First Highlands president was a visionary

-A A +A

The first president of New Mexico Normal School was an Illinois farmer’s son whose love of learning led him far beyond the one-room schools where he started his education.

Edgar Lee Hewett, born in 1865, attended local rural schools and graduated at the top of his class.

He took a county teachers’ examination and qualified for a certificate with near perfect scores.

He worked and attended teachers’ college, teaching there and at other normal schools in the state. He took a break from the classroom to study law, but decided education was his field.

He became a school principal, then a superintendent in Florence, Colo. He was offered a position at the Normal School in Greeley, Colo.

His love of the outdoors led him and his wife, Cora, to spend their free time camping, and he explored and made notes about the ancient ruins of Southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Between 1890 and 1896, his interest in archaeology grew, and soon Hewett was lecturing about pueblo ruins and the need to study and preserve them.

Frank Springer, a lawyer and rancher from Cimarron, heard him speak, and suggested that Hewett be invited to give a series of lectures in Las Vegas.

Springer was president of the board of regents of the Normal School, and he recommended Hewett for the presidency of the new institution.

Hewett signed his contract in August 1898, when he was 33 years old. His salary was $2,000, and his contract was to run for five years.

Besides the appeal of having a new institution he could develop in accordance with his educational vision, the Las Vegas move provided another benefit to Hewett: Pecos and the hundreds of other Anasazi ruins were closer to home. He spent his summers doing research on the little-known subject of ancient Southwestern cultures.

But Hewett had notions about education that contradicted accepted practices. He saw the value of field trips for students, he hired women as science department heads, and he encouraged one-on-one teaching techniques.

In addition to building Normal School’s enrollment and exploring pueblo ruins, Hewett joined the lively Santa Fe scientific community, becoming an establishing member of the Archaeological Society of New Mexico. Relationships formed from this group led to his lobbying in Washington for legislation that would preserve and protect the unique legacy of the Southwest’s ancient people.

But it also led to trouble back at Normal. Some important people thought his educational philosophy too lenient; others disliked his summers spent in the ruins; and his preservationist politics didn’t sit well with ranchers and major landowners. Hewett’s contract was not renewed in 1903, but he had created a lively, progressive institution whose excellence had been noted nationwide.

And he was headed for a new career. They sold everything they owned and went to Geneva, Switzerland, where Hewett earned his Ph.D. He returned to the Southwest in 1906, where he researched, studied, worked and developed a remarkable legacy in education, archaeology and anthropology. Among many other achievements, Hewett was:

• foremost in proposing and supporting the Federal Antiquities Act (1906)

• American division director, Archaeological Institute of America (1907)

• founding director, Museum of New Mexico (1909)

• first director, School of American Research (1911)

• establisher of the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe (1917)

• founding professor, Department of Anthropology, UNM (1929)

Edgar Lee Hewett fostered a vision of excellence, innovation and strong student-teacher relationships in the fledgling New Mexico Normal. His legacy lives on at New Mexico Highlands University.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the Optic on Feb. 10, 1993. Sources used in the story include NMHU archives and Hewett and Friends: a Biography of Santa Fe’s Vibrant Era by Beatrice Chauvenet.