Joseph Lopez moved to Belen in 1993 from Idaho, and, soon afterwards, his wife and he split, leaving him with five children to raise by himself.

“There I was, alone with five children,” Lopez said. “I don’t think they underestimated me. They just thought it was insurmountable odds, that I would succeed at raising children.”

Peter, 4, was the youngest at the time, while Stephanie was the oldest, at 17. Lauren, Joseph and Bessie were all of school age.

For Lopez, his day consisted of leaving the house at 4:30 a.m. for work at Intel as a pipe welder and getting home around 6:30 p.m.

“My children assumed a lot of the duties in the household,” Lopez said.

But when it came to cooking, laundry and doing dishes, Lopez took that on after welding pipe all day.

Despite the family hardships, all of his children graduated from high school. Lauren, 18, just graduated from Belen High School with a 4.8 grade point average and valedictorian honors. Lauren will attend the University of New Mexico on a Presidential Scholarship in the fall, and she plans to go on to study law.

One person told Lopez that he “must have done something right,” after learning that Lauren graduated with honors.

“All I did was provide her the space to do what she had to do,” Lopez said. “We got a letter from the State of New Mexico Legislature that said she had the highest grade point average in the state.”

Lauren said she plans on becoming an attorney, and she appreciates what her father has done.

“He’s always there when I really need him,” she said. “I don’t always get what I want, but I always get what I need.”

Lopez just plunked down the money to pay for Lauren’s car insurance — no small piece of change for teen-driving rates.

Daughters Bessie, 22, and Stephanie, 24, are currently living in Seattle, Wash. Bessie is manager of The Three Girls Bakery, located near the University of Washington campus, while Stephanie works for a plumbing contractor. Stephanie’s duties include ordering parts and tracking inventory. She also gave Lopez his first granddaughter, Mahri.

“My oldest daughter, Stephanie, set the standard,” Lopez said. “She told me, ‘You’re the best mother I ever had.'”

Lopez may have earned “mother” honors from Stephanie, but he admits that he had help. When things got rough, Lopez found himself calling on neighbors Vena and Leo Mendoza of Veguita.

“They were a tremendous source of support for me,” Lopez said. “There were times I just didn’t know what to do. I knew nothing about little girls.”

When the girls got older, there were more difficult times.

Sometimes, for more personal situations with the girls, he’d immediately telephone his sister in Prescott, Ariz., to ask for advice. Sister’s wisdom got him through those dilemmas.

While raising five children kept him busy, his children also taught him a thing or two.

“I learned patience, tolerance and compassion,” he said. “It produced in me the idea to have random acts of kindness in my life.”

Lopez’s son Joey, 20, lives in Belen and could use an act of kindness in finding a job, having been laid off. Peter, 17, moved to Idaho three years ago to live with his mother.

Joey recalls the times when the family lived in the country and things were not so easy.

“It was an hour-and-a-half ride to school, when we lived in Veguita,” Joey said.

“He’d take us to Golden Corral for dinner any time he could,” Joey said. “He’s our ‘phat’ cool Daddy.”

Now that the bulk of his child-rearing duties are over, Lopez is feeling the ’empty nest’ blues.

“Now that I don’t have any children to raise, I do feel a little lonely,” Lopez said.

“I spend a lot of time on the golf course now.”

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Bruce Warren