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Former Governor Jerry Apodaca deserves to be remembered

Peter Goodman


This is a Las Cruces story, about a long-time Cruces family and the sad distance between the city we are and who we used to be.

It starts with Reymundo Apodaca, and Elisa Alvarez, both born here in 1907 into sufficiently poor families that each started working too early to finish high school. After their marriage, Mundo worked odd jobs, such as loading chile and other vegetables for shipping, then became a salesclerk at the local J.C. Penny. Drafted by the Army, though the father of five, Mundo served years during World War II, after which the couple opened a small grocery store. Elisa ran it all day, then Mundo took over after Penny’s. They later owned and operated the city’s only Dairy Queen for a quarter-century.

They lived at 308 Bowman the whole 70 years of their marriage. Ray, Jr., was such a great athlete at Las Cruces High they named him “The Greatest Bulldog,” a nickname younger brother Jerry, born in 1934, later earned, lettering in four sports. Jerry won a football scholarship to UNM, where he starred as a halfback his last two years. (Initially so homesick that he returned to Cruces, Jerry quickly got over it.)

I met him in 1974, as a young reporter. Jerry was a long shot candidate in the Democratic primary for the gubernatorial nomination. I spent most of the weekend before the primary talking with Jerry and his wife, Clara. Still an avid runner, Jerry also sponsored that weekend “The Governor’s Cup,” thirteen miles through the streets of Albuquerque. I ran with him. I liked him.

Two days later the Democrats nominated young Jerry. Elected in November over Republican Joe Skeen, Jerry was the first Hispanic Governor here since 1917, in a town where, during his childhood, some Anglo fathers would frankly tell their daughters’ young Hispanic male friends to stay the hell away.

Jerry was smart and personable. People called him and Clara “the Hispanic Kennedys.” Many predicted national success.

In the life of anyone who does something really well, it can be hard when the cheering stops. Although I gather Jerry kept on knocking aside barriers to Hispanics in large corporations, he experienced no further political success.

But Mundo and Elisa had lived to see their third child our governor and their fourth, my friend Rudy Apodaca, the Chief Justice of New Mexico’s Court of Appeals. A Georgetown grad, Rudy served thirteen years on that court. Reymundo and Elisa were delighted by the successes of all five children.

Jerry died last week, at 88.

I won’t pretend I agreed with all that Jerry said publicly during the past few years. For a long time, he wasn’t at his best. Too, he was governor so long ago that many newer residents of Las Cruces have no clue who he was.

But he deserves to be remembered. With great affection and respect. By family, friends, and the community that produced him, and which he loved.

Our friend Jose Garcia, retired NMSU prof, recently called Jerry, “simply, the best governor New Mexico has produced since statehood.” Professor Garcia emphasizes that Jerry not only dreamed but had the practical savvy to make real improvements in our state. Jerry also had the marathoner’s discipline. By law he could serve just one term: and he made it count.

As our present governor noted, Jerry also helped us begin electing a much more diverse set of political candidates.