Santa Fe Living Treasures – Elder Stories

Born into a tradition of public service, Joe did his part from the start. After graduating from St. Michael’s High School in 1948, Joe served with the U.S. Army in Germany, then returned in the 1950s to serve his hometown. He was president of the Fiesta Council, was a founder of Los Caballeros de Vargas, was active with the Boys Club, organized and directed a tree-planting project, and was a member of the city planning commission when Santa Fe adopted its Historic Styles Ordinance in 1957. He was elected to the City Council, and left that body when he became mayor in 1972.

Joe’s time as mayor was tumultuous, challenging and productive. Commercial airline service at the municipal airport was discontinued, because the runways were deemed unsafe--and then voters rejected a bond issue to repave them. The first garbage-workers strike in city history took place. Plaza merchants protested bitterly about the parking ban. The old Santa Fe High School building was converted into City Hall. Some downtown streets were repaved with bricks. Plastic trash bags were initiated. The mayor was instrumental in establishing a southside industrial park, which then was named for him. The Santa Fe city flag was redesigned during his administration.

Joe’s first job after high school was with a paint store in Santa Fe. After military duty he became its manager, ran it several years, and in 1972 bought it. Later he opened a second business, for art supplies and framing. Through the years both operations have been generous municipal citizens, helping countless causes with donations of money and supplies. When his paint store burned in 1993, local support let it relocate within days.

In the mid-2000s Joe began slowing down a bit, although he refuses to use the word “retire.” He remains a highly visible figure, however, and at no time more so than in the Christmas season. Through the years he has collected stray pieces and complete sets of abandoned Nativity scenes. Some of the items are cheap, while others are fancy and elaborate. “I get them at thrift stores and garage sales,” he says. He has more than 400 scenes in all, and he displays 200 or so at his stores,to make the season bright. 

Story by Richard McCord
Photo © 1999 Steve Northup