Sam Chavez, with his guide dog, Canya, using the New Mexico state library’s services for the blind in Santa Fe. Santa Fe New Mexican, Dec. 5, 1966.
La Historia del Rio Abajo
It snows a lot on the east slopes of the Manzano Mountains. But, as anyone who has lived in the small villages of Manzano, Tajique, Chilili and Torreon can tell you, there are snowstorms and there are snowstorms.
This story is about a particularly bad snowstorm and how the driver of a Greyhound bus and his passengers were rescued by a brave 42-year-old passenger named Sam Chavez. What makes the story truly remarkable is that Sam Chavez had been blind since birth.
Samuel Chavez had been born on June 3, 1904, the second son of Eulalio and Clarita Chavez. When old enough, Sam attended the New Mexico School for the Blind in Alamogordo. By World War II, he had become quite independent, especially after he acquired a German Shepherd guide dog named Silver.
In a typical act of independence, Sam and Silver had traveled to Albuquerque and had boarded a Greyhound bus to return to his family’s home in Manzano on Feb. 9, 1946.
Storm clouds gathered as the Greyhound traveled east through Tijeras Canyon. Luckily, the bus, with Sam, Silver and nine other passengers aboard, made it through the canyon, turning south at the village of Tijeras, before the storm reached blizzard proportions.
In the heaviest snowfall of that winter, traffic soon came to a virtual standstill east, west and north of Albuquerque. Eventually, as many as 70 vehicles needed help on old Route 66 through Tijeras Canyon.
But things got worse for Sam, Silver and their fellow passengers as their bus continued south. About seven miles south of Tijeras, at a place called Cedro Canyon, their bus got stuck in the snow. Despite considerable effort by its driver, the bus could not be moved.
The situation grew worse as time passed and the temperature dropped. The bus driver kept the heater going but his 10 passengers knew that they might all freeze to death if the vehicle ran out of gas and the heater shut down. Something had to be done, and quickly.
To the rescue
It was at this point that Sam offered what sounded like a foolhardy solution: he volunteered to go get help.
But how could a blind man make it through white-out conditions with night quickly approaching? The answer was simple. Sam was already blind so that neither blowing snow nor the darkness of night were obstacles to him. He knew the route from his frequent trips down this same road as a passenger in cars and buses over the years.
And Sam had Silver, his faithful guide dog that could be relied on to help Sam deal with almost every difficulty, from strong winds to three-foot snow drifts.
Sam, Silver and a passenger named Antonio Padilla plowed through the snow until they reached a ranch house about five miles from the stranded bus. After summoning aid, Sam, Silver and Padilla headed back to the bus. They made steady progress until Padilla collapsed from exhaustion, unable to take another step. Although only 5-foot, 6-inches tall and 155 pounds., Sam carried Padilla the rest of the way to the stranded bus.
A wrecker from Albuquerque arrived about half an hour after Sam, Silver and Padilla’s return. The passengers and their driver were safe after 10 hours of dread and anxiety.
News of Sam’s heroic act spread far and wide. Sam, in fact, received an award from the American Humane Society on Sept. 16, 1946. With Silver at his side, Sam’s neighbors cheered him at a ceremony held during the annual fiesta in Manzano.
The story followed Sam through the years, including in 1957 when he visited the New Mexico House of Representatives. Rep. Fred Ortiz (D, Rio Arriba) introduced Sam, describing his heroic rescue in considerable detail.
Sam would always be known as the blind man who, with his guide dog, Silver, rescued a bus and its passengers, despite the incredible odds against them in a formidable storm.
A blessed award
New Mexico celebrated the courage of another resourceful blind person in 1946. Like Sam Chavez, Cecelia “Celia” Lovato had been blind from birth and had attended the New Mexico School for the Blind.
Celia’s teachers chose her prize-winning essay, “Failure is Impossible,” to be read at her graduation ceremonies in May 1946. She soon landed a job as a secretary at the Barelas Community Center in Albuquerque.
