Citizen of the Year 2018 — Matt Palomo
GERING — Matt Palomo has spent his entire life living by example. Friends and family say he gives back to his community in whatever way he can and prefers to stay in the background, promoting the strengths of others. Silently, he has left a tremendous impact on many by encouraging them to always do their best, to help others, and to give back no matter how little you think you may have.
Steve Olsen, former scout leader, said Matt taught him things he implemented as a scout leader in his own troop as well as in his own life.
“He taught me so much about how to lead your life,” Steve said. “Respect, passion, character, integrity, work ethic, helpfulness, understanding and friendliness are all words that I would use to describe Matt.”
A TOUGH LIFE
Matt is the oldest of 10 children. His parents were migrant farm workers who traveled from Harlingen, Texas. During the warmer months, the family would travel north to work in the fields. As a result, Matt’s upbringing was in Texas and the Scottsbluff/Gering areas. When he was about 9 years old, his family permanently settled in the valley.
Bacilio Palomo, Matt’s brother, said the area saw many minorities end up in western Nebraska because of the migrant route. That route in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s created a large circle that began in south Texas where most of the families lived. They worked in the fields, traveling north to Nebraska and east into states such as Wisconsin and Illinois. The Palomos would winter in the Rio Grande Valley.
The family settled in Gering the summer before Bacilio, who at the time spoke only Spanish, began kindergarten. Matt was in the seventh grade. The area wasn’t as embracing of minorities back then, Bacilio said, but an uncle had settled in the area a decade before and this was the place Matt’s parents chose to move.
The family worked in the fields during the summer, but education was important.
“My mother always had a tremendous love for learning, but she didn’t have the opportunity to do that,” Bacilio said.
Matt’s parents were hard workers and wanted a good life for him. They were diligent in embracing education and knowing what’s right.
Retired school teacher Mike Smith has known the Palomo family for decades. He taught at the migrant school, teaching all of Matt’s siblings, but not Matt.
Mike became friends with Matt during the time he taught Matt’s children and coached Sergio, Matt’s son, in wrestling. Mike credits Matt’s mother with the drive behind her children.
“The love and discipline she had for them was phenomenal,” Mike said. “They worked hard and they got their education.”
Luisa Palomo Hare, Matt’s daughter, and Bacilio said Matt experienced many of the hardships of what it was like to be a minority in western Nebraska, but he never spoke negatively about it. Even today, he looks on the bright side of life.
“In a time when it’s so easy to be jaded, he thinks so positively,” Luisa said. “My father is the first to say, ‘Give them a chance.’”
Matt went on to graduate from Gering, as did all of his younger siblings.
Matt thought about going to college. He was a good cross country runner and was prepared to go, but he felt a deep commitment to his family. He remained in town and found a job so that he could help his family financially.
“He stayed to support and mentor his siblings,” Luisa said. “He is a great story of a person who is so bright and talented and has so much potential and he gives it all back.”
Matt eventually met his wife, Aurora, and they married in 1976.
Matt worked at the sugar factory in town until Luisa was born.
“He realized he wanted to go on his own so he started a landscaping business where he has been quite successful,” Luisa said. “He has worked incredibly hard his entire life.”
Matt’s work ethic is reflected in his children and his siblings. Luisa went to Creighton University. Her sister, Andrea went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and her brother went to Chadron State College. Matt’s siblings have also been successful in their careers and now live all over the country.
“He has helped them to do great things,” Luisa said.
Matt and his siblings also learned from their parents the importance of giving back.
“We didn’t have a lot, but regardless of what we had, through their actions, it was imprinted on our entire family the need and requirement of whatever we have, we share,” Bacilio said. “I think my brother took that forward.”
When a family member came to town and needed work, they stayed with the Palomos, who readily gave up the few beds they had.
“We may not have had a lot, but we still shared,” Bacilio said.
Matt took over Boy Scout Troop 17 from Max Gentry. Gentry had worked with young minority boys in the 1960s and 1970s and began the troop with migrant boys. As a young man, Gentry saw what Matt could become. At 16, he was an assistant scout leader and took over Troop 17 when he was 18 in 1968.
While participating in scouting has declined over the years, Matt’s troop has seen an increase. The boys in the troop are given opportunities to be outdoors and active. They go fishing and have camp outs.
“He’s devoted his life to mentor these boys who might not have that mentoring position somewhere else,” Luisa said.
Bacilio said Gentry took youth under his arm and always serviced the needs of the community.
“With him (Gentry) not being from the culture, he wasn’t always successful, but he saw something in my brother,” Bacilio said. “When my brother took the helm at 18 and built it one step at a time, he made the best troop in the state of Nebraska.”
