Sunlit Water

October 5, 2007

A Life Remembered

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 4:57 pm

My father was born in Mercy Hospital in Durango, Colorado on July 28, 1947.  His parents didn’t live in Durango, but they were following something of a family tradition in traveling across state lines to give birth in a better hospital than those available nearby.

They lived at a trading post a few miles southeast of Farmington, New Mexico, in the region known as the Checkerboard because the land was divided up into roughly alternating parcels, some deeded and owned privately, mostly by Anglo or Hispanic ranchers, and some held in trust by the BIA for Navajos.  The Checkerboard is not part of the Navajo Reservation per se, but its population is overwhelmingly Navajo and it is culturally very much a part of the Navajo country.  Indeed, back in the nineteenth century this area was the center of Navajo population, and most of the major Navajo myths and legends take place there.

My grandparents’ trading post was (and is) on deeded land, so they owned it outright.  This was a different arrangement from trading posts on the reservation, which were (and are) leased from the tribal government.  My great-grandfather had built the store back in 1918, during the flu epidemic, and my grandmother and her four sisters had grown up there.  They all ended up marrying traders and scattering all across the Navajo country, but they kept in close contact and the relationships among their children were more like those of siblings than of cousins.

My dad was an only child, so when he was little it was just him and his parents at the store.  Most of his playmates were Navajo.  When he died, one of them came to the graveside service in Farmington.  He was the same age as my dad, and they had played together when they were 4 and 5 years old out at the store.  He spoke very little English, so he had trouble making himself understood, but he spoke at the graveside anyway and got very choked up talking about how much he missed him.  He probably hadn’t seen him in decades; none of us had ever met him.  It was very sweet.

When it came time for my dad to go to school, his parents faced a perennial problem for traders.  They solved it in what was the traditional manner at the time.  They bought a house in Farmington, and he and his mom stayed there during the week and went out to the store on weekends.  His dad came into town on Wednesday nights.

His parents chose Farmington rather than another town (such as Bloomfield, which was actually closer) because they both had family there and had gone to school there when they were young.  They therefore had strong connections that would make up for the fractured nature of their family life.

They continued in this arrangement for the next twelve years.  My dad went all through Farmington public schools and graduated from Farmington High in 1965.  Farmington in those days was in the midst of a rapid transition from small, sleepy agricultural community to big, bustling oil town.  Oil had been discovered in the area not long before, and a massive influx of Texans followed.  The Farmington my dad grew up in was totally different from the Farmington his parents had grown up in, and he never cared much for it.  When he would come back to visit in later years he would say Farmington seemed frozen in 1957, and he knew what he was talking about since he had lived there in 1957.

When my dad was in his last years in high school, he heard about a new college being established in Santa Fe.  It was a branch of St. John’s College, a very old liberal arts college in Annapolis, Maryland that had been struggling for many years before being taken over in the 1940s by two men from the University of Chicago with some new and revolutionary ideas about higher education.  They instituted a totally new program, in which all learning was from reading a list of Great Books covering the whole history of western knowledge.  All students took the same classes at St. John’s, and what they did was read the Great Books and internalize what they said and meant.  Once the program was established with some success in Annapolis, the leaders of the college decided to start some branch campuses in other parts of the country.  When they came out to Santa Fe in the early 1960s to scout around for some land to buy, the distinguished architect John Gaw Meem heard about what they were doing and liked it so much that he donated a large plot of land he owned just east of the city in the foothills of the mountains.  That’s where they established the Santa Fe campus, which opened its doors in the fall of 1964.

My dad was fascinated by what he heard about this new and different type of college, so he applied, was accepted and matriculated in the fall of 1965 as part of the second class at the new campus.

In many ways, it was St. John’s that made my dad who he was.  For the first time, he met people who were like him and were interested in books and ideas, which were not among the most popular pursuits back in Farmington.  He grew long hair and a beard, after having always worn a crew cut in high school.  He remained conservative politically, but he gained an openness to differing points of view that he might have developed anyway but that was surely helped by the more open atmosphere of the college.

When he graduated in 1969, he came back home to the trading post for a couple years, then went out to manage another store his parents owned.  This store was on the reservation in Arizona, and was nestled in a beautiful location at the bottom of a canyon.  When one of his friends from college who had fallen a bit behind graduated a couple years later, he invited him to come out as an assistant manager.

When that friend saw what a beautiful location the trading post was in he invited his girlfriend, a Jewish girl from Philadelphia who had transfered from the Annapolis campus of St. John’s to Santa Fe shortly after my dad had graduated, to come out and stay with him there.  She did, and she soon became very good friends with my dad, and stayed with his aunt in Flagstaff while she went to nursing school at Northern Arizona University.  Once she was certified as an RN, she went to work at an Indian Health Service clinic on the reservation.

I’m not entirely sure exactly what happened at this point, but somehow she and her boyfriend broke up and she got together with my dad.  They dated for a few years, then married in June of 1978.