Celia had three goals following graduation. First, she wanted to purchase a guide dog with the money she earned at the community center. Second, she hoped to raise enough money to take her new dog to be trained at the Seeing-Eye Institute in Morristown, N.J. Finally, with a guide dog at her side, Celia planned to earn a college degree in education so she could teach.
Newspapers reported the 22-year-old’s admirable ambitions “captured the imagination” of Albuquerque residents, especially when the odds of achieving her goals seemed remote. Celia kept hearing from the guide dog school that she would have to wait because the school was swamped with applications from veterans of World War II who, having lost their vision in combat, had a higher priority in obtaining dogs and getting them trained. Even if she made it to the top of the waiting list, she would need hundreds of dollars for the trip to New Jersey and to pay the institute’s tuition.
But Celia was determined to succeed with a degree of courage that equaled Sam’s determination to rescue passengers on a stranded bus. With help from organizations like LULAC and the Alianza Hispano-Americana, she began what we might call a “go-fund-me” campaign. Starting in September 1946, contributions arrived from many groups and individuals.
Employees at the Rio Grande Welding Co. pooled their resources and contributed $12. Children at the Santa Ana Pueblo day schools gave pennies, nickels and dimes equaling $9. Teens at Washington Junior High School gave $43.68. Members of the Albuquerque Women’s Club raised $100 at a benefit party. Carrie Tingley, New Mexico’s flamboyant former First Lady, gave $10.
With contributions large and small, Celia’s trust fund grew to $700 by the end of October, $808 by the end of the year and $900 (more than $10,000 in today’s money) by the end of January 1947. Local newspapers reported the campaign’s steady progress from week to week.
We don’t know how, where or when Celia Lovato and Sam Chavez met. They may well have admired what each had accomplished despite their visual challenges. All we know is that the couple met, became engaged and were rather quickly married on New Year’s Day, 1947.
The ceremony took place at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Bernalillo. A reception followed at Celia’s family home and at the Barelas Community Center that evening. Friends, family and all those who donated to Celia’s campaign were invited to attend.
Sam Chavez was thus doubly blessed with an award from the Animal Humane Society in September 1946 and a new marriage with a bright young woman just five months later.
A German Shepherd, much like Sam Chavez’s guide dogs, Silver, Syvia and Canya.
A 1940’s Greyhound bus traveling in terrain much like Route 14 South in New Mexico.
Headline in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Sept. 17, 1946.
Sam led an active life in the coming years. At various times, he lived in San Juan (Veguita), Manzano, Albuquerque, Chimayo and Las Nutrias. Many good neighbors helped him through the years.
In 1957, for example, Reuben Sandoval, of Chimayo, organized a committee to help Sam remodel his home soon after Sam moved into the village. Later, Rose Barncastle, a friend in Albuquerque, gave him rides to places he needed to go to in the city and as far away as Santa Fe.
Sam worked as a piano tuner, a weaver, a chair caner and a farmer. He also worked as an interpreter for the courts and at political meetings and rallies. An ardent Democrat, he is said to have translated speeches with more enthusiasm and eloquence than the politicians themselves.
Sam served as a campaign aide and ran for the office of state representative, although he lost in a primary election in 1958. He was chosen as a delegate to the state Democratic convention held in Albuquerque in 1964.
Sam also became active in the New Mexico affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. He attended state conventions held in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Glorieta. He was elected the organization’s vice president in 1959 and was one of New Mexico’s three delegates at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind held in Miami, Fla. He visited the French Quarter in New Orleans, La., en route to Miami that year, 1960.
According to the Rio Grande Sun, Sam was a talented man who enjoyed “composing memorials and Spanish songs.”
But Sam faced deep valleys as well. He and Celia were married only five months before she filed for divorce, claiming incompatibility, perhaps due to the vast difference in their ages. By 1956, he had married another blind woman, Maria Amadea Vigil, of Chimayo. Maria also filed for divorce, once in 1971 and again, after an apparent reconciliation, in 1975.
