Big League

Big League

Rachel Balkovec holding a baseball bat dressed in New York Yankee uniform

Rachel Balkovec (’09 BS) makes baseball history
Photos: Courtesy of New York Yankees

Former Lobo catcher climbs the MLB ladder

Big League

By Leslie Linthicum

On Jan. 10, former New York Yankees All-Star pitcher CC Sabathia tweeted a photo of UNM alumna Rachel Balkovec fitted out in Yankees pinstripes with the message: “Keep breaking barriers, Rachel. Salute!”

It was a big day for Balkovec (’09 BS), a history-making day in a sports career that has seen its share of firsts.

At 28, Balkovec was the first woman to be named a conditioning coach for a Major League Baseball team when she took over as the Latin America strength and conditioning coordinator for the Houston Astros, based in the Dominican Republic.

At 32, she became the first woman hired as a full-time hitting coach in the majors when the Yankees signed her on as the team’s minor-league hitting coach.

Now 34, the former Lobo catcher is packing up the moving van again, this time headed for Tampa Bay, Fla., and another spot in history. She takes over as manager of the Tampa Tarpons, the Yankees’ Class A affiliate team, becoming the first woman to be called ‘skipper.’

Rachel Balkovec walking on a baseball field in Yankee pinstripes

“The first word that comes to mind is gratitude,” Balkovec said in her debut press conference with the Yankees — which was crowded with 112 media participants on Zoom.

Balkovec noted the Yankees’ long history of progressive hiring. (In March 1998, Kim Ng, another former college softball player, was the Yankees’ assistant general manager. Ng went on to be the first female general manager in baseball.) And she tipped her hat to her parents, “who raised me to be a competitive athlete, not a woman or a man, but just to be competitive and capable and aggressive.”

Asked about the sexist blowback to her hiring, Balkovec noted her resiliency.

“Three years ago, I was sleeping on a mattress that I had pulled out of a dumpster in Amsterdam. If you know yourself and you know where you came from, it doesn’t really matter.”

She calls her story “the American dream” and is adjusting to a new level of attention, including some shoutouts from some heroes.

“I can die now,” Balkovec joked. “Billie Jean King congratulated me.”

Balkovec came to UNM from Creighton University, recruited to play catcher for the Lobos. By the time she graduated in 2009, she had changed her major from psychology to exercise science and then to kinesiology, with an eye to a career helping athletes perfect their performances.

Among her mentors were former UNM instructor Chris Frankel and Len Kravitz, associate professor of exercise science at UNM, who taught her that coaching is motivating others to learn.

She had graduated from UNM and was working on her master’s degree in kinesiology at Louisiana State University in 2012, when the St. Louis Cardinals called looking for a student to work as a Minor League strength and conditioning coach at their baseball training camp near Baton Rouge. The Cardinals took a leap of faith and hired Balkovec, who was working as a graduate assistant strength and conditioning coach at the school.

When the internship ended and she had her degree, Balkovec had an enviable resume for a 26-year-old: A master’s degree in sports administration, experience working with athletes on strength and conditioning at two universities and experience with the Cardinals.

She moved to Arizona, one of the hubs of baseball spring training, applied for every job listed in Major League Baseball and waited hopefully.

“I got crickets,” Balkovec said.

The one baseball representative who showed interest in hiring her later called her to let her know that it was her gender, not her qualifications, that scuttled her chances. And he said he had called around to other teams and heard the same story. She appreciated his candor.

“I finally understood,” she said.

Rachel coaching with an ipad while a yankee player looks on
Rachel sits it dugout with a Yankee catcher

With the doors of Major League Baseball closed tight, Balkovec took a job waitressing in Phoenix, volunteered at Arizona State University and entered what she calls “the dark times.”

Some colleges approached Balkovec about openings in strength and conditioning, but always for women’s sports. Even though she had respect for women’s sports, it bothered her that those were the only doors open to her. She dug in.

One of her sisters suggested she apply for jobs as “Rae Balkovec.” She immediately got email responses, but the conversations ended when they reached her on the phone. Balkovec quickly dropped Rae and went back to Rachel.

Finally, the call came from the Chicago White Sox, who hired her as a strength and conditioning coach.

The White Sox job led to a job back with the Cardinals as the Minor League strength and conditioning coordinator. In November 2015, the Astros brought her on as the Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator.

Balkovec spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic, taught herself Spanish and some salsa moves and got valuable experience in understanding the Major League Baseball system and learning how to interact with young male players.

In between those temporary stints, Balkovec moved to Amsterdam (the place she scored the free mattress) in 2019 to pursue a second master’s degree in biomechanics and work as the apprentice hitting coach for the Netherlands National baseball and softball team.

When she returned to the United States, she was back to the dark days. With two master’s degrees in human movement science and a list of MLB credits on her resume, she took an internship with a technology firm that uses eye tracking to aid hitters and started knocking on MLB’s door again.

Wearing number 22 Rachel walks toward home plate while the sun sets

When the Yankees hired her as the league’s first full-time female coach, she was 32 and had lived in 15 cities in 12 years.

“When I actually got that job, I had $14 in my bank account,” Balkovec said. “I was broke as a joke.”

She called her parents to tell them she had made history. And to ask them if they could lend her some money to cover her move.

Balkovec nods to her parents for setting the stage for her ground-breaking career.

