RIO COMMUNITIES — He was a judge, a historian, a professor, a writer, a mentor, a friend and a dad. He was retired 13th Judicial District Court Judge John W. Pope, and he was loved and is adoringly remembered.
Pope was 74 years old when he died on Tuesday, May 18. His daughters said he had been ill for several years, and his condition had recently gotten worse, having been in in-patient hospice care the last week of his life.
The former judge served for nearly 20 years on the bench, presiding over thousands of criminal and civil cases.
“One of the things I wanted to do when I started as a judge here is kind of look at the whole picture — not just the judge part — but being part of looking at the problems and seeing if we could solve them,” Pope said in an interview with the News-Bulletin in 2005. “What I’d like to see is that we do recognize that we do have problems but, at the same time, we have opportunities.”
During his nearly-two decades on the bench, Pope made an impact on the community, from teaching political science at The University of New Mexico-Valencia campus for more than 20 years to dressing up as Santa Claus for foster children to serving as president of the Valencia County Historical Society and implementing Juvenile Drug Court in Valencia County.
In return, Pope received many accolades, including getting the 2005 Outstanding Judicial Service Award from the State Bar of New Mexico. He was also named Citizen of the Year by both the Valencia County Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce, and twice received Outstanding Part-Time Instructor awards in 1996 and 2003 at UNM-Valencia.
During that same interview with the News-Bulletin, Pope joked he felt he didn’t have a life outside his professional and community obligations.
“This is my life. Public service is my life,” he said. “I’ve always had a strong belief that, if you’re blessed and have skills, you owe it to give back those skills to the community — there’s a balance there.”
Pope was forced to retire in March 2012 after testing positive for alcohol consumption — a violation of his probation set by the New Mexico Supreme Court. He owned his flaws, and sought help for his alcoholism.
Through it all, Pope’s daughters, Erin, Ana and Lauren, said their father was and still is loved by many, most of all by them. They have a lifetime of fond memories, which will now help them through their grief.
“He wasn’t strict,” Erin said of her father. “He didn’t have a lot of rules for us to live by, but he did make sure we took responsibility.”
“He expected a lot from us — self discipline,” Ana said. “He didn’t care what you did as long as you didn’t cause any problems.”
As an avid historian, Pope taught his children the value of history. Lauren will always treasure the trips and lessons her father taught them.
“To me, my favorite time with him was when we were traveling,” Lauren said. “He loved going to new places — mom-and-pop places, especially on the Oregon coast.
“We would also travel over the summer and visit a lot of historical sites,” she said. “He loved going to Civil War sites and national parks. He wanted us to see where things happened.”
Describing her dad as having a great sense of humor, Ana recalls the jokes he got from his joke books he would use in his speeches at different functions. She also said Pope loved New Mexico and Valencia County.
“I can’t picture him living anywhere else,” Ana said.
Pope not only loved living here, he was inspired by and respected the people of Valencia County.
“Every time he went to a political function, he would go in and thank all the servers, cooks, whether he was involve in the organization,” Ana said. “He made sure he would notice everyone and thank them for doing what they do. He taught us everyone deserves acknowledgement.”
Pope’s three daughters are very proud of their father, and say even though he was a very public person, he considered himself to be quite shy.
“To us, he was just our father,” Erin said. “What ever he was to everyone else, he was just Daddy.”
Dr. Richard Melzer, a retired history professor at UNM-Valencia, was friends with Pope for about 35 years.
“Judge Pope did so much for our community. He taught night classes at the UNM-Valencia campus for years, served as the president of the Valencia County Historical Society, and wrote historical articles, including a history of our local courthouses,” Melzer said. “And yet he was never too busy to answer a thorny legal question or discuss a complex current issue. We have lost a brilliant man and a good friend.”
Bernadette Nelson, who worked as Pope’s trial court administrator for 19 1/2 years, admired him as judge but mostly as a friend.
“He was such a knowledgeable and compassionate person,” Nelson said of Pope. “He was a great boss; so lenient; he let me run the office for him. I enjoyed working for him, despite of ups and downs, it was really good. I really had no regrets, just admiration for him.”
The last time Nelson saw or spoke to Pope was at his retirement party, a day she says was very emotional for everyone.
“I think he was an excellent judge,” she said. “He would take everything into consideration. He would come out of the courtroom saying because he made both sides mad, he must have made the right decision.”
One of the funny memories Nelson has of Pope is his affinity for not wearing his shoes — in and out of the courtroom.
“As soon as he would come into the office, he would take off his shoes,” Nelson remembers. “He just wanted to be as comfortable as possible. If it was up to him, he’d have a comfy chair in there, too.”
For Nelson, Pope was more than just a boss and a mentor, she said.
“He taught me a lot, and what a Godsend he was for me,” It was him and I. He was a great friend.”
Pope’s legacy has had a lasting affect on the people of Valencia County, a place he treasured.
“I love Valencia County,” Pope said in 2012. “It’s got that rural atmosphere, a great history and it’s just different than any other place that I’ve ever seen. The people have always been very kind and diverse.”
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.