By serving others, these men teach us how to live
Some of the best reading in this, or any, newspaper comes from perusing the obituaries every morning. As people age, there’s the perennial joke — we read obits to make sure we’re still here — but at any age, the tributes to loved ones can offer insight to lives well lived in ways large and small.
In the past few weeks, Santa Fe and New Mexico have lost giants of our community.
Ernie Gonzales, noted for his devotion to education and mariachi, fought esophageal cancer for 3½ years. He died Sept. 17 — a few days short of his 75th birthday — his family with him.
People knew him from his teaching days at Santa Fe Vo-Tech or as principal at Kaune Elementary School. As an educator, he challenged his students, especially when it came to reading books — if they read enough, Mr. G would kiss a pig, work on the roof of the school for a day or even shave his head and dye his scalp green. Friends and neighbors also remember his days in local bands, including the Rocking Aces, and his love of mariachi music.
By sharing that passion with schoolchildren, Gonzales introduced hundreds to the joys of music-making while helping them remain interested in learning. His legacy is felt across Santa Fe Public Schools, where the mariachi programs he founded still attract students, and in the town, where the students whose lives he touched remember him fondly.
Then there is Carlos Brazil Ramirez, who died at 75 in August of pancreatic cancer and will be remembered Friday at a funeral Mass at the Basilica Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi.
He was a longtime educator who went on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and a Ph.D. in political science — his university career started with teaching at Moorpark College in California and ended up with him as president of City College in San Francisco. He moved to New Mexico and became executive director at the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos in 1989 until he retired. He was passionate about the Chicano movement of the 1960s and a fierce advocate for social justice, inspiring his students to follow suit.
His life is a reminder that whatever our profession, we also can contribute in other ways — for Ramirez, that included developing conservation projects to better care for water, soil, wildlife habitat and timber. He planted trees, worked on ranches in Rociada and Sparks, N.M., and spent quality time with his family. He traveled, pursued family history, studied his culture and remained curious about the world all of his 75 years. The planet was richer for his presence
The same can be said for the impact of Edward Baca’s life. Baca died last week at 82 of leukemia. A veteran of the Vietnam conflict and a retired lieutenant general, Baca spent 41 years in the military, rising to the position of chief of the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon. He was the first Hispanic to hold the lofty position. Baca also spent 12 years as adjutant general of the New Mexico National Guard, modernizing the Guard and reimagining service to put his soldiers to work helping young people stay off drugs and achieve their dreams.
Part of his mission through the years was to tell the story of National Guard, those citizen soldiers who have sacrificed so much over the decades. Baca proudly spoke about the “battling bastards of Bataan,” the guardsmen caught up in the early days of World War II, captured by the Japanese and forced to take part in the grueling Bataan Death March. One such soldier, José Quintero, remained unbowed in prison camp, secretly sewing an American flag at night — the penalty for which was death — and Baca made sure to tell his story, too. That flag of blankets and sheets was what Quintero waved to let the American bomber overhead know the unmarked POW camp was below.
Baca’s genius was understanding that National Guard service could be interpreted more broadly, whether helping young people or, up in Taos, opening the Guard armory each winter so that the folks running Taos Feeds Taos would have the space to prepare food boxes for neighbors in need. He came personally each winter to help, too. Service was personal, and Baca led by example. His life shows us that we, too, have the potential to make the world around us better.
These men show us that all humans can make a difference. We found their stories on the obituary pages, and know that tomorrow and the day after, we will find more stories of lives that matter. Their memories will bless us all.