’t welcome to be members of the local Chamber of Commerce.

“I had been trying for a number of years and they wouldn’t let me join because I was Hispanic and they didn’t have any Hispanic members and they didn’t want any Hispanic members,” he said in a 2016 interview for Fort Worth Business CEO magazine, which featured him on the cover.

So he and a few other small business owners started a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“Of course, that really upset the regular chamber,” he said. “Fortunately, since I was doing the newspaper, I could publicize the Hispanic chamber.”

At the same time, others were organizing a statewide chamber called TAMACC ¬– Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce. The organization’s second meeting was in the Valley, and Rodriguez was elected vice-president.

“These were all really tiny organizations, no government funding, just all volunteer. They were all having the same issues I was having in Harlingen,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “They couldn’t join the regular chamber. They wanted to promote their business and they wanted to get the businesses together.”

About 18 months later, Mr. Rodriguez was appointed chair of a steering committee to form a national organization, and at age of 27, he became the first chair and president of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Rodriguez’ family is old-line Texas Hispanic, but in the Rio Grande Valley of the 1960s and 1970s, they were still Hispanics, and there had never been a high school class officer who was Hispanic before Mr. Rodriguez became one.

“It’s a sad day in our Hispanic business community. He was a true leader, a visionary,” said Rosa Navejar, owner and president of The Rios Group, and a former president/CEO of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

She cited his role in establishing the state and national Hispanic chamber organizations.

“He brought businesses together to understand the importance of minority businesses, especially in the Hispanic community. He brought leaders to our organizations as well,” Navejar said.

“He was a family man, a businessman, a community man. He will be sorely missed there’s few and far between with the type of leadership and vision that he possessed. And we are all the better for what dreamed and what he accomplished,” she said.

Anette Landeros, current president/CEO of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, echoed Navejar’s comments.

“Nelson Rodriguez was a valuable pioneer who helped pave the way for the establishment of Hispanic chambers of commerce,” Landeros said. “His work and contributions have had a significant impact nationwide. We at the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce are grateful for his commitment to the Hispanic business community, and will strive to continue the work that he helped start.”

Religion was an important part of Mr. Rodriguez’ life.

He born into a Baptist family in an area where most Hispanics were Catholic. He later served on the coordinating boards of both the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas and the national CBF, including service as the organization’s finance chair.

“I had the delightful opportunity to work with Nelson on the Coordinating Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, at both the state and national levels,” said Harriet B. Harral, executive director of Leadership Fort Worth and a former national moderator of CBF.

“His financial insight and expertise made him particularly valuable, but even more valuable was his commitment to the right thing, to justice and inclusion. He often inspired me and provided the kind of context and background to help us do our work more effectively,” she said.

“On top of that, he was just so much fun to be with. Because we were both in Fort Worth, we often ended up on the same flights to meetings. I always enjoyed that time to connect and hear his many stories. He lived life largely and will be missed,” Harral said.

Mr. Rodriguez’ family was entrepreneurial, somewhat unusual for Hispanics in the Rio Grande Valley of his childhood, and his father, Benjamin, owned a grocery store. When his father died of cancer during Mr. Rodriguez’ senior year in high school, he and his older brother were left to run the family business.

Rodriguez went on to college at the University of Texas in Austin, just over 300 miles north and about five hours on today’s roads.

“I literally had to run the family business on weekends and go to the university during the week,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “I was in a hurry. While other people were trying to find their future and stuff, I didn’t have time for that.”

For him, it was school and work, and he finished his degree in about two and half years and went home to run the grocery store.

Mr. Rodriguez was also politically active in the Republican Party at a time when Republicans were on the endangered species list in Texas.

His involvement came through a friend and mentor, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. George S. Bowman Jr. who became superintendent of the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen after his retirement in 1972.

Bowman was running Ronald Reagan’s campaign in the Valley, which was, Mr. Rodriguez said, 99.9 percent Democratic at the time. Bowman Mr. Rodriguez to drive to Austin with him to pick up some banners and signs for a Reagan rally in the Valley.

Mr. Rodriguez said he told Bowman that he wasn’t a Republican but agreed to go with him to Austin.

He would later lead the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to endorse Reagan. After Reagan won the election, Mr. Rodriguez was offered an appointment in the administration, sold the businesses in Harlingen and moved to Washington where he would serve in five presidential appointments under Reagan.

When the presidential appointments ran out, he decided to go into business for himself, and that led to working with public housing authorities.

“Public housing authorities are not a glamorous thing,” Mr. Rodriguez said in the CEO interview. “You’re dealing with the poorest of the poor. You’re dealing with a community that has a lot of issues, whether it’d be drugs or gangs or all those kinds of things. My job was, how can I help this community mainstream economically into the society here and how can we do it in such a way that will help our country, as well as help the people.”

He teamed with Carlos Garcia, a nationally-known trainer in Dallas, who had more business than he could handle. And when Garcia decided to retire, Mr. Rodriguez started Nelrod Co.

“Our core mission from Day 1 was to assist the low-income community to progress and economically mainstream,” he said.

Among other services, Nelrod tracks the changes in federal government regulations for its clients so they don’t have to pour over, for example, an entire 700-page policy to find the changes.

“If you knew Nelson, you knew that he tends to see things differently than most, a different perspective. This is what made him special to so many people,” the family said in the official obituary. “One of his mentors, Joe Vasquez, also known as Lone Eagle, once told Nelson he liked people who had ‘the gift.’ Early on, Lone Eagle knew that Nelson had the gift, and that he’d known it since their first meeting.

“Nelson didn’t know what he was talking about at the time, but later he learned that Lone Eagle was talking about what he called ‘the ability to see.’ ” the obituary said.

“Nelson was a man of vision. His vision shaped his mission in life, to help people. He helped people in business through his work in the Chambers of Commerce. He helped people of faith through his work in churches, through sponsorships and mission work. And he’s helped millions of families in affordable housing through the work in his business. All done to simply help people,” the family said.

Mr. Rodriguez and his wife, Esther, shared 45 years of marriage together with their four sons, three daughters, and four grandchildren.

Survivors, in addition to his wife, include: sons, Nelson Jr., Joshua, Jacob, and James; daughters, Cathy, Ester, and Haley; grandchildren, Elena, Joseph, Penelope, and Violet; a sister and her husband, Pearl and Pete Garza of Harlingen, Texas; three brothers: Ben Rodriguez and his wife, Jackie of San Antonio, Hector Rodriguez of Dallas and David Rodriguez of Harlingen; and his favorite Tia, Esther Rodriguez, as well as numerous cousins, nieces and nephews.

Visitation:

Oct. 25, 6-8 p.m.

Greenwood Chapel

3100 White Settlement Road

Fort Worth 76107

Funeral:

Oct. 26, 2 p.m.

Gambrell Street Baptist Church

1616 W. Gambrell St.

Fort Worth 76115

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