A man for all reasons

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Willie Salas

By Lupita Gonzales

The trim gentleman in a cowboy hat, rain slicker and cowboy boots strides across the already snow-covered entryway: one could almost imagine his, “Howdy, Ma’am” greeting.

But no, that was not his utterance, and as he crossed the threshold into the house, he wiped his boots on the mat. Despite his outward appearance, this was no “rowdy cowboy.”

Roberto William, or as many know him — Willie Salas — is a home-grown native Las Vegan, although he now maintains a residence in Rio Rancho. Born in July 1948, Willie was raised in the area once known as El Arroyo de la Manteca, generally situated in an area along New Mexico Avenue.

Willie’s parents, Antonio and Silveria Salas, raised seven children, Lorenzo (Pepe), recently deceased; Teresa; Carmen; Willie; Mike; Judy; and Jose Pablo (Paul). His father, Willie recalls, was “one of the top ropers at El Rancho de los Salas in the Piedra Lumbre area. “We always had horses, but I was the only one of my brothers that caught on.” In fact, Willie proudly admits that he later went on to establish a rodeo club — The Rough Riders — in Sapello.

He recalled his growing-up years, especially important Christmas memories. “La pobreza, but we were happy that we were able to come together. Then Willie clarified: “…well, we were not poor,” but “no teniamos las cosas que otros tenian — cosas modernas.” (we didn’t have the modern things others had).”

He said his family grew up with “los valores, las vertudes de nos antepasados (the values and virtues of our ancestors).”

Regarding economic conditions — in education, and the general population in northeastern New Mexico, Willie, cracking a smile, opined that this area has always been in a depression: “We’re kind of lucky … we could always sell wood, Christmas trees and flagstone.”

He was quick to say, however, that regarding education as a whole, there is not enough money. “If we want quality service and education, we need to pay for it and there is a marked need for school systems to be accountable and to have leadership that exhibits strength, direction and vision. We need to know where the money is going. And with the new governor coming in, she is going to have to streamline.”

In the ensuing years, Willie has experienced various life passages, and when duty in its various forms called, he responded. His school years were spent in Las Vegas. Recalling that Spanish was his first language, he said that back then, many educators tended to label him and his peers as special needs students. Nevertheless, he reflects, “All of the veterans (Vietnam era) who came from our barrio eventually earned college degrees.”

Willie is one of those who completed a college degree. Drafted at age 18, Willie joined the Marines and did not earn his high school diploma. “I spent my prom night in Vietnam.” After 18 months in Vietnam, he returned to Las Vegas in 1969, earned his GED, and, spurred by the GI Bill, enrolled at NMHU as a “provisional student”: “I had to prove myself,” he said, also explaining that most of the veterans at that time were under that program. He completed his degree in education in 1973, but, he says, “I never walked the (graduation) line.”

 Yet, one could say that he “walked the line” in many other ways, as he worked in educational venues for 32 years. He emphasized, “I have always been supportive of schooling.” Among the most gratifying moments of his educational career, he cites instances of former students approaching him, saying, “Mr. Salas, I’m working on my Ph.D., thanks to you.”

Salas’ educational service ranged from administrative, instructional and planning tasks at the University of New Mexico, Highlands University, Luna Community College and with New Mexico governmental agencies, setting up veteran programs statewide. During his spare time, Willie kept in touch with Sapello Elementary, now known as Mike Mateo Sena Elementary, providing support for students, founding the PTO, donating a tree to the school each year, and, notably, for 20 years, playing Santa Claus for the children.

Willie is quick to add that he certainly did not do it alone, voicing his thanks to the all the parents staff, teachers and support staff, especially Mary Lucero, Josie Mascarenas and Juanita Salas, who were dedicated and willing to help create a positive atmosphere for the children. He also emphasized that the Rociada, San Ignacio, Las Tusas, La Tewa and Gascon residents deserved credit for their support of the school.

Salas said that it was because of his daughter, Patricia, born in 1974, that he became so involved with the Sapello school. When Patricia began school in 1980, he began active involvement: he has extended his efforts through the years that Patricia’s children have attended school. He is proud that his daughter is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in psychology at UNM.

Patricia’s children, five boys and one girl — DeAngelo Cruz, Isaiah Sebastian, DeLeon Aliah, Santino, Cyprus Jovanna and Marciano Rodriguez are clearly Willie’s pride and joy, as well.

Asked about his involvement in politics, Salas admits to being “very involved, up front, for a time,” but currently is “behind the curtain” because he lacks the time and has experienced some disillusionment.

He served as a county commissioner during what he described as “a time of turmoil” and was a delegate to Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam Wall, along with John Garcia, Jose Pablo Salas and Danny Ciddio where about 40,000 Vietnam veterans representing all the states marched in the parade.

He also has been a featured speaker at numerous veteran functions and continues to be involved in veteran support efforts.

Perhaps one would expect someone with such far-ranging experiences to be self-righteous, but Willie’s closing remark indicates otherwise. He imparted this sentiment to the readership: “If I have ever harmed anybody, please forgive me.”