Being a teacher, even a retired teacher, has many rewards. Some of them are delayed, like hearing from a former student who has gone on to create a rich adult life. Such was the case when I recently received a Facebook message from Gold Concept co-owner and City Councilman, Aaron Gomez. He thanked me for being a positive influence on him when he was a student in my 9th grade English class at San Luis Obispo High School in 1993.
I thanked him, and we met for a cup of coffee and a long conversation, followed by an interview for this profile. The rewards keep coming. I remembered Aaron as a good student, quiet, attentive and polite. And I recall that his hair was dyed blonde, not unusual for skaters and surfers in those days. When we met at Black Horse, I was greeted by the same soft-spoken, attentive, polite young man, but no longer with blonde hair. I came away from our conversations grateful that Aaron has become a leader in our community, a role he evolved into through many challenges and life changes over the last twenty years.
Aaron was born and raised in San Luis Obispo. His mother, Karilyn, is a 4th generation San Luis Obispo County resident, and his father, Tony is from Millbrae. His older brother, Devin, co-owns Gold Concept with Aaron. His parents met at Cal Poly, where Tony was studying history and Karilyn early childhood education. Tony met Brad Billston, an architecture student, in a jewelry class, and they opened their business in 1971. Aaron laughed and said, “So a history major and an architecture major started a jewelry business. They made their original pieces at Cal Poly and then sold them at their little shop downtown.”
Perhaps Aaron’s first life challenge arrived while attending Montessori School before transferring to Hawthorne Elementary in 4th grade. “I’d gone through several learning adaptation courses to deal with a problem where I flipped everything around. I could spell perfectly, but I wrote everything backwards, from right to left. Solving that cognitive problem made the transition to public school easier.”
While at Laguna Middle School Aaron participated in a variety of youth sports but was more into skateboarding, snowboarding, and wakeboarding at Lake Nacimiento. “I have a personality that when I get attached to something I get very attached to it, an internal tenacity. I’m attracted to movement in general because it’s such an honest endeavor. You can’t deceive someone through the movements you’re making.”
Aaron also enjoys rock climbing.
Having an older brother and older friends made high school easier.
“School came easy to me, but the downside was that when something was difficult I lost interest and didn’t want to make the effort. I had shifted my focus to activities over academics.” Aaron reminded me that I recommended him for honors English. “I started it the next year, but only stayed for a month. Way too much homework!”
Wakeboarding became a focus for Aaron, his identity, something he wanted to pursue as a career. He competed while attending Cuesta after graduating from SLOHS in 1997. He broke his leg training for a competition. “That became another defining moment for me. I went to a wakeboarding school in Texas for rehab after surgery. I wanted to get back to where I was before the injury.”
Aaron was offered a job teaching at the school he was attending. He was in a relationship with a girl at the school, Lindsay. He came home for a visit and while he was gone Lindsay died in a boating accident. She fell off the back of the boat after being overcome by carbon monoxide and her body wasn’t recovered for forty-five minutes.
A long period of depression, self-doubt and survival guilt followed Lindsay’s death. “At that time I don’t think I really liked who I was,” Aaron said. “Some of it was related to the cognitive issues I had growing up. When Lindsay died I got really down on myself. I thought, ‘Why did she die when she had so much going for her and I’m still alive, someone who doesn’t even like his own life?’”
After spending time as a snowboard instructor in Colorado, Aaron came back to San Luis Obispo in 2001 and spent a few months in therapy. He returned to Cuesta and started woodworking for a local cabinet shop. He was also exploring Buddhism and Eastern philosophies in response to his loss, becoming more interested in environmental issues, and participating in high physical energy activities like marathons and triathlons, another means of coping with his grief.
Aaron saved enough money to buy an around-the-world-ticket and spent seven months living in Thailand, New Zealand and South Africa, trying “to figure things out, to find meaning in life.” He adopted many Buddhist principles into his daily routine at that time. “I had enough self-recognition by then to know that I needed to see life differently. It was a pivotal moment to see how other cultures lived, how the little world I lived in is not the end all be all of how people live their lives.”
He completed his travels with a three month stay in Costa Rica, which is where he developed his interest in sustainability, a cornerstone of his political beliefs and actions. “Buddhism and looking at other lifestyles had shifted me into that. I started reading about farming and building practices and realizing that we’re not taking the sustainability of our lifestyles seriously.”
Returning to woodworking, Aaron tried to apply his sustainability ideas to his own woodworking business, with some success, but when his dad happened to need a jeweler, he filled in and realized he really enjoyed it. It led to taking courses at the Allen Revere jewelry school in San Francisco. In 2011 he transitioned to jewelry full time when he and his brother became co-owners of the Gold Concept.
“With the Gold Concept I had the opportunity to sculpt something that’s 100% sustainable at least in the sense of the ethics and the ideas behind it as a business. It gave me access to being on boards like the Downtown Association Board, the Economic Development Committee, and the SLO Under Forty advocacy group steering committee. Participating in Leadership SLO in 2015 was when I decided to run for city council.”
Aaron had evolved to the point where he was ready to take on the challenges that were presented to him. He recognized an opportunity to “push the realities of sustainability.” In contrast to his high school experience, where he avoided the bigger challenges, he was now running to them.
Since his election in 2016, Aaron has learned how much he had to learn once elected. There are times when self-doubt creeps in, when he feels like he’s not sure what he’s doing. “I don’t have a political background, I didn’t finish college, I didn’t do the things you do before going into office, but I do have this different perspective that I’m proud of. I latched on to what I do know, and focused hard on learning everything I can about what I don’t know, relying heavily on city staff to help me with that process.”
Aaron attends League of California Cities conferences and recognizes how well run our city is. “When I compare with cities around the state and around the country, I realize we have extremely good staff which is really dedicated to making the city a better place.”
Proud of the decisions the City Council has made related to sustainability and the realities of climate change – single-use plastics banned on city property, straws upon request ban, carbon neutrality by 2035 – Aaron is confident the city will continue to be a leader in California and the country. “It’s those trends that start to shift how people interact about these issues, even if they may not be seen as big wins at the time.
There are two sides that I see to sustainability. There’s resource management and, within that, how do we counter the realities of climate change. Everything falls under that. Housing growth, transportation infrastructure and waste management are the biggest priorities ahead of us.”
Because of the events that have transpired in his life, his willingness to learn from them, and his ongoing commitment to personal introspection and learning, Aaron Gomez is a young man and a leader of whom everyone in our community can be proud. In 9th grade English we read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with its unforgettable protagonist, Atticus Finch, a man of principle and compassion.
I don’t know if Aaron admired Atticus at the time, by I know Atticus would admire Aaron.