Joe M. Rodriguez, a longtime president and CEO of the Centex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce who was instrumental in getting the chamber headquarters built on LaSalle Avenue, died Thursday in a local hospital following a brief illness. He was 76.

Services are pending at OakCrest Funeral Home.

Rodriguez, who grew up in a neighborhood between Bellmead and Waco dubbed “No Man’s Land,” where residents dug wells for water, would become a union leader at the General Tire & Rubber Co. plant, a two-term mayor of Bellmead and director of the Economic Opportunities Advancement Corporation’s Head Start program.

“He was a leader, crusader and was passionate about changes in Waco,” said Laveda Brown, who directs the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce.

Brown said she often worked with Rodriguez on projects and initiatives to improve life for minorities in Waco, and he has continued those efforts recently.

“We had been talking about the family and community expo scheduled March 24 at the Hispanic chamber location,” Brown said. “It’s still on.”

Brown said Rodriguez had a desire to mentor young people as a way to improve the community.

“He was committed to diversity and creating a level playing field,” Brown said.

Noey Meza, a six-year member of the Hispanic chamber board, said Rodriguez and his wife, Alice, a member of the Waco City Council, “took me under their wing, introduced me to the people of this community, politicians and council members, and made staying in Waco a whole lot easier.”

Meza, 44, from Marlin, serves as outreach coordinator for Harmony Science Academy. He said Rodriguez encouraged young people in high school to pursue higher education and enjoyed sponsoring fundraisers for them.

Ivon Mendoza, a graduate of Rapoport Academy, said she was hired in June to serve as the Hispanic chamber’s communications and development manager.

“I hit the ground running because of Joe,” Mendoza said. “I really did consider him a friend instead of my boss. He taught me how to secure sponsorships for events, how to talk with people.”

State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, who represents a district that includes Waco, released a statement upon hearing of Rodriguez’s death.

“Joe was a great leader in our community, and a dear friend of mine,” Anderson wrote. “His dedication and commitment to our community is evident in his 20 years of service as the president of the Centex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Through his leadership at the chamber, he had outreach to the entire state, and worked tirelessly to break down barriers to help bring our community together. Waco lost a great man today, but his legacy will continue to live on. Our hearts and condolences are with Alice and their family during this difficult time.”

A Tribune-Herald story published in 2006 said Rodriguez, as a kid, played baseball, was a Golden Gloves boxer, and played on La Vega High School’s football team. As a teen, Rodriguez reportedly would jump on a truck packed with youngsters who picked cotton for $1.75 per 100 pounds.

He enjoyed attending Rampage Select baseball games, antique treasure hunting and traveling, according to information provided by the chamber.

He is survived by his wife, four children, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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