“My father and mother, they deserve an award,” Balkovec said. “They literally raised three girls to be absolute hellions.”

The Balkovec girls didn’t grow up with gender barriers that told them that certain goals weren’t possible. So Balkovec naively thought she could get any job based on her skills and was brought up short when she learned otherwise.

“This is a little counterintuitive,” Balkovec said, “but I’m glad I was discriminated against. By the time I was full time, I had done multiple internships. I was super prepared. I’m glad my path was difficult and it still serves me to this day.”

Kevin Reese, Yankees vice president of player development, approached Balkovec about the manager job in mid-December.

Reese says there was no agonizing or even much discussion when Balkovec’s name came up as a possibility to fill the Tarpon’s manager slot.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “The feedback was always positive on Rachel. Everybody was on board. This is about her qualifications and her ability to lead.”

What can the Tarpons players expect from their new manager?

“It’s going to be high standards and clear standards. It’s going back to honesty and being direct,” Balkovec said. “Getting every day to matter and every practice to matter, that’s what I’m really passionate about.”

And it should be fun.

“They can definitely expect some loud music in the clubhouse,” she says.

Since getting the skipper job, Balkovec has been working 14-hour days, immersing herself in all aspects of a baseball team. While her experience has been in strength and conditioning and hitting, Balkovec is getting up to speed on fielding and pitching as well as all the aspects of running an organization and team travel.

One aspect of the job has always come easily for Balkovec — developing camaraderie and cohesion among players.

“My goal is really to know the names of the girlfriends, the dogs, the families of all the players,” she said. “My goal is to develop them as young men and young people who have an immense amount of pressure on them. My goal is to support the coaches that are on the staff.”

In Class A, she will have the youngest and least experienced players to work with.

Rachel coaches a yankee player on hitting in the batting cage

“We’re going to be talking more nuts and bolts of pitching and hitting with them, and defense,” Balkovec said. “It’s really just to be a supporter, and to facilitate an environment where they can be successful.”

Even though she’s a trailblazer, Balkovec has experienced very little sexism on the field or in the clubhouse.

“In 10 years, so little that it’s not even worth mentioning,” she said. Players have a certain level of curiosity when they’re meeting the first female coach they’ve ever known, which Balkovec understands as completely normal.

“I just know within five minutes — my presence in the room, I speak confidently, I’m bilingual — it all just goes away. The players I’ve worked with, I do feel — whether they like me or they don’t like me, they like what I’m saying or they don’t like what I’m saying — they respect me. They do know I’m passionate and hard-working and I know what I’m talking about.”

Balkovec notes that there are now 11 women in uniform in baseball today, so the tide is turning slowly.

“There were many times in my career where I felt extremely lonely and I literally didn’t have anyone to call who had been going through the same experiences,” she said.

Balkovec is active on social media, which she says isn’t about feeding her brand, but inspiring others.

“I want to be a visible idea for young women. I want to be a visible idea for dads that have daughters,” she said. “I want to be out there. It’s something I’m very passionate about.”

Brian Cashman, the Yankees general manager who recruited Ng more than 25 years ago and put the first crack in baseball’s glass ceiling, calls Balkovec “a really impactful, smart person. What’s she’s bringing to the table is her knowledge and her strength and her perseverance and her thoughtfulness and her empathy. She’s as tough as they come.”

Balkovec’s ultimate goal is to be a general manager.

“Right now, I’m a manager,” she said. “I don’t really have a timeline for when I would leave, but I just know in the future, that leadership and the front office is definitely present in my mind.”

I understand that’s a very long-term goal,” she said.

When asked whether she has the skills to go higher in coaching or management, Cashman said, “The sky’s the limit. She’s determined. She’s strong. She’s got perseverance. I would not put any limitations on what her future would entail. She’s willing to go to the ends of the earth to accomplish her goals. This is someone who will not be denied.”

Rachel Balkovec official shot in Yankees uniform

From Here To There

After Balkovec graduated from UNM in 2009, she followed a path of perseverance that led ­— 11 years later — to a position as minor league hitting coach with the New York Yankees, which led to her current position as manager of the Tampa Tarpons, in the Yankees’ minor league system.

These were moves she made to get there:

Strength and Conditioning Intern: API (Now EXOS)

Strength and Conditioning Graduate Assistant: LSU

Strength and Conditioning Intern: St. Louis Cardinals Major League Baseball

Front Office Internship: Los Tigres Del Licey (La Republica Dominicana)

Strength and Conditioning Internship: Arizona State University

Strength and Conditioning Internship: Chicago White Sox

Minor League Strength & Conditioning Coord: St. Louis Cardinals

Latin American Strength and Conditioning Coordinator: Houston Astros

Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coach: AA Affiliate: Houston Astros

Returned to School for MS in Biomechanics in Amsterdam

Apprentice Hitting Coach: Netherlands National Baseball & Softball programs

Research & Development Intern: Driveline Baseball: Eye Tracking for Hitters

Hired by New York Yankees as an Major League Baseball hitting coach

Spring 2022 Mirage Magazine Features


From Prison to Poet

From Prison to Poet

poet Jimmy Santiago Baca sits in yard with black shirt on

Photos: Roberto E. Rosales (’96 BFA, ’14 MA)

Alumnus Jimmy Santiago Baca (’84 BA) found peace in the written word

From Prison to Poet

By Leslie Linthicum

When Jimmy Santiago Baca stands in front of a classroom — maybe it’s a high school in East L.A., or a jail in New Mexico or a seminar at Berkeley or Yale — he’ll challenge aspiring writers to tap into their trauma and find their truth. And he’ll tell them they already have the tools they need: “You have imagination and you have experience,” he’ll say. “That’s where writing comes from.”

