‘I knew that she could do great things’

Class­mates re­call a fu­ture gover­nor who says she was shaped by her up­bring­ing in Santa Fe

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Daniel J. Chacón dcha­[email protected]­i­can.com

Mrs. Kirby’s sec­ond-grade class at E.J. Martinez El­e­men­tary School was al­ready in ses­sion when the door swung open that spring day in 1966. Ac­com­pa­nied by an adult, a petite girl with sandy brown hair, sparkling green eyes and a check­ered skirt walked in, im­me­di­ately cap­tur­ing the at­ten­tion of a class­room full of in­quis­i­tive chil­dren. “I just re­mem­ber her look­ing around the class­room, so cu­ri­ous,” re­called Matthew Baca, one of the stu­dents. “Not at all any kind of ner­vous­ness or any kind of wari­ness, but just cu­ri­ous­ness, look­ing around at all the chil­dren, watch­ing us. She was just at ease right away.”

The sec­ond-graders had no way of know­ing then, but the con­fi­dent lit­tle girl would be the fu­ture gover­nor of New Mex­ico.

Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham, a for­mer Ber­nalillo County com­mis­sioner and U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tive who was sworn in Jan. 1 as the state’s 32nd gover­nor, was born in Los Alamos and raised in Santa Fe in what friends de­scribed as a work­ing-class fam­ily.

Her late fa­ther, Llewellyn “Buddy” Lu­jan, was a well­re­spected den­tist who pro­vided free den­tal care to dis­abled and un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren and their fam­i­lies from a den­tal chair in his garage.

“He never turned any­one away from that chair,” Lu­jan Gr­isham said in her in­au­gu­ra­tion speech.

Her mother, Sonja, was a house­wife who raised three chil­dren, in­clud­ing Lu­jan Gr­isham’s dis­abled sis­ter, Kim­berly, who was di­ag­nosed with a ma­lig­nant brain tu­mor at age 2 and died at 21. Ac­cord­ing to pub­lished re­ports, Lu­jan Gr­isham’s par­ents spent decades pay­ing off the debt they in­curred for their daugh­ter’s health care costs.

While her life in gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics is rel­a­tively well doc­u­mented, not much has been writ­ten about Lu­jan Gr­isham’s younger years grow­ing up in Santa Fe, where long­time friends and for­mer class­mates say she dis­played traits and char­ac­ter­is­tics of a nat­u­ral leader who also has a fun streak.

“She was one of the brainiac types,” said Joe Gen­try, who grad­u­ated from St. Michael’s High School with Lu­jan Gr­isham in 1977.

“She was nat­u­rally gifted in terms of aca­demics, and there were a few peo­ple that you knew they were go­ing to do some­thing with their lives,” Gen­try added. “And then we went to St. Mike’s, so there was an ex­pec­ta­tion over there al­most of go­ing on to do big­ger and bet­ter things. But be­ing gover­nor? I don’t think any­one could en­vi­sion that. Maybe she did. I didn’t en­vi­sion that, but I knew that she could do great things.”

The gover­nor — who had a lot on her plate last week, from un­veil­ing a pro­posed $7.1 bil­lion bud­get for the com­ing year to trav­el­ing to the state’s south­ern bor­der with Mex­ico — was unavail­able for an in­ter­view. But in a state­ment, she said Santa Fe helped mold her.

“I was fairly young when we moved to Santa Fe, but it wasn’t long after that I started to fig­ure out who I was, and that en­tire process took place in this city,” she wrote.

“I was a prac­ti­cal joker as a teenager and I still am to­day — you can ask any of my staff,” Lu­jan Gr­isham said. “I think grow­ing up in Santa Fe or North­ern New Mex­ico in gen­eral in­stills a sense of hu­mor in peo­ple, a sort of easy­go­ing sense of not tak­ing your­self too se­ri­ously, while still be­ing very proud of where you come from, and that’s some­thing we all share. But I also knew my par­ents were deeply con­nected to this com­mu­nity and had a real sense of com­mu­nity and looked out for their neigh­bors — I wanted to make them proud.”

Try­ing to find peo­ple to say dif­fer­ent things about Lu­jan Gr­isham is about as chal­leng­ing as ask­ing them to use dif­fer­ent ways to de­scribe the sun.

Bub­bly. Smart. Out­go­ing. Funny. Friendly. En­er­getic. And stand­ing at about 4-foot-11, short.

Lu­jan Gr­isham is, in some ways, New Mex­ico’s En­er­gizer Bunny. And she started young.

“God, that girl, I don’t know how she gets ev­ery­thing done in a sin­gle day,” said An­nette Montoya, who went to high school with the gover­nor and has vol­un­teered on some of her cam­paigns. “By 9 o’clock, I’m ex­hausted when I hang out with her.”

Montoya said Lu­jan Gr­isham was “al­ways a fun, fun girl to be around” in high school. She re­called an in­ci­dent in which the diminu­tive fu­ture gover­nor faced off with a state wrestling cham­pion.

“I have a cousin that was a wrestler for the St. Mike’s wrestling team, and he took state ev­ery sin­gle year. He was the heavy­weight wrestler,” Montoya said. “He’s now the mayor of Taos, Dan Bar­rone. He must weigh about 300 pounds, and Michelle must weigh about 100 wet, and they were hav­ing this lit­tle ar­gu­ment in the hall­way and she was point­ing her fin­ger at him, telling him stuff, and he’ll never for­get that ar­gu­ment that he got in with Michelle. Of course, she won.”

Lu­jan Gr­isham’s long­time friends agreed the gover­nor was — and still is — a prankster.

