2020 East Nashvillian of the Year – Citizen: Ronald Gooch, Jr.
East Nashville has been a neighborhood in transition for over two decades. Individuals, businesses, and landmarks have come and gone, undergone dramatic transformations, or vanished altogether. One constant is Ronald Gooch,Jr. If you visited the Margaret Maddox Family YMCA over the last 25 years there was a good chance you’d see Gooch’s smiling face — playing basketball, participating, and then overseeing the YMCA’s sports programs, or serving as the Y’s Development Director for the past four years.
A native East Nashvillian, Gooch has spent the majority of his life and career on the East Side, or as he prefers to call it, “Out East.” “When I was growing up we never called it East Nashville,” he says. “Out East is what resonates with me and my family and friends.”
His namesake was thrust into the spotlight when he was six years old and his father, Ronald Gooch, Sr., was chosen as a relay runner for the 1996 Olympic flame as it made its way through Nashville on its way to Atlanta. “I don’t remember the moment when he carried the torch,” Gooch says, “but I do remember my dad working out like crazy because he was prepping to make the run. His dedication to getting up at four every morning to be at the gym at five made a big impression. That’s when I started going to the YMCA.”
Only a short walk from his parents’ home on Spain Avenue, the “Out East” YMCA became Gooch’s second home — working out with his father in the mornings and spending long hours after school. “When I was 17 and a junior in high school, the staff were like, ‘You come here every day, you’re here until we close, do you want to work?’”
Moving into full-time work after he graduated high school in 2008, Gooch eventually became the Youth Sports Director, a position he held until 2013. Although Gooch excelled as head of the program, he says in retrospect he still had life lessons to learn. “I got to a point where I was running the sports program and I began to feel it was me and not the Y that was important. That’s one of the things I hope my children always know, it’s not the name of the back of the jersey, it’s always the name on the front of the jersey. [The team] is always going to run and operate with or without you.”
Shortly after securing a bachelor’s degree from Austin Peay, Gooch found himself choosing a different career path, as a sales and marketing manager for the Hyatt Hotel chain. “I was young, I had a kid to provide for, and it was a great opportunity,” Gooch says. “It was some good years because I was exposed to a lot of new situations but most of all it enabled me to see who I really was. The turning point came when I was working during Christmas and [his first son] Omari was about 10 months old and his mom sent me a video of him taking his first steps. A few months later he started playing soccer and I would get videos of the games I couldn’t attend, that’s when I realized I didn’t want to continue to miss out. I was still working part-time at the Y, I was able to come back on full time.”
Gooch returned to the YMCA full time in February 2016 as Corporate Membership Sales Connector, a position that put him in direct connection with local business and community leaders. “When I came back to the Y I had a different attitude from working in corporate America. I think that’s when my life clicked. The Y wasn’t just a job, it was a community. That’s when I really started to tap into what our neighborhood was becoming. I took on the role of development director for fundraising [in January 2017] which involved community outreach.”
Over the last several years, Gooch has been a ubiquitous presence at the YMCA as well as East Nashville. He’s served as a Board Chair for the East Nashville Chamber of Commerce, and is a board member of the Friends of Shelby Park and the 510 Foundation, along with serving as an ad hoc board member of East Nashville Athletics. In the last year, he has also worked tirelessly on relief and recovery efforts for East Nashville residents affected by the March 3 tornado and the COVID-19 pandemic. For Gooch, such efforts are not just acts of charity, they’re opportunities to build a better future.
“I hate to say this, but there are times when things have to be torn down to be rebuilt with substance,” Gooch says. “That is what happened to our neighborhood and what is still happening. It’s forcing people to rely on their neighbors. The house that a person paid $500,000 for was just as destroyed as the house of someone in project housing. Disaster does not care about the money you make or the color of your skin, or your job — and disaster comes in many forms: a tornado, a deadly pandemic, or an economic recession.
“When it comes to the neighborhood the measuring stick is not how long or how short you’ve lived here, it’s what you do. Are you just living here, or are you living here and giving something back? I think in the last year since the tornado, and despite a terrible pandemic I’ve seen more people from both the old and the new (East Nashville) come together to make a difference.”
That mix of optimism, hope, and pragmatism has become Gooch’s driving force, and the results of staying dedicated to a goal was a lesson he learned early from his father and one he’s now passing on to his won two sons — the next generation of “Out East” natives. For Gooch, it’s not a question of “Old Nashville” versus “New Nashville.” It’s a matter of creating a better Nashville by bringing people together.
“I think what pushes me most is to not only expose the great things in East Nashville but also expose and address the tough things that we can work on and make better,” Gooch says. “You can’t keep shoveling dirt on a plant because you don’t want people to see it. It’s going to keep coming up, and you have to understand why it’s there. [The community] looks a lot different than it did 15 years ago, but the mission of the Y is to bring the old and the new together, and I don’t want people to ever think the old East Nashville is gone.”