And he will likely share his own truth: that books saved his life.

Baca (’84 BA, ’03 HOND), one of the nation’s most prolific and decorated writers, has had 31 books published in 26 languages, and at 70 he still adheres to his morning practice of settling in at the keyboard at 5:30 a.m.

Known primarily as a poet, he also has written novels, short stories and screenplays and is at work on a trilogy while teaching and touring the country reading and lecturing.

It is a charmed life, complete with financial security and a warm family. No one is as surprised and delighted by that as Baca, the former orphan, drinker, drugger and badass criminal.

“A lot of times, no matter how bad things are, I always see myself as being very fortunate,” he says. “There’s not a morning that goes by that I don’t tell the Lord thank you, thank you, thank you.” 

Jimmy Santiago in profile
Jimmy Santiago headshot
Jimmy Santiago leans back with eyes closed

His biography has the outlines of a movie and indeed it has been told in a memoir, “A Place to Stand,” published in 2007, and a documentary film in 2014. Born in Santa Fe to a father who drank and was largely absent and a mother who abandoned him and his brother and sister when they were small, he was taken in by his grandparents, then delivered to a Catholic orphanage at age 7, where he lived until he ran away at 13 and was placed in youth detention. At 15, he ran away from there and lived a hand-to-mouth existence, drinking, fighting, getting high, crashing in abandoned homes. Arrested at 17 for a crime he didn’t commit, he spent some time in the county jail before being released. He headed West and was running a lucrative marijuana distribution business in Yuma, Ariz., when he was visiting a heroin dealer’s home as it was raided by federal agents. An agent was shot and Baca was sentenced to five years behind bars for drug possession.

‘I can’t describe how words electrified me.’

He was 20 when he walked into a maximum-security prison in Florence, Ariz., the place where he would teach himself to read and write alone in a cell and begin corresponding with a Good Samaritan who sent him books and paper.

He describes his awakening in “A Place to Stand.”

“I would set my dictionary next to me, prop my paper on my knees, sharpen my pencil with my teeth, and begin my reply. I would try to write the thoughts going through my mind, but they didn’t come out right. They lacked reality. A stream of ideas flowed through me, but they lost their strength as soon as I put them down. I erased so often and so hard I made holes in the paper. After hours of plodding word by word to write a clear sentence, I would read it and it didn’t even come close to what I’d meant to say. After a day of looking up words and writing, I’d be exhausted, as if I had run ten miles. I can’t describe how words electrified me. I could smell and taste and see their images vividly. I found myself waking up at 4 a.m. to reread a word or copy a definition.”

As Baca’s thirst for words grew, he began borrowing books from other inmates.

“Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, all the great ones,” he says on a warm morning on the patio of his home in Albuquerque. “Death Row was on the other side of where they kept us, and I was a porter, so I used to be able to go over there and they’d give me their books. They always read the coolest books. Hemingway, Faulkner and a lot of Russian writers. ‘War and Peace’ — come on, that was like my religion.”

Language opened up something in him and what could have been a soul-crushing experience — fights, stabbings, years spent in dark solitary confinement cells because he refused to work — became a rebirth. He fell in love with collections of poems by Shelley, Byron, Neruda and Lorca.  He began to review his life through a different lens.

“It was me deciding what I wanted to do with my life,” Baca says. “Me deciding that I probably wouldn’t have made a great criminal but I was really attracted to reading, so I read.”

Sitting alone in the dark for days on end, trying not to go crazy, helped hone writerly skills.

“It was absolutely an opportunity,” Baca says. “You practice your imagination. You practice disembodiment. You practice your memory.”

Baca had plenty of opportunity to practice writing and to dig into the insights and emotions that are the backbone of the poem.

“It was really fortunate to live in a place where death and life met each other every day,” Baca says, “rather than live this passive life where the biggest obstacle is paying the bills and the IRS.”

In exchange for cigarettes or coffee, he wrote poems for other inmates to commemorate events in their lives and to give to their mothers or children or girlfriends. Often, he had to read them aloud to inmates because they couldn’t read.

‘How can you kill and still be a poet?’

black and white photo of Jimmy Santiago

When another inmate disrespected Baca and a prison elder advised him he had to fight or be seen as vulnerable as he served out the rest of his time, he came to the realization that his life was changed.

As he recounts in his memoir, he was in the clutch of the fight with the other inmate lying on his back.

“He was partially unconscious, stunned, bleeding from a cracked cheekbone. He took out a shank he’d hidden beneath his sock and I grabbed it. I was standing over him, my feet planted on each side of his shoulders. In that moment, all I could see was his face, the blood pouring out from a wound in his cheek where a bone was exposed. In that moment, everything seemed so calm and quiet. I gripped the shank to stab him. For a second, every horrible thing that had happened to me in my life exploded to the surface as if had been building up to this moment. The blade in my hand, my legs spread over his chest, I loomed over him, staring into his eyes and then at his heart. While the desire to murder him was strong, so were the voices of Neruda and Lorca that passed through my mind, praising life as sacred and challenging me: How can you kill and still be a poet? How can you ever write another poem if you disrespect life in this manner? Do you know you will be forever changed by this act? It will haunt you to your dying breath.”

