A lot of my readers know my personal story. In Las Cruces, in 1981, I was a first semester junior, give or take a credit or two, at New Mexico State University. I loved college, every minute of it, including the work-study job I had at the Rio Grande Historical Society. I loved Las Cruces and the view of the Organ Mountains on the eastern horizon. I loved Chope’s in La Mesa, and El Patio in Mesilla. I loved my little efficiency on the western outskirts of Mesilla. I loved my friends and meeting for breakfast on Saturday mornings for green chile huevos at Dick’s.
Mostly I loved going to class – I was one of those crazy nerds who ate it all up, especially the history and english classes with their organized syllabi and lists of books that I had to finish before the end of each semester.
Enter life. I discovered I was pregnant early in the second semester of my junior year, and in my characteristic variety-is-the-spice-of-life-let’s-see-where-this-road-takes-me fashion, I opted to quit school, have Zachary, and start a new life elsewhere (West Texas, which was it’s own sort of adventure). When my Las Cruces friends, shocked at my decision to quit school and have my baby, said, “But what about school?”, I’d reply, “It’s okay. I’ve promised myself I’ll finish college before the baby finishes high school.”
And then, suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it was 1995. Zachary was in the eighth grade at the Albuquerque Academy, and by then we also had Johanna. She was 4, I was single, and we lived in a great sandstone adobe house on Mountain Road. By day I was a paralegal for a lot of demanding but kind lawyers at Geer, Wissel, Becker & Levy – by night I was mostly the queen of macaroni and cheese, Johanna’s baths, Zachary’s homework, and my weekly dose of ER, to which we were all addicted. It was a really nice life – we had no discretionary cash, but we had great friends and a picnic table in the backyard under a honeysuckle arbor and two cats named Phillip and Puff and breakfasts at the Frontier at least twice a month.
I thought about my degree a lot. I thought about how I missed those book lists and all those papers I had been forced to write. Mostly I remembered the promise I had made, half in jest, that I would finish college before Zachary finished high school. And very slowly, one class at a time, I started to chisel away at my remaining credits.
That’s when I discovered the history department at UNM. And eventually Ferenc Szasz. I had a couple of years of classes with professors like Paul Hutton and Virginia Scharff and Linda Hall. And in my last three semesters before graduation, I had classes with Dr. Szasz.
There are professors who know how to stand in front of 300 students and captivate their audience. That’s Paul Hutton – he’s a showman, he knows his history, and he knows how to tell a story. There are professors who love their subject, who feel passionate about the cause behind the stories and theories they’re sharing, and who feel that history is more a social endeavor than a linear chronology of fact. That’s Virginia Scharff.
Then there are professors who love the students, who, probably without thinking about it in concrete terms, believe that the most important thing they can do is impart something of true worth and true humanity to their students. That was Ferenc Szasz.
I hadn’t though about Dr. Szasz for a while – sometimes when I’m reading a particularly good piece of history, he’ll come to mind. And then I read his obituary in my Daily Lobo online this past June – it was one of those moments that made me stop breathing for a second and created a longing for that square table in that classroom at the back of Mesa Vista Hall, all those funny and enthusiastic history grad students listening while Szasz discussed reciprocity and fairness in the American West.
The last class I took with him was a graduate level class on Biography in the Spring of 2000. It was a crazy semester – Zachary would graduate from the Academy on May 26, and if all went as planned, I would graduate on May 12. I shouldn’t have been able to take the class, since I was an undergraduate, but I saw it on the schedule and went straight to Szasz’s office, begging him for the chance. He smiled at me. “This one will require a lot of work, Ms. Terry. . . but I think you’re up to it.” And he signed the pink slip that would convince the registrar to allow me into the class.
I was working full-time, taking 12 hours of classes, and Dr. Szasz had assigned a 25 page biography of a significant historical figure of our choosing, complete with source documents, period accuracy, and interviews if possible. As much as I loved reading and writing, this was the semester and that biography was the assignment that felt like the proverbial straw that might break the camel’s back. Zachary’s senior year activities combined with Johanna’s third-grade homework combined with my crazy work load really, for the first time, felt like too much.
For my biography I chose Kike Waltman, a Quay County survivor of the Bataan Death March. Dr. Szasz applauded my choice, and we dug in for the long haul together. He helped me put together my interview questions and directed me to yet another list of books about the Philipines in WWII, the Japanese philosophy of war, prisoner of war camps, and videos on the Death March.
Every day that I came into class, he had an encouragement, another fact that I could check, another idea for my oral history list, and he made sure I didn’t give up on my assignment, even after the first interview when I came into the classroom nearly in tears. “This is really hard,” I told him. “Those prisoner of war camp stories are grueling.” He told me what I was doing was important work, that Kike needed to tell his story, and that I needed to hear it, and that someone needed to preserve that amazing memory.
I wrote the biography (a bit of it is posted here at https://ilovenewmexico.wordpress.com/?s=Waltman&x=6&y=15). I got an A in the class. Somehow I graduated, with all my friends in town to cheer me on. And then Zachary graduated, and we survived that May to go on to the rest of our lives.
But what Ferenc Szasz gave me was a hunger for those other stories, and a respect for my own. That’s one of the reasons I do this blog – because there are stories in New Mexico that need to be told, places that need to be explored, events that need to be recognized. I’m not amazingly qualified to tell them all, but I’m willing, which in the end was all that Dr. Szasz asked – that we be willing to explore and be excited about the possibilities.
I found a book by Dr. Szasz in the bookmobile last Wednesday (thank God for the bookmobile. . .), “Larger Than Life, New Mexico in the Twentieth Century.” In the forward he tells the story of how he came to UNM in 1967, hired by Gerald Nash to teach American social and intellectual history. A newcomer to the southwest, he and his wife Margaret (who was a widowed PhD candidate when they met, and who became a professor in the UNM History Department) made New Mexico their true home, exploring and writing down the stories of hundreds of New Mexico locations and the people in all those places.
Dr. Szasz inspired me to open my eyes and hear the stories of the place where I live, and the people who live there, and he made me passionate about preserving memory. It’s important stuff, whether you do it well like Dr. Szasz, or just do it, like me. It’s what makes me who I am.