By Jesus L. Lopez
For the Optic
It all started at La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe on Tuesday, May 19 1970. Meeting in a private room of the hotel’s second floor, the Highlands University Board of Regents named Charles Graham of Wisconsin to succeed Tom Donnelly as president of the university – and the momentous events which followed remain at once the darkest and brightest days in the history of Highlands University.
After Donnelly announced his retirement in 1969, the Board of Regents initiated a search for his replacement, advertising in newspapers and professional journals throughout the country. The regents also named a screening committee consisting of faculty members and one student, to be headed by professor Lynn I. Perrigo, longtime chairman of the university’s History and Political Science Department. (Perrigo also served as adviser to the Las Vegas Consolidation Commission from 1968 to 1970, and in 1982 published “Gateway to Glorieta,” his acclaimed history of Las Vegas.)
After reviewing more than 200 applications, the screening committee narrowed the list and recommended 18 aspirants to the Board of Regents, who then settled on five finalists and interviewed them in April 1970. Among the five were Charles J. Graham, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Wisconsin State University at Whitewater, and John A. Aragon, head of the Cultural Awareness Center at the University of New Mexico, both holding doctoral degrees.
Finally, on May 19 1970, four of the five regents met at La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe to make their decision. (Regent Margaret Driscoll did not attend.) After a heated argument during the meeting, Regent Joe L. Otero stormed out of the room and refused to participate further. The remaining regents, Chairman John D. Robb, Stuart Beck and Frank Peloso, continued with the meeting, and Robb later announced that Charles Graham had been selected as the new president of Highlands University. (Why the regents met at La Fonda, whether their gathering was a “secret” meeting, and whether Chairman Robb had hired Graham in advance of the meeting, would be subjects of ardent debate and litigation in the months that followed.)
Within hours of the announcement, the Highlands campus was abuzz as students hurriedly met in small groups and by telephone to discuss Graham’s selection. The next day, in an emergency meeting called by student body President Bernie Price, the university’s Student Senate adopted a resolution imploring the Board of Regents to reconsider its decision, and charging that the regents had unlawfully discriminated against John Aragon, one of the five finalists interviewed by the Board.
Believing the resolution would be summarily ignored by the regents, students also decided that more aggressive action was imperative, and it was at this early juncture that student leaders made a conscious decision to resist Graham’s appointment, and to embark on a path of dissent and protest — with the aim of both convincing the regents to reconsider, and bringing attention and scrutiny to the their refusal to name a Hispanic president.
Though no one student was elected or designated to lead the rebellion which was about to start, a core group came together and assumed a pivotal leadership role that would endure through the many protests and demonstrations that followed, and continue through the protracted and sensitive negotiations which would finally end the unrest at Highlands University in the spring and summer of 1970.
The student leaders who emerged were in their middle to late 20s, and most were Vietnam era veterans. They included Student Senate president Bernie Price, who was from Chicago and had served in the Marine Corps from 1961 to 1966, including a tour in Vietnam. Price, whose father was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, would receive B.A. and M.A. degrees from Highlands and re-enter the military, retiring as a U.S. Army major. (Bernie Price died in Herndon, Va., in 2013, at age 70.)
Francisco E. Gonzales, a student senator from Ranchos de Taos, also assumed an important leadership role, and would become a persuasive orator, spokesman and key negotiator during the protests. Also a Vietnam era veteran, Gonzales was in his early 30s and a little older than other student leaders, but equally (and passionately) committed to civil rights and the cause of New Mexico Hispanics and Native Americans.
Other Highlands students who quickly assumed leadership roles as events began to unfold at the university, were Albert C. Ortega, who was from Albuquerque and has long been deceased, Cristino B. Griego from Corrales, Harvey Valenzuela of Lake Arthur, a small community in southeastern New Mexico, and Arturo E. Vargas of Taos. Except for Ortega, they too were Vietnam era veterans.
On May 20 1970, the day after the Board of Regents announced Graham’s appointment, student leaders organized a protest rally outside Ilfeld Auditorium, then led hundreds of students on a march to the Old Town Plaza — as the Highlands revolution began.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.