He chose to become a poet. By the time he was released with $20 and the clothes he entered prison in, Baca had sold some poems to Mother Jones magazine and had contacts with other writers and editors. He went to North Carolina and got his GED and took some community college classes.

Then he returned to New Mexico and had his first collection of poems, “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” published in 1979 and began to make a life as a writer. By the early 1980s, Baca had married, had a baby and bought a fixer-upper. How to pay a mortgage as a poet? Baca enrolled in UNM.

“I needed some money to pay the mortgage and they were offering these Pell grants,” Baca explains. “I had no interest in going to school, but when I got there, I loved it.”

He studied literature, of course, and a new way of looking at books opened up for him.

“I loved the environment of being around so many books. And I really loved the professors,” Baca says. “They had so much to offer. It was like talking to convicts on the yard about writing, but these guys knew all about literature.”

He graduated in 1984 and broke out several years later with the publication of “Martin & Meditations in the South Valley” in 1987, which won the American Book Award and the Pushcart Prize. He won the Taos Poetry Circus — the mother of slam poetry contests — in 1992 and 1993. In 1995 he was invited by PBS journalist Bill Moyers to be part of a televised series on poetry.

Ben Daitz, M.D., a family medicine physician at UNM and a writer himself, met Baca in the poetry slam days and they have remained friends for 40 years.

“His history is pretty dramatic and I think it took him awhile to settle down,” says Daitz, now professor emeritus at the UNM School of Medicine and a documentary filmmaker. “But he did. I think he’s mellowed. He’s more comfortable in his own skin. Part of that is getting older and growing out of his rebellion. And he’s got a great family that is very important to him.”

Baca divorced, married a second time and has four children, one still at home. He has held endowed chairs at Colorado College, Yale and University of California, Berkeley, among other colleges and universities. While he has traveled the world reading, speaking and teaching, he spends more time now in New Mexico, riding his bike, running in the bosque, volunteering as a writing teacher in schools and putting on an annual writer’s retreat. Teaching, as much as writing, has been a foundation of Baca’s life.

“It’s just the service that I think I’m obligated to undertake,” he says. “I was given a great gift. I don’t just want to get rich and famous. I want to spread it around.”

Spring 2022 Mirage Magazine Features

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Jogging Memory

Jogging Memory

image of a three dimensional brain with a blue and purple gradient behind

Jogging Memory

Jessica Richardson, an associate professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences at UNM, has been awarded a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to optimize treatment and interventions for those who acquire the language disorder known as aphasia as a result of suffering a stroke.

Aphasia affects speaking, understanding, reading and writing. The most common cause of aphasia is stroke, and 30 to 50 percent of people who have had a stroke will live with aphasia for the rest of their lives.

“Aphasia is a devastating and debilitating diagnosis.,” said Richardson, who has worked with people with post-stroke aphasia, and other acquired cognitive or communication deficits, for more than 20 years. “Just imagine not being able to say what you want to say or understand what others are saying, or not being able to read or write anymore. If you think about your everyday life, and what you do every day that involves any type of language, you can begin to understand how big of an impact this can have.”

One of the big gaps in current treatment that she seeks to address is not taking full advantage of the brain’s plasticity, or ability to change. “We know our brain is plastic and very responsive to use or activity,” Richardson said. “You can change the way the brain works, and even the structure of the brain, with what you do.”

Richardson said patients with aphasia and their recovery team can help the intact brain repair itself by taking advantage of this plasticity. She hopes to combine evidence-based aphasia treatment with a non-invasive brain intervention called transcranial direct current stimulation for even more optimized treatment.

“Depending on where we place the electrodes on the scalp, we can make neurons more ‘interested’ in a task, as the electrical current may increase the probability that they will send brain signals, or fire,” she said. “We can also tell certain neurons to be quiet if they are interfering in some way, using the electrical current to decrease the probability that they will fire. Over time, with repeated exposure to this, we can potentially change the way the brain functions when ‘doing’ language.”

Richardson has seen first-hand how particularly devastating aphasia can be, first as a high schooler after her grandfather suffered from aphasia, and more recently with her mother. “It changes everything about one’s life — identity, autonomy, relationships, financial security … everything,” Richardson said. “And it changes the lives of the loved ones of survivors as well.”

Spring 2022 Mirage Magazine Features

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Shelf Life – Books by UNM Alumni

Shelf Life – Books by UNM Alumni

mockup book covers for Shelf Life Spring 2022

Shelf Life – Books by UNM Alumni

A Guide to New Mexico Film book cover

For anyone who loves to watch movies and TV shows filmed in New Mexico — hitting “pause” and saying, “Wait, was that the Rio Grande Gorge?” ­— Jason Strykowski (’07 MA, ’15 PhD) has written your new Bible. Strykowski, a script supervisor and assistant on major film and TV sets, has put together an encyclopedia of 50 well-used filming locations throughout New Mexico. A Guide to New Mexico Film Locations (University of New Mexico Press, 2021) takes an interesting tack: describing the location and its history, including a filmography of productions that have used the location and adding travelogue features that include driving directions and where to stay and eat if you decide to visit. Here’s a fun fact: The first film made in New Mexico, “Indian Day School,” circa 1898, was shot at Isleta Pueblo. It used the new kinetograph visual recording technology and was shown at kinetoscope parlors, the precursor to cinemas. The book is filled with photos, both current and vintage — Kirk Douglas on the set of “Lonely Are The Brave” in Albuquerque, Dennis Hopper at Taos Pueblo for “Easy Rider” and Jimmy Stewart looking tough at Tesuque Pueblo in “The Man From Laramie.”

