“It’s up to us”

By Bill Knief

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The flyer reads simply, “In memory of Mary, family and friends have established the Mary Baca Olguin Scholarship for students at the Taos campus of UNM to honor her open and giving nature. It is their wish that the scholarship be awarded to a student in need majoring in social work or education.”

I never had the honor of meeting Mary Baca Olguin in person, but it was interesting to me that family and friends would care enough to set up a perpetual endowment to celebrate her “open and giving nature,” so I started asking around.

The first thing I found out was that the fund, set up in November, 2007, on the first anniversary of Mary’s passing, had by March 2008 already exceeded the $15,000.00 mark. This meant that enough money had already been raised to make it possible to grant the first scholarship this fall. Now they are going for $20,000.

How did this come about? UNM-Taos is not exactly famous for its fast track endowment programs.

“The truly remarkable thing is that so many people have stepped forward,” explained Dr. Kate O’Neill, Executive Director of UNM-Taos. “Friends, family and acquaintances of Mary Baca Olguin who honor her legacy with contributions to a scholarship fund which will support students on into the future and honor Mary’s legacy—her dedication to and passion for education.

“We are thrilled to have Mary’s brother, Joe Baca, working closely with us, making connections with all the people who knew and loved Mary and wanted her spirit to live on in the form of contributions that will help our students to succeed.”

Joe Baca, who is getting on in years now but still manages to drop by the administration building on Civic Plaza Drive at least a couple of times a week, is a force to be reckoned with. You get the distinct feeling that his sharp intellect is keeping track of a dozen projects at once.

“To see Joe come in every other day to check the mail is one of those heartwarming stories that affirms your faith in the power of humans to connect and get behind a vision,” O’Neill added. “And that’s really worthwhile.”

“You know,” Baca explained simply, “I can’t stay at home and do nothing. This is what I can do.

“The fifteen thousand came from a number of people in town and in the state, the nation and even in foreign countries,” Baca continued. “We have received checks anywhere from ten dollars to three thousand. And now Chandler (Chandler Barrett, UNM-Taos Planning and Institutional Development Director) thinks we can go to twenty thousand.

“The idea started because my sister Mary was interested in developing a program here in Taos that would bring in support for young people who had experienced trouble in their lives. Her idea was to give those young people training in how to deal with life—how to cook, how to write, to farm, to learn mechanics, home economics—whatever they needed to go forward in life. And a close friend of Mary’s, Corina Santistevan, who is a writer and a teacher and has co-edited several national publications, said that one of the ways to continue such a program would be to establish a scholarship in social work and education. Corina kicked off the scholarship with a thousand dollar donation; this was her way of continuing Mary’s interest in helping these people. And the reaction has been quite positive; we asked, and people responded.”

Mary Baca Olguin’s whole life seems to have been focused on responding to the needs of others. After graduating from Taos High School in 1938, she attended New Mexico State University where she earned a degree in home economics.

After working in the Cooperative Extension Services of Bernalillo, Rio Arriba and Taos counties, in 1957 Mary joined the U.S. Agency for International Development and went to Guatemala for five years where she worked improving the skills of teachers, and teaching basic food preparation and sanitation to the native indigenous population. Her tenure there was described by Jose Antonio Lopez, director of the Rural Socio-Educational Cooperative, in 1962:

“Mary Baca Olguin knew how to imprint on this program a philosophy of love and understanding, her objective being to raise the level of the Guatemalan indigenous woman in the fields of health, economy, nutrition, human relations….Every musical note of this homage we pay her today carries the soft perfume of the most sincere gratitude.”

A newspaper article of the time by Arcadio Ruiz Franco stated, “Where she was needed, there she was…her spiritual proximity is partly due to the fact that she is a native of New Mexico, from a place called Taos…”

From Guatemala she went to Chile for two years to work with the Department of Agriculture teaching home extension and creating women’s clubs and 4H clubs in rural areas. In 1964 the Chilean Club de Economica del Hogar stated of her service, “We did not have anything, now we have everything…now we have the tools with which to work.”

In 1979 she retired and returned to Taos, “and spent the rest of her life in Taos helping people, loving others and sharing her life with them,” according to a brief biography of her life. In 1983 she was named Woman of the Year by the Taos County Women’s Division of the Chamber of Commerce.

Now her life’s work has come full circle, in the form of community philanthropy that has created a scholarship in social work and education. Mary Baca Olguin herself said it best:

“More than ever, we must look within, in our hearts and souls to see what it is that we can do, as individuals, as a community, to make this a better world. It’s up to us.”

Persons wishing more information on this and other philanthropic initiatives can contact Chandler Barrett at (575) 737-6250.

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