Nuestra Historia: Melody falls, Donnelly reign nears end

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It was a Sunday evening on Nov. 21 1965, when Highlands President Tom Donnelly and the university’s regents gathered for dinner and ceremonies at the newly completed dormitory on the west campus. They were joined by dignitaries from throughout New Mexico, including State Sen. Gene Lusk, who would be the Democratic nominee for governor in just a few months, and State Sen. Harold Runnels, who would become a longtime New Mexico congressman.

Regent John D. Robb read congratulatory letters from both Gov. Jack Campbell and Lt. Gov. Mack Easley, and Dean of Women Anne Nanninga spoke on behalf of university staff.

The auspicious occasion was the naming and dedication of the new dormitory and adjacent park in honor of State Sen. Gordon E. Melody, long the power behind Tom Donnelly’s presidency, and the man most responsible for Donnelly’s unprecedented achievements since becoming president in 1952. Melody had represented San Miguel County in Santa Fe since 1948, and was considered the most powerful legislator in New Mexico, chairing both the Senate Finance Committee and the Legislative Finance Committee.

But the winds of change were blowing through Las Vegas. Less than six months after the dedication of Melody Hall and Melody Park, the Optic’s front page headline was “Melody Falls from Senate.” After 18 years, the powerful senator was defeated for re-election in the Democratic primary on May 3, 1966 — and Melody’s unexpected loss would introduce the epilogue for Tom Donnelly’s long reign at Highlands. (Until 1970, New Mexico primary elections were held in May, rather than June.)

Melody’s fall would result in fundamental changes in both the local political power structure, and the state of affairs at Highlands University, and understanding how it occurred is important to appreciate the epochal change that was overtaking Las Vegas at the time.

As noted in our previous column, as early as 1964, District Attorney Tiny Martinez and his Revista Norteña had been castigating the “Donnelly Regime” at Highlands, and the absence of Hispanics at all levels of university affairs and governance. Martinez also believed that change at Highlands would not occur while the university remained under the protection and power of Gordon Melody, New Mexico’s most formidable legislator.

By the winter of 1965, Martinez decided that Melody should be challenged. Meeting at their usual gathering place, Martinez and the “Mama Lucy Gang” came to a consensus that Old Town Mayor Chief Gonzales would be their strongest candidate against Melody. In addition to being mayor of West Las Vegas, Gonzales was also a longtime businessman and respected member of the House of Representatives — and not considered a “militant Chicano.”

The atmosphere was quickly dampened when Gonzales rebuffed the idea. He said he would not give up his House seat, and that it was unlikely he could win anyway, as Melody still controlled the county’s political structure outside Old Town and the West Las Vegas Schools. A practical politician and 20 years older than Tiny Martinez, Gonzales was not swayed by Martinez’ pleas about “the cause,” and said he would not change his mind.

Martinez persisted and continued to meet with Gonzales, meticulously outlining a precinct-by-precinct analysis of support they could garner throughout the county, and the many political stalwarts who had already assured Martinez they would support Gonzales, albeit quietly. Finally convinced, Gonzales agreed to challenge Melody — and what ensued was one of the most hotly contested elections in Las Vegas and San Miguel County politics.

In public speeches and campaign propaganda, Martinez (not Chief Gonzales) made Highlands the issue in the senate race, hammering-away his mantra that no change would come at Highlands unless Melody was defeated. He accused Melody of being the “anchor of the Donnelly Regime,” and pointed to the recently named Melody Hall and Melody Park as examples of the “arrogance of the clique that runs Highlands University.”

Melody touted his seniority and his ability to secure substantial funding for Highlands and other projects throughout the county, but the undercurrent of his campaign was that Chief Gonzales was nothing more than Tiny’s crony, and that Tiny Martinez and his gang needed to be stopped at all costs. His political advertisements brought home the point, noting that San Miguel County needed him “NOW, as never before.”

Election night, Chief Gonzales defeated Gordon Melody by 557 votes, 2,538 to 1,981, and both a long-entrenched power structure and the state of affairs at Highlands University would begin to change. Senator Melody passed away a year later, at the age of 63, and within two years, President Donnelly announced his retirement. (Melody and his wife Oletha are both buried at the Masonic cemetery in Las Vegas.)

Chief Gonzales did not make it to the state senate, however. Following the brutal primary election, embittered Melody-Donnelly partisans supported Republican Junio Lopez in the November general election, and Lopez defeated Gonzales — a decision the “Donnelly Regime” would soon regret, as Sen. Lopez and his Alpha News continued to take up the Hispanic cause at Highlands University.

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