Commissions y Corridos book cover

Hakim Bellamy (’14 MA) was named the inaugural poet laureate for the City of Albuquerque in 2012. The job comes with a two-year term and just a few requirements: implement a community project and respond to occasional requests for poems to commemorate certain events. Commissions y Corridos (University of New Mexico Press, 2021), one of a series of collections of the poems of Albuquerque’s poets laureate, collects many of Bellamy’s commissions along with other poems he wrote during his tenure. Not every poem is about Albuquerque, but as Bellamy explains in his preface, Albuquerque is his love and his muse. The collected poems range from short and sweet, as in “New Mexico Department of Tourism (A Haiku)” and “Albuquerque. Where/the desert doesn’t get in/the way of your view” to long and searching, as in “Law Enforcement Oath of Honor,” in which Bellamy writes his ideal of an officer’s sworn oath. Some lines: “I solemnly swear to be as obsessed with building community as I am with broken laws. I will act justly and impartially and with propriety toward my fellow officers. So long as they are just, impartial and proper toward my fellow citizens.”

Vaccines and Bayonets book cover

The subtitle of Vaccines & Bayonets (Wheatmark, 2021) by Bee Bloeser (’67 MA) is “Fighting Smallpox in Africa Amid Tribalism, Terror and the Cold War.” That’s a sweeping brief for an author to undertake, by for Bloeser it’s the story of one chapter in her life. With two young children, she and her husband, a U.S. Public Health Service nurse, moved to Nigeria to join the United States-led smallpox vaccine campaign in West Africa. That’s the “vaccine” part of Bloeser’s title. The “bayonets” relate to the region’s raging civil war that the family stepped into. With vaccines on everyone’s minds, it is fascinating to read about an all-out push in a foreign nation to vaccinate in order to eradicate a disfiguring and deadly preventable disease. Bloeser’s memoir is breezy and warm and continues through other postings in West Africa as well as in Equatorial Guinea.

Love and Aspergers book cover

Mary A. Johnson (’89 MA, ‘94 PhD) spent her career as a clinical counselor and developed an expertise in counseling people having trouble in their relationships. In her professional capacity, she learned a lot about Asperger’s syndrome. Johnson, a widow, met her second husband, Jim, late in life and moved to Oregon where he lives. Love and Asperger’s: Jim and Mary’s Excellent Adventure (Atmosphere Press, 2021) follows the steps of their courtship and marriage with episodes followed by insights, in italics, that reflect her realization in hindsight that Jim was exhibiting classic signs of someone with Asperger’s. On early dates, Jim opted for a narrow menu of chain restaurants, which she wrote off as quirky. In retrospect she recognized a common trait of people with Asperger’s. Later, after they married, Jim’s seemingly abrupt or rude comments and criticisms hurt her feelings. She saw them in hindsight as examples of a person with Asperger’s not recognizing other people’s emotions and having trouble empathizing. One day over lunch, she decides to tell her husband she thinks he has Asperger’s. He stirs his coffee for a long time and says, “I always wondered why I felt different.”

Understanding Sexual Harassment book cover

William E. Foote (’69 BA, ’75 MA) has been a forensic psychologist in Albuquerque for more than 40 years and has taught in UNM’s departments of Psychology and Psychiatry and at the School of Law. So he brings a lifetime of experience to Understanding Sexual Harassment (American Psychological Association, 2021), which he wrote with Jane Goodman-Delahunty. While the book is geared toward forensic clinicians practicing in the area and preparing forensic reports and testimony in court cases, it’s an interesting read for anyone interested in one of the social issues of our times. The book walks through the history of sexual harassment law (did you know that even though the protection against being harassed due to gender is embodied in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the term “sexual harassment” wasn’t coined until 1970?) It explores who are the most common perpetrators — a range of (mostly) men who can be misogynistic, clueless, rate low in honestly and humility and high in authoritarianism. Anyone can become a victim of workplace harassment, but Foote and Goodman-Delahunty go to the research to show that predators look for certain victims — namely those who have been the victims of previous trauma.

The Panoptic Sort book cover

Google is tracking your online browsing. Alexa knows your grocery list. And that Ring doorknob is scanning the front yard. In 1993, Oscar H. Gandy, Jr. (’67 BA) used the phrase “panoptic sort” to describe a sociotechnical system that sorts people on the basis of their estimated value or worth. Panoptic (complete, comprehensive, sweeping) sorting has now entered the age of Big Data and Gandy, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, comes with a second edition of The Panoptic Sort: A Political Economy of Personal Information (Oxford University Press, 2021) to explore how surveillance capitalism influences how we are sold everything from shampoo to political candidates. For Gandy, this is cause for concern. He calls for transparency and accountability and collective resistance to the primacy of algorithms.

