Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wes Handy, RIP

The death of Wes Handy, born in 1921, saddens us even as it reminds us that those fortunate enough today to have lived as long as he are among the very few whose lives spanned three major epochs in American life: the age of agriculture, with limited technology, horses, mules, and human labor; the age of industry, symbolized by the dominance of the automobile, steel, and giant factories; and the post-industrial age (we still don't know what to call it, referring only to what we no longer are) in which the digital revolution, global human networking, and brainpower seem to be driving forces.

Wes grew up on a family farm without electricity or running water, and he remembered when his father bought his first tractor. Maturing to adulthood during the golden age of American industrialism, he was well ahead of his time during the last half of his life, not only understanding future needs of American society as the country grew older, but also helping invent appropriate living arrangements for people in the latter stages of their lives, and, not so incidentally, making himself rich in the process. When I would see him and Nadine, however, they were more likely to be surrounded by small children at Little Playmates, not forgetting the formative stages of life.

They donated generously to many educational, religious, and other causes and I owe them a strong personal debt of gratitude for making money available during the 1980s, when funds were very scarce, to make trips to Central America. What national stature I achieved during that decade in the debate over Central America was due in no small part to that generosity. On one occasion their funds enabled me to take two of my students to El Salvador during the middle of the civil war, a trip with scary moments, but which nevertheless had a lasting influence on their lives. They also set up an academic excellence award, and made available a luncheon fund, for occasions when I asked prominent New Mexican politicians to speak to my class on New Mexico politics, so students could mingle socially with the political class of the state, and listen to the arguments and discussion about contemporary themes, in a setting that privileged honest debate.

Wes was a curmudgeon, with a penchant for telling it like it is, boldly, sometimes loudly, without euphemisms, and without fear. In that sense I looked at him as a role model. He had a piercing intelligence that saw things as they were, not as we would wish them to be, but he sided with people who were trying to push the envelope just a bit toward the ideal side. Like many in his, "the finest," generation, he believed we are all in this together and need to work toward social consensus through compromise, countervailing balance, and dialogue--not by imposing easy formulas from ideological textbooks.

I first heard of Wes from the late Sen. Gladys Hansen, about thirty years ago, when I was chairman of the Dona Ana County Democrats. We needed funds, and I asked her who I might hit up. Like most people Gladys spoke about them in the plural, as in "Wes n' Nadine," since they acted inordinately as a team. Wes was generous in giving to the party and his money wasn't contingent on anything, but he made me feel obligated to engage with him as he tested my thoughts about things political, good government always being the target of discussion. When he disagreed with me he let me know it, and I always learned something from the exchange. It was very clear he had absorbed much of the wisdom of the agrarian age, as well as the industrial age, and was struggling with the rest of us to wring some wisdom out of our contemporary condition: he brought an extraordinary depth and breadth of perspective and insight to that struggle.

Goodbye, Wes, you led an exemplary life.

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