Secretary Zeke Mendoza at the HISD board meeting on June 13, 2019.
Esequiel "Zeke" Mendoza at a Harlandale ISD board meeting in 2019. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

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Esequiel “Zeke” Mendoza, who served on the Harlandale Independent School District board of trustees for 12 years and portrayed Santa Claus for elementary students each December, has died. He was 61.

Harlandale ISD colleagues recalled Mendoza as jovial, unflappable, and dedicated to serving students, especially those who lived in poverty or needed special education services. He frequently visited elementary campuses, even after he was put on dialysis for kidney disease several years ago.

The school district announced Mendoza’s death Monday afternoon, and the school board canceled its meeting scheduled for Monday evening out of respect for his family. Mendoza is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; sons Eric, Gabriel, and Chris Mendoza; and several grandchildren.

“He did a lot without ever expecting the spotlight on him,” board President Norma Cavazos said. “The community knew what he did and how much he did, and that was good enough for Zeke.”

In June 2008, the Harlandale school board appointed Mendoza to fill an unexpired term for the District 3 seat. His latest term would have expired in May, and he had filed for reelection, drawing two challengers.

Blanche Diaz, who served as the administrative assistant to the board for 20 years, worked with Mendoza all 12 years he served on the school board. She said he and his wife had a “tender spot” in their hearts for vulnerable children, often visiting the Jewel Wietzel Center for special needs students.

“This man had a heart for children,” she said. “He loved what he did.”

Mendoza and his wife dressed up as Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus for elementary students for years and would hand out donated gifts to the students. He was not able to continue the tradition last year because of his health, so one of his sons stepped in for him, Cavazos said.

Esequiel "Zeke" Mendoza "had a heart for children."
Esequiel “Zeke” Mendoza “had a heart for children.” Credit: Courtesy / Harlandale ISD

Additionally, Mendoza helped organize an annual prom for the students at the Jewel Wietzel Center because he believed students with disabilities should have the opportunity to experience that rite of passage, Diaz said.

Cavazos knew Mendoza for almost 30 years. She met him in 1993 while working at a law firm on the South Side. Mendoza delivered coffee and serviced the office’s coffee machines, and one day he noticed Cavazos was new to the firm. They formed a casual friendship as he came by every two weeks, advising Cavazos on which restaurants to try and which ones to avoid.

When Cavazos had children 10 years later, she often ran into Mendoza at school functions, and they struck up their friendship again. They also crossed paths at Mendoza’s favorite restaurant, Herradero Mexican Restaurant on South Flores Street, where he liked to catch up with neighbors and friends. Cavazos said Mendoza was a fixture at the restaurant, similar to the way Jerry Seinfeld’s character frequented the diner on “Seinfeld.”

“That was his place,” she said.

Cavazos last talked to Mendoza on Feb. 16. She had been texting fellow school board members to see how they were faring during the winter storms that left many in San Antonio without electricity or running water. For some reason, she called Mendoza instead of texting him. They talked about how they were doing and planned to talk again soon. They never did.

“We have to finish what he started on the board,” she said of prioritizing student needs. “We have to continue with what he felt the strongest about, and as long as I’m honored and privileged to serve, I will most certainly do my part.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.