I was born in 1984 in Farmington, in keeping with the family tradition mentioned earlier.  My grandparents still lived at the store near there, which was another factor in my mom’s decision to go there to give birth.  Just under a year after I was born, however, my grandmother and one of her sisters were killed in a tragic car accident in Colorado, and my grandfather died a couple years later.  Several other members of my dad’s family also died in this period, so my memories of the family show it at but a pale shadow of its previous size and strength.

During the late 1980s the trading posts began to struggle, as paved roads and the growth of border towns began to vastly increase the amount of competition they faced.  This, in addition to the loss of so much of the family, led my parents to decide that they had to just make a clean break with the past and move to town.  My mom had gotten burned out on nursing by this point and had picked up a teaching certification from NAU,  so she had a new career plan, and my dad decided to go to graduate school in history and become a professor.

Few of the nearby border towns had colleges, and none had PhD programs, so my parents needed to look further afield.  The main choices were Phoenix (ugh), Tucson (not as bad as Phoenix, but pretty far away and we didn’t know many people there), and Albuquerque (much better).  A lot of their friends who had been IHS doctors on the reservation had moved to Albuquerque, and one of my dad’s cousins lived there as well, so they had significant contacts there.  They also just liked New Mexico better than Arizona in a lot of ways, not least politically.

So my dad applied to the UNM history department.  He hadn’t taken any college-level history courses, since St. John’s didn’t offer them, but he attached to his application a list of history books he had read in his spare time at the trading post, and they were so impressed that they accepted him.  We moved to Albuquerque in July of 1991 and my sister and I enrolled in our local public elementary school that fall.

This neatly solved the education problem as well as the economic one.  My mom had moved to Flagstaff the previous year to try to do what my grandparents had done, but she found it too hard and decided that we all just needed to move.  My sister and I ended up going all through Albuquerque Public Schools, and it worked out great for us.  I went to an Ivy, and my sister went to St. John’s.

My dad did quite well at the beginning of graduate school, and got an MA in 1993 with little trouble.  The PhD stage was difficult, however; his interest was purely in teaching, and the strong emphasis on research discouraged him.  He failed his comprehensive exams the first time he took them, and though he passed them the second time, his interest in the degree continued to decline.

He was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Spain for the 2000-2001 academic year to do research for his dissertation.  Living alone in a foreign country was difficult for him, and when we visited him over Winter Break he was very happy to see us.

While he was in Spain, the pressure of it all finally got to him, and he had something of a nervous breakdown.  He was diagnosed with depression and came back early in the spring.  It was then that he decided to quit the PhD program and look for other career paths to pursue.

He began to teach history classes as an adjunct at some local community colleges, and he really enjoyed that.  The reason he had gone to graduate school in the first place was to teach, and with his MA he was able to do that at the CC level.  He found the students quite good and interesting to interact with, and they liked his classes a lot.  He also got a Masters of Library Science through a distance learning program from the University of Arizona at this point, but never ended up working as a librarian.

He continued to adjunct until he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2005.  In fact, he taught for a term even after his diagnosis, before he became too weak.  He faced the cancer bravely and never wanted to give up on treatment, and never did.  He died getting ready to go to a doctor’s appointment on September 27, 2007.

My father was a kind, gentle man, and he was loved by everyone who knew him.  The outpouring of grief and sympathy when he died was enormous, and quite comforting to us as his survivors.  He led an interesting life that in some ways reflected the enormous changes overtaking the southwest during the second half of the twentieth century, and he was a true western character through and through: taciturn, reserved, stoic, but essentially kind and sweet and completely self-assured.  He will be missed.



  1. That’s great, teo. You’d given some details about him before, but that’s a lovely fuller portrait.

    Comment by ac — October 5, 2007 @ 9:02 pm |Reply

  2. Thanks. This is really just the barest outline of his life; there’s so much more I could have said, but it’s long enough as is.

    Comment by teofilo — October 5, 2007 @ 9:11 pm |Reply

  3. ac gets it exactly right.

    Comment by Cala — October 5, 2007 @ 11:22 pm |Reply

  4. What a wonderful life it sounds as if he had; rooted strongly in his home place, but not intellectually circumscribed by it. (Man, that sounds pretentious, but you know what I mean.)

    Comment by LizardBreath — October 6, 2007 @ 10:04 am |Reply

  5. Well done, and very well written. A perfect remembrance.

    Comment by mrh — October 6, 2007 @ 11:01 am |Reply

  6. It is your heritage and birthright to be a kind, gentle man, loved by everyone who knows you. He gave that to you.

    Comment by Megan — October 6, 2007 @ 3:47 pm |Reply

  7. This is a very touching piece. You are a good man.

    Comment by Di Kotimy — October 7, 2007 @ 9:07 pm |Reply

  8. Yes, very well done.

    Comment by idontpay — October 9, 2007 @ 9:39 am |Reply

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