For 53 years, local historians have collaborated and celebrated our vast history and heritage as the Valencia County Historical Society.
This past weekend, the VCHS, which was founded in 1969, came together via a Zoom meeting to honor those who have worked to protect and preserve our past.
Richard Melzer, the organization’s president, started off the online meeting reminding members of its revised mission — “The mission of the Valencia County Historical Society is to encourage and support the appreciation, education and preservation of the diverse heritage of Valencia County.”
Before the awards were announced, the board voted for its board of directors, including Melzer as president, John Taylor as vice-president, Sandy Schauer as secretary, Roberta Scott as treasurer, and directors Matt Baca, Cynthia Shetter, Kathleen Pickering, Louis Huning Jr. and Jim Sloan.
The first award the society announced was the Rio Abajo Award, which goes to someone who has done the most in terms of long-term service to the Valencia County Historical Society. This year’s recipient is Roberta Scott.
“She certainly deserves it,” Melzer said of Scott. “She’s been our able treasurer for many years, and she is also the treasurer for the Historical Society of New Mexico. She’s been a board member for many years, she volunteers at the (Los Lunas Museum of Heritage & Arts) and was on the advisory board at the University of New Mexico-Valencia campus for many years. She’s a historian, and is especially interested in women’s suffrage issues.”
This year’s Historic Preservation Award was presented by Maggie McDonald. She said the award is given to individuals who seek to preserve the heritage of a building’s history and its significance, and serves to maintain and celebrate the community’s pride in it’s historic past.
“Preserving historic buildings helps us to define the community,” McDonald said. “By preserving a building, we tell the story of how a place was and how it connects with us in the present.”
In 1985, the Torres family, Pete and Hortencia; their daughters, Joell and Johnnah; and their son, Jay, came together to preserve the medical office building of Dr. W.F. Wittwer, which was built in 1913 on land purchased from the Solomon Luna estate.
“They started the well-known Teofilo’s Restaurante in Los Lunas, and the Torres family were able to connect and link and educate the past information through memories and a considerable collection of photographs,” McDonald said.
In 2009, the family purchased the historic Luna Mansion across the street, and continued to preserve the building and operated a fine-dining restaurant. In 2020, the family decided to close the restaurant.
“They have gone above and beyond to maintain the important history of our county and of Los Lunas,” McDonald said.
“Hopefully, we can reopen sometime in the future,” Hortencia Torres said of the Luna Mansion. “Hopefully the mansion will come alive again. Let’s keep pushing for the village (of Los Lunas) to buy it.”
The next award, the Red Brick Award, was presented by Jim Sloan to Mary Hahn, a longtime volunteer at the Belen Harvey House Museum.
“Mary Hahn has been there for many years, and was instrumental in getting the branch library at the Harvey House, which features Southwest history, local history, and anything Fred Harvey,” Sloan said. “She also has been helping with digitalizing the newspaper. She’s very valuable to us, and she’s even been able to catalog the names of all Harvey House employees, from chefs and cooks, Harvey girls or just about anybody.
“She’s loves researching,” he added. “She’s probably gone through every newspaper from 1913 to the 1940s looking for all things Harvey House. She’s been a very helpful person, and she needs to be recognized.”
The Educator of the Year award was presented to Brent Jeffrey Thomas, an art teacher at Valencia Middle School.
“I’m so proud of Brent; he was one of my best students over all the years I taught,” Melzer said of Thomas. “He went into education, and he’s done so well there. He’s been at Valencia Middle School since 2014, and before that, he was involved in the arts in the schools program.”
Melzer said Thomas teaches his students history through their art, including Native American history, Hispanic history and cultural history.
“He also teaches New Mexico history,” Melzer said. “It’s great to see him succeed. Brent has also done several covers for several of our books, and they’re all beautiful and we really appreciate them.”
John Taylor, the president of the VCHS, presented the last award — the Lifetime Achievement Award — to Melzer.
“He was part of the original faculty of the UNM-Valencia Campus, he’s been a regents professor at UNM, the author of (more than) 30 books on New Mexico history, one of the most knowledgeable, respected and sought-after members of the New Mexico historical community,” Taylor said of Melzer. “I can think of a no more deserving person to receive this Lifetime Achievement Award.
“For Richard, it’s not a Lifetime Achievement Award, it’s a lifetime president’s award,” Taylor joked, “because he’s been president of the group for so long and so many times.”
Melzer thanked the society members, saying he belonged to many historical societies, but his home society — the Valencia County Historical Society — is the one he cares about the most.
To join the historical society, contact president Richard Melzer at [email protected].
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.