BELEN — She was born at the family home in Veguita on Feb. 7, 1930, surrounded by love and family, and she left the world on Feb. 20 much the same way — at her home, with her children and beloved niece.
In between those two events is the story of Mary B. Sanchez — a woman described as tenacious and charismatic by her children.
The youngest of nine children, Sanchez grew up in rural Valencia County as the de facto farmhand, a duty she shared with her father, Evaristo, out of necessity.
By the time she was 14, World War II was in full swing, and all four of her brothers were overseas.
Sanchez and her family suffered a blow in 1944 when her brother, Boleslo Baca, was killed in action. The following summer, she and her father saw the thing that would end the war.
“She and her father got up in the morning, before sunrise, and one morning in July 1945, the sky lit up then went dark again,” said her eldest son, Charles Sanchez.
The Trinity Site is only about 50 miles — as the crow flies — from the family farm in Veguita, and the two had witnessed the detonation of the first atomic bomb.
Sanchez attended school at La Joya and Veguita, finishing school in Belen. There was some resistance from the rural school’s headmaster, since losing her as a student meant losing money. Charles said when he wanted to know why Mary was going to school in Belen, her father simply informed the headmaster that she had learned everything she could from him.
Sanchez graduated from Belen High School in 1949 and from New Mexico State University with a degree in elementary education in 1957.
“It took her eight years because she had to work,” Charles said. “Back then, there weren’t any scholarships or Pell grants.”
Sanchez went on to get her master’s degree from The University of New Mexico in educational administration. She taught for the Belen Consolidated Schools, in Socorro County and southern New Mexico, and became an elementary school principal after seven years of teaching.
In 1977, she was appointed as the superintendent of the Belen Consolidated Schools, becoming one of the first Hispanic female superintendents in the nation. She also served four years as superintendent of the Reserve Schools.
“She was able to accomplish what she did because of the tremendous support from our father,” her daughter, Valerie, said. “All of her goals, he was very dedicated to helping her achieve them. Once she had achieved something, she was ready to go on to the next.
“And she was very vocal about them. She said she wanted to be a principal, superintendent. If anyone told her she couldn’t, she just worked harder.”
To help others achieve their goals, Sanchez helped establish Effective Leadership Services, a consulting firm that supported and prepared women throughout the country in becoming school superintendents.
In 1978, she was awarded the NMSU Distinguished Alumna for the College of Education, and in 1985, she was appointed regent of NMSU.
As a member of the board of regents, Charles remembers his mother using her influence with the school’s president on a few occasions to get a Belen student admitted.
“Maybe their grades or scores weren’t the best but she knew they had that drive to succeed, and they completed college and had successful careers,” he said.
Sanchez was someone who valued drive over intelligence, Charles said.
“She felt if you put your mind to it and work hard, you can accomplish your goals,” he said. “She really tried to help others, people in the community who had the same drive as her, to give them the same opportunities as her.”
Because her undergraduate grades weren’t the best, Sanchez’s original application to UNM was rejected. A convincing letter of recommendation, lauding her drive and ambition got her a second look and admission into the program.
That drive carried her through long days working on her degree — up every morning to cook a hot breakfast for her family, then off to teach in the morning, followed by an afternoon of classes and a late night of studying.
Never afraid of work or a challenge, Sanchez championed the establishment of a local bank — the Bank of Belen, now known as United Business Bank. As one of the organizing members, Sanchez spent several years selling shares to investors, selling the most by far, Charles said.
Sanchez wasn’t all ambition and work though — her children were a cherished part of her life, with her leading by example and teaching them what was expected.
When chores needed to be done, they all knew what they were expected to do after school, along with homework.
“But she was a participant. She didn’t give orders,” Charles said. “She would make things look interesting.”
Her daughter, Renee, remembers her childhood home being a place where their friends were always welcome.
“Our friends were always invited to come to our home. It was always open to other people,” Renee said. “Hospitality was very important.”
Ever the educator, Sanchez and her family frequently took cleverly disguised educational trips to national parks, traveling as far as California and as close as Carlsbad. A cooler full of sandwiches and drinks and the promise of a swimming pool if they were going to stay at a hotel, was enough to get everyone in the car.
Charles said a celebration for her 80th birthday put much of his mother’s life in perspective. Attending the fete were childhood friends, high school chums, college friends, professional acquaintances and adult friends.
“All these people from different generations and walks of life and the common denominator was her,” he said.
The lasting memory Sanchez leaves for her children is that they were loved and cherished, respected and appreciated.
“She had a way of making all her kids feel like the favorite,” Charles said of himself and his five siblings.
When asked how she did so much and accomplished so many things, Valerie said her mother would tell people she couldn’t have done it without her children.
“She appreciated what we did,” she said. “She was always grateful and positive.”