Steve, who served as the advancement chairman for the Tri-Trails District of Longs Peak Council of the Boy Scouts of America, conducted the final interviews of many of Matt’s Eagle Scouts. During those interviews, Olsen said he recognized the influence Matt had on the young scouts.
“His scouts were always well-prepared and deserving of the highest rank in scouting,” Olsen said.
Matt spends his time with the Boy Scouts building kids into young men while challenging them to define what more is possible, Bacilio said. Those same young men have brought their children and grandchildren back to Matt’s troop to learn the same lessons, Mike said.
Matt’s consistency, style and high standards are what keeps them coming back. Matt has taught them to treat everyone equally and that, if you follow the program and achieve, you will be rewarded.
Sergio, Matt’s son, said Matt’s style is stern, but it is also one in which you know he cares about you. He doesn’t beat around the bush.
“If a kid is screwing up, he will tell them, ‘You can leave if you don’t want to be here,’” Sergio said. “If they say they want to stay, he will say, ‘Then show me.’”
Mike said Matt is the ultimate Eagle Scout master because he holds every Scout accountable.
“Matt’s troop is the most outstanding in the whole area,” Mike said.
Matt taught them leadership, character, work ethic and respect. Matt had high expectations, but was fair. His Eagle Scouts often went on to other leadership roles within Matt’s troop.
“That is indicative of the respect that they had for Matt and their willingness to serve others that Matt instilled in all his scouts,” Olsen said.
Steve says he saw the impact Matt had on their lives. He saw how Matt instilled attributes they could use throughout their lives. Matt took in any Scout willing to put forth the effort to better himself, Olsen said.
“I always could pick out one of Matt’s Scouts,” Steven said. “They were so well prepared, they knew the fundamentals of scouting, they were leaders, and they were excellent young men.”
When Steve left one of the Boards of Review, he knew scouting was alive and well.
“Being with his Scouts and around Matt and his adult leaders always made me proud of the scouting program,” Olsen said.
Matt’s first Eagle Scout was his brother, Bacilio. There have been an additional 94. Bacilio’s son will soon be Matt’s 100th Eagle Scout.
Bacilio has a genuine respect for his brother. They speak often and have a strong relationship. Matt guided his brother to channel his energy into long-term positive endeavors. Bacilio saw what could be done. His brother was an 18-year-old kid who became a scoutmaster.
While youth Matt’s age were “messing around and partying,” that wasn’t Matt, and he didn’t do it just for a few years. He’s done it for 50 years.
“He doesn’t do it for the thanks; he does it because it’s the right thing to do,” Bacilio said. “It’s who he is. It’s part of his core.”
Bacilio, who was not a fan of tennis, said Matt always had a love for tennis and played from the earliest age.
“He thought it was a great activity that taught a lot of discipline,” Bacilio said.
Matt played for a long time before starting any program. Tennis was a vehicle to meet people from all walks of life and have them interact and learn, to compete and achieve something. When he saw a need in the community for tennis, he saw it as a positive experience and ran with it. He coached many young men with the Gering High School Tennis Team.
“His players were always excellent sportsmen, they were good competitors, and they respected the game and their opponents,” Olsen said. “As in scouting, these young men loved to be around Matt as he taught them skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.”
Matt feels that if he has a talent, he should help. As he saw the number of youth who wanted to learn tennis increase, he got to work on that. He had already started the now popular adult league, so he started a league for youth as young as 5 years old.
“In the summer, usually on a Thursday evening, you will see kids practicing, having fun and making those connections with each other,” Luisa said.
Matt made a point of telling his children, “If you’re given opportunities, it’s your responsibility to do something with it.”
Though Matt spent Tuesdays scouting, he made sure he was present in his children’s lives. He attended every school event, regardless of whether it was academic- or sports-related.
“We never once wanted for anything,” Luisa said. “We never had to compete for his attention.”
Their desire to give back was something that was modeled by their father.
“We were the center of his eye, but we saw someone who, at his core, was devoted in service to others,” Luisa said.
They have honored the time Matt spent with them as well as giving back to the community. Luisa teaches in a high poverty school where she touches children’s lives every day. She was named Nebraska’s Teacher of the Year in 2011.
Sergio has a master’s degree in community counseling and works with developmentally delayed youth and children who have experienced trauma.
Sergio is grateful for the interest he and Matt share in wrestling. When Sergio began participating, Matt, who had never wrestled, learned all he could about the sport.
“By about year three, he was driving me to tournaments,” Sergio said. “Everyone knew him as a student of the sport.”
Some of Sergio’s best memories with his father are the road trips they took to wrestling matches. They often included rides for other wrestlers.
