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Article by Mary Alice Murphy

Some photos by Mary Alice Murphy. Those of the group photo and the dedication of the WNMU Cultural Center are Courtesy of WNMU.

An event celebrating Founders' Day at Western New Mexico University kicked off at 11 a.m. Friday with WNMU president Joseph Shepard introducing dignitaries in the audience.

"This is an exciting day," Shepard said. He read the proclamation from 1893 that the territory of New Mexico gave to name two communities-Las Vegas and Silver City-to be the recipients of a normal school.

"Starting as a normal school, we educated teachers," Shepard said. "We became renowned for the high quality of teachers we produced. We have progressed from that normal school to a full university. People ask me the difference between colleges and universities. A college is primarily for a singular purpose. We began with teachers and started adding services. That led to today when we are a university with 70 plus degrees, associate, bachelor's and master's degrees.

"In 1893, we had no internet, no smart phones," he continued. "Times have changed, but we still provide a quality education."

He introduced Silver City Mayor Ken Ladner, who was in full 1890s attire, including top hat.

"Come back with me to 1871," Ladner invited the audience. "Silver City had about 2,000 people, but it was a diverse community, with people coming from all over the country for the mining opportunities. The problem was the Santa Fe Rings. The Republicans from the north wanted to run New Mexico the way they wanted to run it. Folks down here wanted to incorporate and create public schools. Those in the north only wanted to educate the elite. There was a clash from the beginning. The folks here go to the point where they wanted to leave the Territory of New Mexico and join up with Arizona. The feud lasted. The governor had to have federal guards pushing the legislative agenda. In 1876, Silver City declared its own independence. When the governor heard the town was threatening to join Arizona, he finally gave Silver City its own territorial charter."

Ladner said Silver City citizens wanted to tax themselves. The town was the first in the territory to have paved roads; the first to have streetlights; the first to have a public school system.

"In February, 140 years ago, Silver City received its territorial charter," he said. "And in February, today, we are celebrated the 125 anniversary of the founding of Western New Mexico University."

Ladner cited an article from the Silver City Enterprise, dated Feb. 3, 1893, headlined Mayor Fleming scores a point for New Mexico.

Fleming was one of the donors of land for the university and served on its first Board of Regents. Fleming in this article said Silver city was the first town in New Mexico to create a public-school system because the residents taxed themselves for the schools. "The residents are progressive," Fleming said. "We will donate land for a normal school. Several citizens donated the land to the town for the normal school and the town donated it to what is now the university. Grant County is the third richest county in New Mexico."

Ladner then read a proclamation from the town of Silver City. It said in excerpts, "Whereas Feb. 11, 1893 the Western New Mexico University was founded as a normal school, now it is a Public Applied Arts and Sciences University; it is a Hispanic-serving institution that continues to educate hundreds of students; it educates students with a commitment to community. Therefore, we proclaim Feb. 11-17, 2018 as Western New Mexico quasquicentennial week."

Shepard introduced a six-minute video of students of the past history of the university.

After the video he said Cynthia Bettison, who serves as the WNMU Museum director and also as Mayor Pro Temp of Silver City told him that students used to have to get the university president's approval to get married. They were supposed to focus on their studies.

Shepard introduced Alfred Ogas, WNMU Alumni Association president, as one of the many alumni from Western.

Ogas said the Ogas and Acuña families have sent their children to Western clear back to the 1920s. "My mother and two aunts went to school here in the 1920s and '30s. Two uncles were studying here when World War II happened. After the war, they came back and completed their degrees. We have had more than 150 family members as students here. My family has been here since the 1840s in the Mexican-American War, which was concluded with the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty. Then we had the Apache raids until after Geronimo surrendered in the 1860s. Silver City began to grow. We asked to incorporate, but the state wouldn't let us. After we discovered silver on Chloride Flats and after threatening to join Arizona, the state decided to let us have a territorial charter. We asked for a university and the state said no, but we prevailed. Western had a lot of university alumni who served in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and in Vietnam."

"The alumni are willing to help," Ogas continued. "We want to give back. We know 85 percent of the students now attending need some sort of assistance. The alumni are helping with fundraisers. We are trying to start a mentoring program throughout the country. We will hole others know we have traditions here. In 1961, I received my freshman orientation right here in Light Hall on wood seats. These are much more comfortable. It's a really nice facility now. There have been a lot of changes, a lot of positive changes. Our alumni ask for your help. We are proud of our university. I appreciate having gone through a smaller school."

Shepard said the university helps a lot of students. "We are guided by five regents. They have to be New Mexico residents. Three are from the party of the governor and two from the other party. We are guided by the president of the Board of Regents, Jerry Walz, from right here in Silver City."

Walz said in the short video, he thought he had seen the swimming team, made up of Tony Trujillo, Richard Peterson and himself.

"I am a lawyer, so I go to court a lot, but special things bring me here-food, beautiful women and Western New Mexico University," Walz said. "I was not at the original proclamation, as alleged by Dr. Shepard, but I have been around for a while. I brought today, my mother, Kathleen Cushing and my youngest son, who is 7.

"I, too, had my first orientation here in Light Hall," Walz continued. "Most of my classes and most of my school work was done here in Light Hall with gifted professors. What an amazing job you have done updating the buildings on campus. But the heart and soul of a university are the students and the professors."

He saw few universities can match what Western has accomplished. "We're still a well-kept secret. There have been tremendous changes with online education. We have competition from every place in the universe, but with the intellectual firepower in this room, we'll still be here in another 125 years."

Shepard announced: "On the patio is a birthday cake. At 1 p.m. at Old James stadium, we will take a photo. At 2 p.m., Tony and I have to head back to Santa Fe for the legislative session. At that time, we will be dedicating the MEChA Building as the cultural center of the university."

At Old James Stadium a group photo was taken in the 125 on the field, with Mariachi Plata entertaining the gathering.

At 2 p.m. a celebration dedicated the MEChA Building as the WNMU Cultural Center. Dr. Felipe Ortego learned that the MEChA building was to be named after him. Student Regent Arlene Murillo presented him with a plaque engraved with his portrait and a summary of his legacy. Dr. Ortego recently received this year's Premio Estrella de Aztlán - Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Chapter of the National Association of Chicanos and Chicanas for his contributions to Texas Chicanos.

 

Live from Silver City

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