MIddle Eastern American Theatre book cover

Middle Eastern Americans are often distrusted, attacked and assailed for their names, religions and dress, spiking in severity after any domestic incident involving terrorism. “It is from this crucible that Middle Eastern American theatre is forged,” writes Michael Malek Najjar (’93 BA) in Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures, and Artists (Methuen Drama, 2021). Creatives in the community explore in their communities and in person conflicts and struggles in theater. Najjar looks at how writers, actors, directors and other performers of Middle Eastern heritage have created a vibrant theater scene. It is a diverse group — Arabs, Jews, Iranians, Armenians and Turks.

So, You F*cked Up book cover

“It’s OK. It happens. Please don’t beat yourself up.” So begins a provocatively titled little volume by strategic communications consultant Mandi Kane (’06 BA). In So, You F*cked Up: A Peptalk for When You’ve Made a Mistake (Ardia Books, 2021) Kane gives readers a literal pep talk to get them through personal or professional foul-ups so relationships and reputations aren’t permanently damaged. Lesson No. 1: “You’re not alone.” Lesson No. 2: Regardless of what feelings you’re spinning through — embarrassment, disappointment, frustration, anger — put them aside and get to the task of moving forward. Kane, who in her media relations business helps people and corporations navigate through mistakes, offers strategies for making things right. “Apologize if you need to and be sincere. Saying you’re sorry isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength,” she writes. And she offers warm advice: “You are not defined by your mistakes, no matter how public.”

Death on a Desolate Piece of Ground book cover

Cattle rustling. Treasure hunting. Bootlegging. Family drama. New Mexico scenery ranging from Quemado ranches to Gallup dance halls to the spooky Malpais. Death on a Desolate Piece of Ground (Abbott Press, 2021) by Ray Windsor (’71 BAED) takes readers through a mystery set in New Mexico during the Depression. Jesse Woods, one of three sons of a violent and whiskey-drinking Catron County rancher, survives a childhood of beatings, runs away and, barely 16, finds himself taking the rap for his cattle-rustling friends and in prison for a year. Hardened when he gets out, he joins a rustling syndicate and becomes a man who never walks away from a fight. The bullied becomes the bully, culminating in unspeakable violence.

Taos Gothic book cover

Another richly told New Mexico mystery, Taos Gothic (White Bird Publications, 2021), comes from author James C. Wilson (’82 PhD). This is set in present-day Taos and begins with the disappearance of Kate Isaacs, a Santa Fe historian doing research at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos. Investigating Isaacs’ disappearance is Fernando Lopez, a retired Santa Fe police detective now hanging out his shingle as a private investigator. Isaacs, a podcaster and UNM lecturer with a past that includes drinking and drugging, is reported missing by her wife in Santa Fe. Last known sighting? At a party at the home of a former lover. If you like Taos, the D.H. Lawrence Ranch and Taos women writers — Willa Cather in particular — this is a page-turner for you.

Attention Published Alumni Authors:

We would like to add your book to the alumni library in Hodgin Hall and consider it for a review in Shelf Life.
Please send an autographed copy to:

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Spring 2022 Mirage Magazine Features

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Professor Hillerman

Professor Hillerman

vintage image of Tony Hillerman leaning back at desk in button up shirt

Photos: James McGrath Morris

Tony Hillerman: A Life book cover

Tony Hillerman (’66 MA), who died in 2008, was a distinguished alumnus with an international reputation for his page-turning mystery series set in the Indian County of the Southwest. He was also a popular professor at UNM who taught a generation of students how to write.

In a new biography, “Tony Hillerman: A Life,” James McGrath Morris devotes a chapter to Hillerman’s years at UNM and the publisher, University of Oklahoma Press, allowed us to reprint it here.

Professor Hillerman

The thermometer read ten degrees the morning Tony Hillerman drove to campus for the first day of the spring semester, January 5, 1970. He steered his dark-metallic-green 1970 Ford Maverick — the first new car he had ever owned —  down Louisiana Boulevard to Interstate 40. When the smog above Albuquerque abated, the place offered Hillerman an expansive view westward. “It is exactly at this spot and at this moment that Mount Taylor comes into view,” he said. “It is my favorite mountain, and the gateway to my favorite places.”

To most commuters, the panoramic vista was just one more in a state filled with geographic splendor. But to Hillerman the view of the mountain now took on a meaning shaped by four years of studying Navajo culture. Tsoodził, as the Navajos called it, was one of the four sacred peaks delineating the boundaries of Dinétah, the Navajo homeland. To the north and west of Tsoodził lay the land that had served as the setting for the novel waiting to go to press in New York. “My map tells me the Turquoise Mountain is 62.7 miles from this noisy intersection,” said Hillerman. “In another sense the distance is infinite.”

