Santa Fe Living Treasures ‚Äď Elder Stories

Although the city’s most historically significant hostelry, La Fonda had fallen on hard times by 1968. Badly rundown and neglected, its rooms were renting for $8 a night, and there was talk of demolishing La Fonda and replacing it with a parking lot. But that was not what Sam and Ethel had in mind. Things got worse before they got better, and soon the Ballens and their group of investors were facing imminent bankruptcy. They persevered, however, and 20 years later La Fonda was one of America’s premier hotels.

While Sam managed the business, Ethel meticulously and artistically was giving La Fonda its unique personality. When they took over, most of the hotel’s classic but badly deteriorated furniture was slated to be thrown out as trash. Instead the Ballens restored it to elegance. Then year by year Ethel decorated each room individually--no two are alike. Under their tender care, La Fonda regained its legendary grandeur--and more.

As the Ballens prospered, they became astonishing benefactors to their beloved Santa Fe. The causes they aided--with leadership, substantial donations, and generous access to La Fonda facilities--were too many to count. A short list includes Santa Fe Community Foundation, Southwest Association of Indian Art, United Way, museums, Lensic Performing Arts Center, St. Vincent Hospital, Old Santa Fe Association, Temple Beth Shalom, Santa Fe Playhouse, Food Depot, College of Santa Fe. A classic car they donated to aid the Institute of American Indian Art brought $90,000 at an auction.

With an insatiable zest for life, Sam and Ethel made numerous forays deep into Navajo country, where they had many friends. They traveled the world. They hosted a weekly grits-and-green-chile breakfast at La Fonda, and through the years some of Santa Fe’s most colorful and memorable characters partook. With bonuses and stock-ownership plans, they were famously generous to their employees, who stayed 30, 40, 50 years.

As age advanced, Sam and Ethel stubbornly refused to slow down. They rode the Trans-Siberian Railroad. They kept up their Santa Fe activities. On his 80th birthday Sam climbed the 12,622-foot Santa Fe Baldy. Shortly afterward he tackled Mt. Kilimanjaro--at 19,340 feet Africa’s highest peak. He did not reach the summit, but passed 15,000 feet.

In February 2006 a massive stroke ended Ethel’s life at the age of 83. Sam went on living, but while shoveling snow at his house one year later he fell, was hospitalized, and died. At a huge farewell celebration at Temple Beth Shalom, most speakers saluted Sam and Ethel as a single unit. Theirs was a love story that stood every test of time.

Story by Richard McCord

Photo © 2000 Steve Northrup