ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than 40 years ago, a humble young man sat in the back of a room where Old Town shop owners had convened to talk about the business and the benevolence they intended to finance for the good of the community.
The man, in his 20s and as wet behind the ears as they come when it came to the retail biz, listened intently to the shopkeepers.
He was one of them now – at least he wanted to be, having just scraped together enough money to rent a small store in Old Town from which to sell the Chimayó-style rugs and blankets weaved by his father.
He wanted to learn the retail ropes from his seasoned colleagues in the neighborhood. But he was even more interested in their talk about giving back.
One day, he vowed, he would give back, too.
That humble young man was Henry Aceves, whose small shop in 1973 grew into the venerable Old Town Basket and Rug Shop, the largest store in the historic heart of Albuquerque.
In 1994, he added the $2.4 million Plaza Don Luis, which he named after his master weaver father. The two-level plaza is home to 13 shops, the Old Town visitor center (and much needed public bathrooms) and the city’s tallest and most beloved Christmas tree, which each year draws thousands for the lighting ceremony that marks the official start of the holiday season in the city. It’s a tradition Henry quietly revived and continued to fund when it appeared no one else could, or would.
The tree is just one way he made good on that vow so many years ago. Self-made men like Henry give back not with expectations of acclaim or award, though he received plenty of the latter, including the 2011 Harry E. Kinney Good Neighbor Award from the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the Journal and the honor of serving twice as president of the Old Town Merchants Association, the same group he sat in on as a neophyte shopkeeper.
No, Henry gave back because that’s how he was raised – because it was in his bones, his genes, his heart.
On Tuesday, we had to give Henry back. He passed away peacefully, surrounded by family, as he almost always was, after a long illness. He was 69, weeks shy of his 70th birthday. A rosary will be recited at 3 p.m. Sunday, and a Mass will held at 9 a.m. Monday, both at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, 1860 Griegos NW.
I count myself among the many folks who knew Henry and his large, very large, family, but I’ve come to believe there weren’t many people in New Mexico who didn’t know him. He seemed to truly enjoy talking with everybody, be they dignitary or ditch digger. And he treated each equally.
“I know that many people are dubbed a saint after they pass away, but Henry Aceves was truly a living saint,” said Renee Rodarte-Keeling, an Albuquerque teacher who worked at the shop for nine summers. “Henry had so much love and respect for the local folks.”
And for family. Forty-seven years ago, Henry married Karen Martinez and inherited her huge family and, by extension, me, as I had been friends with Karen’s younger sister Laura since junior high.
The Aceves-Martinez clan is that rare family whose members truly enjoy being with each other and are happy to welcome many of us into the fold as honorary brothers and sisters.
They get together as often as they can for camping, golf, birthdays, holidays and hoedowns at Henry’s beloved Rancho El Chinchonte, a working cattle ranch in the Manzano Mountains where he spent much of his childhood.
Henry knew all about cattle roping, but as it turns out he also learned quite a lot about those retail ropes, well enough to become a successful businessman able to provide a comfortable life for his family.
But I suspect he might have been just as happy out on that old ranch as long as he had the love of his family and friends and enough to give back to others.
Henry struggled with health problems the past few years. I last saw him at the family’s Easter get-together – replete with the Easter Bunny for the dozens of grandchildren, nieces and nephews – at the Aceves home. He was weaker, thinner and in a wheelchair, but he was still part of the scene.
He called me over and in his barely audible whisper said he had a news tip for me. As weak as he was, he still kept up with the neighborhood.
Henry will be buried at the ranch he loved, where as a young cowboy he must have already begun to live by the principles that would serve him in good stead – work hard, show respect, be humble, be kind, give back.
That’s what he taught his family and those of us lucky enough to know him. It is why I know Henry’s legacy of giving back will go on. It’s in the bones, the genes, the heart.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.