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Battling dementia at 47, longtime Santa Maria media personality hoping to inspire people and bring awareness to disease

ORCUTT, Calif. -- Tony Gonzales is living each day to its fullest, and by sharing his personal story with the public, he's hoping to inspire other people to do the same.

The Santa Maria native is a well-known figure on the Central Coast, through his time as a radio personality, successful business executive, and his many years as a dedicated community volunteer.

Living up to his on-air moniker, "The Chief," Gonzales has always had a presence that's bigger than life.

A born entertainer, Gonzales has a presence to him, always smiling, joking, and bantering. It makes him a friend to pretty much anyone he meets.

Even though he has been in the public limelight for more than two decades, there is private part of his life only those closest to him know about.

At just 47-years-old, Gonzales is battling dementia and mild cognitive impairment. Since he is experiencing symptoms below the age of 65, it's also classified as early onset Alzheimer's.

"I know a lot of folks are going to see this, who have known me quite a while, or have known me the last couple of years even, and thought, there's nothing wrong with him, and so it's going to shock a lot of folks," said Gonzales.

Gonzales said he is coming forward with his medical condition because he is hoping to raise awareness with the disease, especially in younger people. He also wants to help promote an upcoming Alzheimer's fundraiser.

"It is very rare for somebody my age to have dementia," said Gonzales. "There is I think kind of a shame that comes with it because we're young."

Two years ago, while Gonzales was working with the American Cancer Society, his life began to take an unexpected turn.

"I was coming home from Paso Robles," said Gonzales, describing a drive south on Highway 101 to his Orcutt home after attending a meeting. "I was in my car and I looked around. I was in Santa Maria and just passed In-and-Out Burger, and I looked around and went, where am I Then I had to think, where am I going. Where was I?"

Gonzales said he remembered who he was and quickly called his wife Kori. The two blamed his forgetfulness on stress and fatigue coming from his tiring work schedule.

However, within a few days, while at home with family during a barbecue, another troubling incident happened that raised alarms.

"I had been waiting for these special socks for my son's wedding, and I came in from the outside, and said, do you guys know when the mail is getting here? I want my socks," said Gonzales. "And they said, they're right there, so I picked up the package, looked at them, and said, great, these are awesome. They're perfect! I put them down and my son looked at me like my head blew off and said dad you just came in five minutes ago and did that exact thing."

It was that night Gonzales knew there was something wrong and needed medical attention.

"I kind of brushed it off until later that night as my wife and I were getting into bed, and I told her, honey, I know I was kind of joking about that, but I don't remember any of that," said Gonzales. "I think we need to go to the doctor."

Soon afterwards, Gonzales sought a diagnosis on what was he was dealing with, beginning a very long unanticipated journey.

"Our world just changed," said Gonzales. "All of sudden I was living the song from Tim McGraw that I never thought I would, live like you were dying, and I never thought that would be my story, and it became my story."

After a seemingly endless amount of tests and countless trips to doctors appointments, Gonzales finally learned his condition earlier this year.

"It's gut wrenching because he's only 47-years-old," said Kori Gonzales. "Both of my grandmothers died from Alzheimer's, so I have an image in my mind of what that looks, and that's not something that you want for anybody that you love or care about, so it's a lot of tears. Our life is completely changed. We're not where we thought we'd be. We thought we would be traveling. We thought we would be kind of footloose and fancy free, and instead, we're trying to learn how to live with this disease."

The disease has taken a toll on many abilities Gonzales used to be able to do without a second thought.

"I can no longer do the things that I used to do really well, much like an email, a phone call, and maybe, looking at something off to the left," said Gonzales. "That was something commonplace for me as an executive. I could multitask very easily. Now, I can only handle one thing at a time."

He added his math and English skills are also dramatically diminished.

"I can't work anymore because now I have a first grade math level," said Gonzales. "I can't handle two or three things at one time for cognitive reasons, on top of many more issues, so I can't work. I'm disabled. Did I think I was going to be 46 years old and disabled? No."