“Looking back on it, every single weekend, he never asked for compensation for it,” Sergio said.
In addition to the time commitment and the investment in learning about wrestling, Matt was happy to do it.
Luisa has told her father that 18 years ago, when he brought her to college, she didn’t know what life was going to bring. Matt said he knew she would be all right because he and his wife had tried their best.
“My mom interjected and said he cried so much she didn’t know how they were going to drive across the state,” Luisa said.
Matt will say he’s just lucky because his children turned out to be such great people.
“We always say that didn’t happen by chance,” Luisa said. “We turned out to be great people because you taught us that.”
Matt will only ever admit that he just did the best he could. He will not take the credit.
“When I was given the Nebraska Teacher of the Year, my dad said, ‘I’m so proud of you. You are making a difference,’” Luisa said. “I told him, ‘I am who I am because of you,’ but he won’t accept it.”
Growing up, Sergio watched the way Matt guided youth through Scouts and how he was a mentor to young men.
“He was able to inspire and guide them in a way that just instilled it in me,” Sergio said. “He did ingrain in me whether it was professional or volunteer to give back.”
Matt never told Sergio what he should do with his life. Instead, he was supportive of Sergio’s endeavors.
“He was strict and expectations were high,” Sergio said. “Now that I’m an adult, I can see his biggest goal was we become productive members of society.”
Matt keeps in touch with his family in many ways. However, technology has not been one area of expertise for him. Matt and his wife only had flip phones. Despite the family’s attempts to get them to switch to iPhones, he said he didn’t need them.
His sister, who lives in Boston, took advantage of the situation when she flew them in and bought them an iPad. They learned how to FaceTime with family members and use Netflix to watch movies.
Matt said he didn’t need it. He was OK with talking on the telephone. He said he probably would never use it.
“The cutest thing is they FaceTime us almost every day,” Luisa said. “Even at his age, he is embracing a challenge.”
The night Matt told Bacilio he was going to get married, he was 24. Matt and Bacilio shared a room. Matt told him he was going to have the room to himself. Bacilio laughed. He couldn’t believe anyone would want to marry his brother.
“Then I saw his wife,” Bacilio said. “I told him, ‘She’s beautiful and you got the better end of that trade.’”
Matt and Aurora have been married now for 44 years.
With his children or during scouting, Matt continues to refuse ownership of the positive things he’s done in his life and in the community. For him, it is just simply how he conducts his life. Even in deeply personal matters, he doesn’t want any credit.
“My mother has been in kidney failure for the last six years,” Luisa said. “Three times a week for four hours my father has been there every single day.”
If she’s not feeling well, he’s there. If she can’t travel, it doesn’t matter.
“Instead of getting resentful or angry, he just rolls with it,” Luisa said. “This is the most important thing — family.”
Bacilio attributes his success to Matt. He almost quit the Naval Academy to return home and work because the family was going through tough financial straits. His mother didn’t want him to do that.
“She said, ‘I have him (Matt) to help me out,’” Bacilio said. “‘You don’t have to do this, you have a different path and it’s not the right thing for the family.’”
Bacilio said because Matt shouldered that burden, he could continue his dream. He graduated from the Naval Academy and then went to Stanford University because Matt was at home.
“He embraced it and has taken it to a level I don’t think can ever be replicated,” Bacilio said. “I stand on your shoulders, brother.”
Mike said he has the “ultimate respect” for Matt and is honored that Matt and his family consider him a friend.
“He’s so inspirational, but it’s by example, not by mouth,” Mike said.
Mike said Matt is a giver. Matt’s mother was a giver as well and Mike said she set a great example.
“Look at what Matt has accomplished,” Mike said. “Look at what the whole family accomplished.”
Mike is proud of what Matt has done and the example he set for his siblings and his children. He is proud of Matt because he chose to make something of his life and not let life circumstances dictate a stereotype of what he should be.
“I’m proud and honored to have been a part of that family’s life,” Mike said. “Matt and his whole family has made Gering proud.”
Whether it was tennis, Scouts, mentoring, or something else, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has had more impact in Nebraska over the past 50 years, Bacilio said. He’s not keeping score, he does the things he does because it is who he is.
“He’s from the old school that follows the creed of ‘You just do what is right, because it’s the right thing to do,’ regardless of the effect it may have on you,” Bacilio said. “He set an example for me at a very early age, and then for so many others around him.”
Matt lives a life of service to others. If it needs to be done, Matt steps up and does it. He will be 68 in April and has devoted his life to the Scouts, giving to others and lifting others up.
“For the last 10 years, he’s been saying, ‘I’m ready to retire and travel.’” Luisa said. “Then he says, ‘I think I’ll do one more year.’”