The day would afford little opportunity to think about that distant land or his book. Students were streaming back onto the campus. Enrollment in the Journalism Department had grown by 20 percent during the last year. Hillerman had to prepare for three courses: Advanced Reporting, Newspaper Practice, and Media as a Social Force. In addition, he was planning for a new course in editorial writing in the fall and had tedious administrative responsibilities as department chair. His office was on the southern edge of the campus in one of the university’s ubiquitous adobe buildings that had once served as a residence for women students.

headshot of author James McGrath Morris

James McGrath Morris

Hillerman usually arrived on campus in an ebullient mood. “Have you seen the clouds today?” he would ask Mary Dudley, who worked briefly in the office. “If I didn’t give a convincing yes,” she recalled, “he would insist that we go out and we’d stand on the lawn of the Journalism Building and look at the clouds come over the Sandia Mountains.” Ever since he was a child growing up in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. Hillerman had been a cloud watcher.

When Hillerman had first begun teaching at UNM four years earlier, he had inherited the basic journalism classes such as News Writing. Instructing future journalists harkened him back to his days as a student at the University of Oklahoma after the war. “It was a wonderful time to be teaching,” said Hillerman. The students struck him as eager to learn and they took to his folksy pedagogy. The avuncular professor wore the narrow ties that were fashionable then, but loose with an open collar, with jackets and pants carelessly matched. “There’s none of the professorial moss about Tony,” noted a reporter who stopped by the campus that spring. “There is a disarmingly casual air about him.”

In class, students were treated to tales from the trenches of daily journalism. “He was always warm, humorous, generous, droll, with an anecdotal style of teaching, using lots of illuminating examples, many from his own experience,” according to former student Sharon Niederman, who became an author and journalist. Hillerman’s recollections were his tools of teaching, journalistic parables that also served to inspire. “We wanted to get out in the world and turn experience into prose,” said another former student, George Johnson. 

Tony Hillerman sits at desk in profile holding a large document

Like the much-admired Professor H. H. Herbert at the University of Oklahoma, Hillerman wanted his students to understand the power and the accompanying responsibilities that came with being a reporter. “From him, the students learned about real-life examples of proper journalism ethics,” recalled one student. Hillerman was not averse to using his own experiences to show the consequences, often unforeseen, of the news business. The topic was also on his mind in the 1970 spring semester. In his typewriter at home was the beginnings of a new novel in which journalistic ethics would play an important role.

Inspired by William Strunk Jr and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style, Hillerman offered a set of writing rules to guide the willing students. At home, he was putting them into practice in his fiction. “Writing is writing,” Hillerman told his students. “Whether fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, most of the same rules apply, most of the same devices are effective, most of the same flaws will kill you.”

Concision was paramount: “As sentences get shorter, they generally get stronger,” he said, paraphrasing the famous guide to writing. Active voice should be a habit: “It makes for forceful writing.” Concrete and specific nouns and verbs were preferable: A welder rather than a laborer, a begonia instead of a flower. Echoing the instructions to remove “cornstarch words” that Professor Grace Ray had given when he was in college, Hillerman offered his students a lesson in wordectomy. The sentence “The animals’ faces expressed pleasure as they consumed their food” became concise, concrete, specific, and active when written as “The hippos grinned as they chewed their carrots.” For Hillerman, writers were verbose because they lacked a command of the vocabulary. Conciseness does not demand short sentences, he said, “It requires simply that every word tell.”

The placement of words and clauses should be deliberate: “Use the phrase, or word, you wish to emphasize, at the end of the sentence or paragraph.” Also, a word or clause gains attention if used at the beginning of a sentence when it is not the expected subject. For instance, “Bad manners, she could never tolerate” or “Reckless drivers, these Armenians.” Writing with nouns and verbs achieved economy: the elderly man walked slowly by is made better by using the word plodded. “When you use adjectives choose them carefully,” he admonished. “If you pick the right noun or verb you probably won’t need them.”

Hillerman pushed his students to make their writing reveal rather than tell and to weave their material together. In his class on persuasive writing, aspiring journalist Susan Walton struggled at first with shedding the linear way she had been taught to write. “I wasn’t synthesizing well. I was really regurgitating,” she said. “And he wasn’t interested in that. He wanted to see a process of consideration and thought, coming out.” He pushed the students to use observations to develop a point of view. Drawing on his experience writing editorials at the Santa Fe New Mexican, Hillerman demonstrated his method. If, for instance, city maintenance was failing, Hillerman figuratively walked the reader down the street to the fence lined with trash, by the drain with cockroaches, and past the unfilled pothole. Now that he was a professor, he instructed his students to leave campus to hone their observation skills.

Compare the crowds at the airport and bus terminal, he told them. “If you think they represent different socio-economic classes, let me see enough to lead me to the same conclusion.” Visit bars frequented by homosexuals and a bar playing country-western music. “What do you see that identifies them?” Attend a trial and look for a bored member of the jury. “Show me what you saw that caused you to think that.” Hillerman argued observation and detail were the keys to a good journalistic story, according to one student. “Hone in on every detail so that you could set a stage around a story.” If the stories the students brought back were good enough, Hillerman offered them to the Albuquerque Journal, which occasionally published some.

black and white photo of a youthful Tony Hillerman on campus

Papers assigned are papers in need of a grade. When it came to the many essays and articles submitted by his students, Hillerman applied an idiosyncratic approach. He evaluated the students’ work on a ten-point scale and was not hesitant to provide an opinionated reaction, though gentle in his criticism and invariably encouraging. One of his talented students, George Johnson, broke up with this girlfriend just before the final assignment of the semester was due. “I was up late drinking beer and spewing out pages of typewritten angst, which I submitted the next morning.” Hillerman returned the work with an A+. “You write better drunk than most students do sober,” he wrote on the top of the paper. “That was all the encouragement I needed,” said Johnson, who went on to become a New York Times editor, science reporter, and author.