Other challenges were sadly typical for visually-impaired men and women in mid-20th century America. Four examples come to mind.
First, in 1947, when Sam had called for a cab in Albuquerque, the driver did not allow Sam to bring Silver into his vehicle. When Sam objected, the driver reportedly handled Sam roughly.
Seeking $5,000 in compensation, Sam filed a civil suit against the Black and White Cab Co. Sam won the case in district court, but was awarded just $1 in damages. The case made the news as far away as San Antonio, Texas.
In 1948, Sam and Silver were walking on South Fourth Street when they were hit by a motorist backing out of a driveway. The car knocked Sam down, only bruising him, but injuring Silver quite seriously.
Realizing that Sam was blind, the motorist refused to disclose his name and license number. Fortunately, a passerby jotted down the license number so the police could track the driver down in what amounted to a hit-and-run accident. Descriptions of Sam’s encounter ran in newspapers not only in New Mexico, but also in Arizona, Oregon and Utah.
We do not know if Silver’s injuries led to his death, but by 1952 Sam had acquired a new dog, named Sylvia. We first learn of Sylvia because in 1954 Sam reported her missing from his backyard at 430 Pacific SW in Albuquerque. Although he recalled tying her securely, she had somehow strayed from the property or been stolen.
We know that Sylvia had returned home by early 1955 because by that date one of Sam’s neighbors in Barelas had reported him to the police, accusing him of cruelty to animals. Sam was accused of beating, kicking and strangling his guide dog.
The authorities took Sylvia to an animal shelter, while Sam was arrested but not detained. The case was soon dismissed in police court. Sam sued the neighbor, the arresting officer and the city of Albuquerque. The outcome of the suit is unknown.
A year later, in a fourth incident, someone shot Sylvia in the leg. Injuries to her paw were sufficiently severe that she remained in an Albuquerque animal hospital for at least a week.
Sam and Sylvia remained familiar sights on the streets of Albuquerque and Española when they lived in or near those cities. The man and his dog were inseparable for 14 years, until Sylvia became ill and died in May 1966.
Sam’s next guide dog was sent from Pilot Guides, Inc., of Columbus, Ohio. Canya, a 26-month-old German Shepherd, arrived soon after Sylvia’s death. A 1966 photo of Sam and Canya in the Santa Fe New Mexican showed the pair as Sam became one of the first patrons of the New Mexico state library’s services for the blind.
Being refused access to public transportation, being struck by a hit-and-run driver and being the victim of possible theft and the intentional shooting of his guide dog, these were the unjust indignities that Sam and many other visually impaired Americans often suffered in their lives.
Sam fought for his rights in court, in the press and through the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico.
Sam died at his home in Albuquerque on Dec. 2, 1981. With the Romero Funeral Home of Belen in charge of arrangements, Sam was buried at the San Ysidro Catholic cemetery in Las Nutrias.
Sam’s gravestone has no epitaph, just his name and the dates of his birth and death. If an epitaph were added, some might suggest that it should refer to Sam’s blindness.
But such an epitaph would be insufficient because Sam was much more than his visual impairment. Given all that he had done in his 77 years, his epitaph might better read:
June 3, 1904, to Dec. 2, 1981
New Mexico Hero
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society since 1998.
Special thanks to Greg Trapp, executive director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, for his expert, kind assistance in the writing of this column.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s alone and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
Richard Melzer, guest columnist
Richard Melzer, Ph.D., is a retired history professor who taught at The University of New Mexico–Valencia campus for more than 35 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Valencia County Historical Society for 30 years; he has served as the society’s president several times.
He has written many books and articles about New Mexico history, including many works on Valencia County, his favorite topic. His newest book, a biography of Casey Luna, was published in the spring of 2021.
Those interested in joining the Valencia County Historical Society should contact Dr. Melzer at [email protected].