Santa Fe Living Treasures – Elder Stories

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Brett Roorbach

Brett Roorbach


Honored October, 2007

Elizabeth 'Brett' Roorbach

Even when she passed the 93-year mark in 2007, that still did not seem like enough time for all the things that Brett Roorbach had crowded into her life. She grew up in Massachusetts, and graduated from Radcliffe with an honors degree in science. With it she headed to Mexico, where she taught in an American school. Quickly she learned to love the land, the sun and the people. Soon the school closed, however, and she returned to her native state. But there she longed constantly to return to Mexico. Unable to find work, she chose New Mexico instead--gladly for her, and fortunately for New Mexico.

Settling first in Albuquerque, she was the respiratory physiologist on a medical team studying astronauts in the space program. Pursuing another lifelong passion, she also opened a photography studio. For a brief time she taught in Colorado, but then returned permanently to New Mexico, to teach math and science at Santa Fe Prep. There she stayed until her retirement in the late 1970s and was a great favorite of almost four decades of students. With boundless energy and enthusiasm, she led them on hiking trails and rafting adventures. She taught them how to identify flowers and birds. She inspired many of them to pursue careers in science and medicine, and prepared them well.

When she reached retirement age and stepped down from Santa Fe Prep, Brett did not slow down a whit. If anything, she stepped up her pace, with an astonishing array of volunteer activities. She became a docent at the Museum of International Folk Art, where she served for more than 20 years. She was an annual volunteer at the Santa Fe Indian Market in August. She was a dynamic presence in the Council on International Relations.

She was active in her Unitarian Church, and worked for years at St. John’s Food Pantry.

Always mindful of people in need, Brett signed on with the American Cancer Society to drive patients to appointments. She read weekly to a blind woman for many years. She worked with Literacy Volunteers to teach people to read, and she taught English as a second language to many who needed to learn it.

She took particular interest in a young Mexican immigrant who knew no English. She taught him well enough for him to attend Santa Fe Community College, and then the University of New Mexico, where he earned an engineering degree. He became a U.S. citizen, married, had children, and his family adopted Brett as a “surrogate grandmother.”

In the midst of everything else, Brett was an eager and tireless traveler to many corners of the world. Among other destinations, she went to Europe, Easter Island and Africa, where at the age of 55 she attained the 19,340-foot summit of the continent’s highest peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro. A master photographer, she always returned with stunning images to share with family and friends in her travelogues. She backpacked innumerable trails in the Sandia and Sangre de Cristo mountains. She skied almost to the age of 90.

When Brett was diagnosed with a menacing form of cancer around the age of 90, she continued to inspire everyone she knew with her courage and indomitable spirit. “Her attitude fighting this illness is as exemplary as her previous life,” a supporter wrote.

In a Living Treasures nomination letter, a niece recalled that Brett had always encouraged young people to become brave and strong. When the niece and her sister were 6? and 5?, Brett convinced their parents that they were capable of taking a short train ride on their own, to meet her in San Diego after embarking from Los Angeles. “I am truly blessed,” the niece wrote, “not only to share her genes, but also to have the opportunity to share her wisdom and knowledge!”


Story by Richard McCord
Photo © 2007 by Steve Northrup