“The first time that I spent the night at her house, I was walk­ing into her kitchen, and she just hit me [on the head] with an egg and then we had this huge food fight in her par­ents’ kitchen,” said Priscilla Catanach Gaus­soin. “We were throw­ing spaghetti at each other.”

The pair cleaned up the kitchen and then had to take a bath be­cause they were so grimy, Catanach Gaus­soin said.

“The next day, her mom said, ‘Why is there spaghetti in the bath­tub?’ She goes, ‘I don’t know. How did it get there?’ ” Catanach Gaus­soin re­called, laugh­ing.

Catanach Gaus­soin said she re­mem­bers meet­ing Lu­jan Gr­isham as fresh­men in band.

“She played the clar­inet, but ac­tu­ally, she helped lead the band some­times as a band di­rec­tor,” she said. “She would stand there with the band di­rec­tor and lead the band.”

Catanach Gaus­soin said Lu­jan Gr­isham was in the Na­tional Honor So­ci­ety. She was also a cheer­leader in eighth grade and later a mem­ber of the drill team, also known as the Dril­lettes.

She dis­played some im­pres­sive dance moves on the cam­paign trail and also at her in­au­gu­ra­tion ball, but an­other friend, Liz Wray, said danc­ing didn’t come nat­u­rally to the gover­nor in high school.

“We would laugh at her so much be­cause she wouldn’t get the moves, and she would just crack up,” Wray said. “But when it came down to it, we got it down and we got our lit­tle white boots on and did our lit­tle kicks out there for the St. Mike’s Horse­men. She was not a nat­u­ral, no. She would tell you, too.”

Wray and Catanach Gaus­soin said they’re part of a group of St. Mike’s grad­u­ates who have re­mained close friends with the gover­nor since high school. They all at­tended the gover­nor’s swear­ing-in cer­e­monies.

“We’ve been to­gether through thick and thin,” said Catanach Gaus­soin, who lives in Ne­braska. “I would do any­thing for her, and I know that she would do any­thing for any one of us six girls that are in our group of friends. It’s just so spe­cial.”

Wray, who is also part of the group of six, said her first mem­ory of the gover­nor is rid­ing the bus with her to school their fresh­man year.

“There’s this lit­tle thing en­ter­tain­ing the whole bus,” she said. “She’s just a pis­tol. She’s just fun to be around.”

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Wray said Lu­jan Gr­isham also was am­bi­tious.

“There’s a thing called Block M,” she said. “You have to do com­mu­nity ser­vice. You have to have good grades, and you have to be in clubs and be of ser­vice to the school and the com­mu­nity. Her strive was al­ways to get the Block M.”

Wray, who re­mem­bers go­ing to an Ea­gles con­cert with the gover­nor and her other friends, said the group was strait-laced.

“In those days, there wasn’t re­ally much to do, you know what I mean? There was only that one McDon­ald’s on Cer­ril­los Road. You went from that McDon­ald’s to the Plaza and back to that McDon­ald’s,” she said. “I guess we were a bunch of goody two-shoes now that you’re mak­ing me re­mem­ber.”

Wray said she didn’t ex­pect Lu­jan Gr­isham to get into pol­i­tics.

“But I re­mem­ber when we were in speech, I sure wanted to be on the de­bate team on her side be­cause she was good,” Wray said. “She can de­bate ei­ther side.”

Time for fun, time for work

Baca, who has known the gover­nor since el­e­men­tary school, said he al­ways fig­ured Lu­jan Gr­isham would be suc­cess­ful. He said the first time he got an inkling she was in­ter­ested in pol­i­tics is when they car­pooled be­tween Santa Fe and Al­bu­querque. At the time, Lu­jan Gr­isham served as the di­rec­tor of New Mex­ico Agency on Ag­ing, and Baca was deputy Cab­i­net sec­re­tary of the New Mex­ico En­ergy, Min­er­als and Nat­u­ral Re­sources Depart­ment.

“We had a lot of time to talk and visit about things, and I re­al­ized this per­son sit­ting here is cer­tainly some­thing unique in terms of what she has to of­fer to our state and to the coun­try, re­ally,” he said. “She has a very high in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­ity that al­lows her to com­pre­hend com­plex is­sues and then to dis­sect those is­sues and de­ter­mine the best ways that you can go about ad­dress­ing them, es­pe­cially when these is­sues are ones that are prob­lems in so­ci­ety.”

Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, Lu­jan Gr­isham’s high school friends all said they’re con­fi­dent she’ll make a great gover­nor.

“I can say with­out reser­va­tion that she’s go­ing to be, from the very first, one of the very best gov­er­nors we ever have,” Baca said. “That’s not just be­cause of my per­sonal friend­ship. That’s know­ing her and her ca­pa­bil­i­ties and all the dif­fer­ent as­pects she brings to the job.”

Baca said Lu­jan Gr­isham is a hard worker. When they car­pooled, he re­mem­bers “ar­riv­ing in Santa Fe at 8 and not leav­ing un­til al­most 12 hours later.”

“I’ve never seen any­one work as long and as hard as she does,” he said. “I think any­one who is go­ing to be in her ad­min­is­tra­tion had bet­ter be pre­pared for an en­vi­ron­ment where they’re go­ing to be giv­ing their all to carry out the poli­cies and goals that she’s go­ing to set for them.”

TOP: Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham was born in Los Alamos and raised in Santa Fe.

COUR­TESY PHO­TOS

BELOW: Lu­jan Gr­isham stands with other stu­dents in a St. Michael’s High School year­book photo for model U.N.

LEFT: Lu­jan Gr­isham’s se­nior por­trait at St. Michael’s High School in 1977.

COUR­TESY PHOTO

Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham ap­peared in the play The Mir­a­cle Worker dur­ing her se­nior year at St. Michael’s in 1977.

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