History runs deep here in Valencia County, and every year the Valencia County Historical Society gathers to honor those who keep that history alive in the present and for the future.

VCHS president Richard Melzer presented awards to four residents and a local group for their efforts to preserve history in Valencia County and educate the public about its importance during a virtual meeting Sunday afternoon.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Valencia County Historical Society president Richard Melzer stands with the society’s annual award winners. They are, from left, Maggie Espinosa McDonald, Lifetime Achievement; Julie Benavidez, Educator of the Year Award; and Cynthia Shetter, Rio Abajo Award. Not pictured, Friends of the Los Lunas Library and Museum of Heritage and Arts, Red Brick Award winner.

The Rio Abajo Award, which goes to someone who does a great deal for the community, continually shows the history of the community and spreads the history and educates people about what’s happening, was given to Cynthia Shetter, the Los Lunas Public Library director.

Melzer said over the years, Shetter has been an invaluable resource to the community and given outstanding service to the VCHS.

“When I think of Cynthia I think of a few words and one in particular is energetic. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever asked Cynthia a question or to get something done and she’s not gotten it done thoroughly,” Melzer said. “She and her crew at the (Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts) are always there to answer any of our questions.”

This years Historic Preservation Award was given to Belen resident Jay Peters. VCHS member Jim Sloan said when Peters and his wife, Kathy, bought the old pub on Becker Avenue, he had a vision to improve not only the building but the community as a whole.

“He’s restored the whole interior and plans to begin work on the exterior facade later this spring,” Sloan said. “This building’s been a passion for him.”

Peters said he and Kathy began their restoration journey about 30 years ago when they bought the old day school on Los Lentes Road in Los Lunas. After replacing more than 80 pieces of glass, extensive cleaning and the addition of 65 gallons of paint, it was ready to move into.

“When we moved to Belen 13 years ago, we decided to invest in our hometown and felt that the historic district would have the most impact. What we are doing is what everyone should do — maintain and improve their property,” Peters said. “We appreciate the recognition and hope it inspires others to do the same. We see great potential in this town and the historic district.”

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Jay Peters was honored by the Valencia County Historical Society with the Historic Preservation Award this year. He’s pictured with his wife, Kathy.

A special award given to continuous volunteer work — the Red Brick Award — was given to the Friends of the Los Lunas Library and Museum of Heritage and Arts this year.

Formed in 2015 with a nine-person board, the friends have been very helpful to both the library and museum over the last few years, Shetter said.

“They’ve helped us by donating money for different projects. Last year, when we had the Spanish Colonial Art exhibit, they were here, helping us sell pieces. They just tirelessly work for the library and the museum,” she said. “They’re helping us educate the community about the past that gives us a sense of time and place now, and they’re also helping with the art and preserving history now so that in 100 years people will be able to view it.”

VCHS member John Taylor presented the Educator of the Year Award to retired Los Lunas Schools administrator and teacher Julie Benavidez.

“She has always been very supportive of us, working to get our books into school libraries,” Taylor said. “Every year, when we asked for nominations for this award, she always had someone. You were always so good about getting them. I think that’s part of the reason Los Lunas teachers usually get the award.”

Melzer introduced the society’s recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award as someone who as history in her DNA. Not only was Margaret Espinoza McDonald’s father an exceptional attorney, he was also a great historian, he said.

“She inherited his skill and, as a result, she’s devoted her entire life to history in many different ways,” Melzer said. “I don’t know how many generations of kids learned New Mexico history from her, and they still recognize her and praise her all the time.”

McDonald was also among the group of dedicated local historians who helped create the Belen Harvey House Museum.

“All those things you see today is a result of Maggie and her efforts go back there to the 1980s when she created an oral history collection,” Melzer said. “It’s so valuable because she interviewed a generation of leaders of our community who are no longer alive.”

Melzer quipped that McDonald was a collector of photographs “even before there was a Jim Sloan.” Sloan is well known in local historical circles for his extensive photo collection of the people and places in Belen, many of which are now long gone.

“It was Maggie McDonald who collected an incredible number of photographs, which are very valuable. We use a lot of them in our book ‘Photographic History of Valencia County.’ She’s been a leader — she was the president of the state historical society twice and this historical society too many times to count.

“So, we want to thank you sincerely, thank you. Thank you from your students and your colleagues, fellow historians and all of Valencia County.”

McDonald said it was an honor to receive the award, and thanked the Valencia County Historic Society.

“I also want to thank the people of the county for their generous sharing of their information and their photos,” McDonald said. “It’s hard to accept an award like this when it was so much fun to do all this history. I also want to thank Richard, who was my mentor, my support and guidance.”

McDonald also thanked her children, Brendan and Katie, for “putting up with lots of macaroni and cheese dinners while I abandoned them. And last I’d like to thank my wonderful husband, Norm, who picked up all the slack while I was wandering all over the county.”

The VCHS also approved their officers for the coming year — Richard Melzer, president; Ronnie Torres, vice-president; Sandy Schauer, secretary; Roberta Scott, treasurer; and directors Andrea Chavez, Cynthia Shetter, Matt Baca, Jim Sloan and John Taylor.

To join the historical society, contact president Richard Melzer at rmelzer@unm.edu.

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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.