ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I met Charlie Crowder when I was fresh out of college working as a public radio reporter in El Paso on a story about a man just across the state line in Santa Teresa who had visions of a new border crossing for New Mexico.
“I was the laughingstock of El Paso,” Crowder recalled during an interview over breakfast last October. “And they told me some of the leaders said, ‘We knew that you were crazy, and we knew you would never get that border crossing because nobody could do that.'”
Nobody but Charlie Crowder.
The Santa Teresa resident passed away in a hospital in El Paso on Tuesday at age 86 after a fall last weekend.
“He was a super-visionary,” said Jerry Pacheco, president and CEO of the Santa Teresa-based Border Industrial Association.
“He was such an intelligent man that he had the wherewithal to put all the pieces together at the local, state and federal levels on both sides of the border,” Pacheco said.
Without Crowder, there would be no Santa Teresa border crossing or the $22 billion in goods that move through the port of entry or the booming industrial parks.
The region now accounts for more than half of all of New Mexico’s global exports, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Crowder honed his negotiating skills as a young man doing land trades in the Southwest.
He was born in Nebraska and raised on a farm in the Missouri Ozarks. He set off on his own at age 13, and after a series of jobs landed him in the Southwest in the 1940s, he helped facilitate land deals between ranchers and the federal government.
“He did huge land trades throughout the West before Santa Teresa came along,” said Chris Lyons, a close friend and business associate.
Santa Teresa was the ultimate trade for Crowder, who got federal land along the border after negotiating a deal for land in Arizona for a Native American tribe.
“He was a formidable figure in the border region, for sure,” Lyons said. He met Crowder in 1988 when he came to the border for a Harvard graduate school design project for a binational community.
“He was the smartest man I ever knew. He’s brilliant. He understood the human element that few people do,” Lyons said.
Despite his negotiating skills, Crowder had his share of financial problems. Debt forced him to file for bankruptcy and give up his border land. Chris Lyons’ family owns thousands of acres that once belonged to Crowder. The men remained close friends.
“We believed in his vision – no question – and supported it,” Lyons said.
When I returned to this stretch of the border to work for the Journal, I wanted to talk to Crowder again about that vision. I planned on a profile story about the man who, against all odds, opened the border crossing in New Mexico.
Just as he was years ago when I interviewed him as a cub reporter, Crowder was witty and full of good humor recounting those early days and weighing in on current U.S.-Mexican relations, including efforts to build a wall and threats to do away with NAFTA.
“I think good business is good manners,” Crowder said disapprovingly.
He still believed in the binational dream, a thriving community straddling the border in Santa Teresa. Lyons is at the helm of the project on the New Mexico side known as Los Santos.
He said some of Crowder’s last words to him at the hospital were, “Just get back to work.”
Crowder is survived by his son, Phillip, and his former wife, Phyllis.