Facing a life-altering medical condition, Gonzales said is determined to fight and do everything he can to make a difference as he battles the disease.

"There's a reality and then there's the Tony that doesn't give up, right? And the Tony that doesn't give up, I let that guy come out a lot because more people need to know that this is a disease that can happen to you in your 40s, some even in their 30s," said Gonzales. "It's not studied enough, financed enough in our government, and I know the power. I've seen it with cancer. If you can get enough people to gather around it, big things can be done in science. If they have the money and the backing and all that."

(Photo courtesy of Tony Gonzales)

He points out that his ability to connect with the people and fundraise are tools he's able to utilize in his new purpose.

"I like to say that this disease picked on the wrong person because I know how to raise money and I like to talk," said Gonzales. "There are so many Alzheimer's patients that have lost the ability to speak cohesively, and while I still can, I will speak for them."

Gonzales is using his volunteer muscle to help promote the upcoming Alzheimer's Association Walk to End Alzheimer's. There are several fundraising walks scheduled in the Tri-Counties area, including in Santa Maria at Rotary Centennial Park on Oct. 2.

The Righetti alum is certainly no stranger to fundraiser or community events. He's spent his entire life lending his support to just about everyone of them in the Santa Maria Valley over the years.

Earlier this month, Gonzales could be seen and heard at the Elks Rodeo, serving as the host of the popular mutton bustin' event. He also provided several live broadcasts for social media along the rodeo's midway.

Gonzales, along with his longtime friend Jay Turner, served as the Co-Grand Marshall of the Elks Rodeo Parade.

As he battles dementia, Gonzales is also making sure to do everything he can to remain active and productive.

While he no longer works, he stays busy with a handful of media-related projects.

"I decided I wasn't going to sit around, that my wife and I were going to do something and create memories and log them, and so that's where Take Two Productions and Empty Nesters and Chief's Country Classics all came out," said Gonzales, describing his various endeavors.

With two grown children now living out of his home, Gonzales and Kori both now star in a video series available on YouTube and his website.

"I came up with this idea of having a show called the 'Empty Nesters', and we would go out and go to local restaurants, wineries. We go on trips. All these things that we would normally do, but we would document it," said Gonzales. It is a lot of fun putting it down. It helps me cognitively. I watch them a lot actually, not just because I have a big ego, but it helps me remember the times that we've had and the fun stuff that we do."

He also hosts a podcast called, "Chief's Country Classics," which features songs and stories centered around country music.

Watching him take on the challenge of dementia has provided Kori with a first-hand view of just how strong her husband is.

"I'm insanely proud of him," said Kori Gonzales. "It is not easy. This disease is not kind and it changes the person and for him to open up and to be vulnerable, and to allow others to get a glimpse of what his day to day life is in the journey, and I don't want to say progression because it's really a decline that happens, is very humbling and I'm just very proud."

As they live with the disease, both Tony and Kori Gonzales want to inspire others to appreciate what they have in life and to never take anything for granted.

"Here's the funny thing, all our time is limited," said Tony Gonzales. "Everybody's time is limited, so the realization I hope, if you're not living with this disease, or don't have something happening to you, take it as a lesson from me. Do those things that you should have done. Don't wait to do the bucket list until it's too late. Don't wait to take that job until it's late. Don't wait to take that vacation. Do it while you're still healthy. Do it while you're still young because that's the right time."

"You need to take stock on the today and the now, and you need to really stop and appreciate what you have," said Kori Gonzales. "I wish I could tell others that you need to just slow down and appreciate, and take that extra time because you never know when you're going to get a phone call or go into the doctor's office, and they're going to tell you that you're time is limited, and when that happens to you, everything comes into focus real quick, and you have to savor each moment."

For more information about the Alzheimer's Association Walk to End Alzheimer's, click here.

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Dave Alley

Dave Alley is a reporter and anchor at NewsChannel 3-12. To learn more about Dave, click here.

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