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Nuestra Historia - Martinez and Veeder: Fathers of NMHU

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Many readers have asked why Felix Martinez is considered the father of Highlands University, as recognized by the University and mentioned in prior columns. As we continue the story of La Voz del Pueblo, the newspaper Martinez founded here in 1890, we will answer that question — and also tell the story of John DeWitt Veeder, who together with Martinez, helped establish Highlands.

As recounted in our previous column, the election of 1890 saw Felix Martinez and other populists take control of Las Vegas and the entire county, as La Voz del Pueblo united disparate elements to topple the old Republican regime. As the new order emerged, salutary consequences would result for Las Vegas, among them the creation in 1893 of New Mexico Normal, to be known later as Highlands University.

The story of Highlands has been meticulously chronicled by renowned historian Maurilio E. Vigil, who in 1993 published his 150-page book, “Defining our Destiny, the History of New Mexico Highlands University.” Based on arduous primary research, Vigil’s book provides the foundation for any narrative about Highlands, and for this and many other of our own narratives, we gratefully acknowledge Vigil’s scholarly works.

In “Defining our Destiny,” Vigil recounts with care and detail the important roles played by both Felix Martinez and John DeWitt Veeder in establishing Highlands University, and Vigil credits both as founders of that institution. Sadly, through the years, Veeder’s key role has been forgotten or ignored, and a correction of that omission is long overdue. As our tale of two cities continues, we will recount how Felix Martinez and John DeWitt Veeder — together — established Highlands University.

The Highlands story begins with the populist revolt described in our previous column, when El Partido del Pueblo Unido swept the 1890 election. Two years later, due in large part to the burgeoning support engendered by La Voz, Felix Martinez himself was elected to the Territorial council (senate), where he was joined by San Miguel County’s other senator, John DeWitt Veeder.

Like many young men of that era, Veeder had been swept by a yearning to travel west, and arrived in Las Vegas in 1882, three years after Martinez had made his way here. Just two years older than Martinez, Veeder too was an ardent Democrat who was entrenched with neither the Anglo “land grabbers” nor the old Republican guard. Veeder quickly became part of the populist coalition supported by Martinez, and their rise to prominence would be equally meteoric.

Born in 1855 in Ulster County, N.Y., Veeder’s Holland-Dutch forebears were among the original colonists of the mid-Hudson Valley, and his family had long been prominent there and in Schenectady. Veeder had studied law at the University of Michigan, and began a busy law practice soon after arriving in Las Vegas. In 1890 he was joined by his younger brother Elmer, also an attorney, and the brothers established the law firm of Veeder & Veeder, in Old Town, on the west plaza — where John DeWitt Veeder would always reside, and where his family would live through the early 1970s.

The Veeder brothers first established their law firm in the imposing building they purchased from Andres Dold, which Dold had constructed in 1880 at the northwest corner of the plaza, across from the Plaza Hotel.

In 1895 the Veeder brothers themselves erected the building immediately next to and south of the Dold edifice, and together the buildings are known to this day as the Veeder Block, with an adjunct carriage house at the corner of Valencia and Hot Springs Boulevard. (The Veeder carriage house was later converted into a residence and was the long-time home of John DeWitt’s and Bessie Veeder’s daughter, Catherine Peterson, and her husband Lawson, and their daughters Mary and Barbara; and in the early 1970s, Bessie Veeder sold the Veeder Block to Las Vegas attorney Donaldo A. “Tiny” Martinez, who maintained his law offices there for many years.)

As Felix Martinez and John DeWitt Veeder arrived in Santa Fe as senators from Las Vegas in early 1893, they would become strong allies and friends. Both progressive Democrats, and both strong-willed, neither was of a character to bend to the irascible Albert B. Fall — who later would become infamous and go to prison for the Teapot Dome scandal which rocked the nation during the administration of President Warren G. Harding.

In 1893, however, Fall had just started in New Mexico politics, as a member of the Territorial Council (senate) from southern New Mexico, and he was determined that a university be established in his part of the Territory, not in Las Vegas. Felix Martinez and John D. W. Veeder would have to outwit and outmaneuver the already wily and crafty Albert Bacon Fall.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.