 On major assignments students received lengthy typed evaluations. For instance, Hillerman wrote a one-page, single-spaced commentary praising and encouraging a young woman who had submitted chapters of a novel in a creative writing class he taught. “None of this has anything to do with the grade,” he wrote. He explained that she came to the class with a lot of talent and some bad habits and left with a lot of talent and some progress. “I rate that as Satisfactory Performance which earns you a C,” he concluded. “Had I been a better teacher for you it could have been a B at least.” To another student named Felipe, he wrote, “I think I will give you a B, which reflects a grade but not my judgment of your talent, which is remarkable.”

His dedication to his students prompted him to spend time selecting paragraphs from their work, typing them up on a stencil, and running them off on the office mimeograph machine. The blue-inked sheets were then distributed in class for group discussion. Typically, Hillerman Socratically pushed the students to apply his writing rules. “You say ‘obviously drunk,’” he might say, “What made it obvious?” Along with samples of their own work, Hillerman typed up more stencils with brief excerpts from the works of Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Gary Wills, Barbara Goldsmith, Ken Kesey, and Gay Talese, among others.

Hillerman was certain he could teach most of his students to write. “There are some who can’t be taught to write,” he admitted, “just as I can’t be taught to whistle thru my teeth.” He disliked many of the bromides about the craft. It was, for instance, “sheer nonsense” that writers write for themselves. “You have to write for someone otherwise you’re like a man at a telegraph key talking into a vacuum. It’s totally sterile and self-defeating,” said Hillerman. The point is to send and receive, “translating,” in his words, “the image inside your skull into symbols and launching it at a target.”

Teaching nonfiction while exploring the writing of fiction after-hours caused Hillerman to reflect considerably on the differences between the two. “The differences between fiction and non-fiction are more apparent than real,” he wrote. Nonfiction, which he had been trained to write and now taught, was less pliable than fiction and more craft-like. Fiction demanded more creativity resting on material either made up or from one’s memory. “The facts are crafted in your imagination,” Hillerman said. “They are glossy, persuasive, rich in symbolism, redolent of universal meaning, glittery, sordid, perfect, polished facts — the stuff of art.”

Despite the demands of being department chair and the late-evening hours consumed by his own writing, Hillerman always made time for students. He wanted to provide instruction on how to write but give encouragement as well, as Professor Morris Freedman had done for him. “He himself was an author, which impressed me,” said Hillerman, “and he saw promise in my work — which impressed me even more.”

Jim Belshaw was one of many aspiring journalists who experienced Hillerman’s devotion to students. After being discharged from the Air Force, Belshaw registered for classes at UNM in September 1970. The clerk handed him a small slip of paper with the name of his adviser. “I looked at the name and thought, well, I don’t know who Tony Hillerman is, but I know how to report.” When he reached Hillerman’s office, the professor looked over Belshaw’s test scores, particularly the ones for math. “Journalism, right?” asked Hillerman.

Hillerman guided Belshaw to an undergraduate degree in journalism and on to a career as a reporter and columnist. While working at one of his first jobs on a Las Cruces newspaper, Belshaw sent his former professor the manuscript of a book that had been rejected by a publisher. “The reason you sent it to me is because you lack confidence,” Hillerman wrote back. “Go to the library and pick any novel (not the great classics) and read it. You will find that you write as well as most, and better than some.”

Once Judy Redman stopped by his office. Hillerman was her adviser and she wanted to show him a creative writing paper on which she had earned an A. Another professor overheard the conversation and stuck his head in the door. He jocularly told Hillerman that students studying creative writing in the English Department will hurt their ability to do journalism. “I disagree,” replied Hillerman. “Good writing is good writing.” Redman went on to become a reporter and book author.

Hillerman, however, believed journalism was the best training ground. Carmella Padilla, a Santa Fe native, was uncertain what career she might want to pursue when Hillerman asked her about her goals. “I was thinking I wanted to be a physical therapist,” she recalled telling him, “but I don’t know, maybe I want to major in English.”

“Yeah, but what do you want to do?” persisted Hillerman.

“I want to write, I think.”

“Or do you want to teach?”

“Well, I think writing is more becoming to me than teaching.”

If that were the case, Hillerman advised her to stay clear of the English Department. He continued, according to Padilla, to say something to the effect: “If you really want to learn how to write, and learn the discipline of writing, which is what it’s all about, you’d be better off in the Journalism Department.”

“That really sunk in. I won’t be so bold as to say that Tony Hillerman directed me to be a journalist, but he certainly opened my eyes to that as an option. After completing the journalism program, Carmella Padilla became one of New Mexico’s most distinguished authors and an editor of work devoted to the Hispanic art, culture, and history of the state.

The dedication Hillerman showed his students, his willingness to guide them, and his irrepressible and engaging classroom storytelling made him an immensely popular professor. One student, however, ran up against a unique problem taking one of his classes. His daughter, Anne, made the mistake of enrolling in her father’s early-morning class. Her eyelids grew heavy and she dozed off to the sound of the voice that had once put her to sleep reading bedtime stories. 

Spring 2022 Mirage Magazine Features

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