ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Elias Stover, the University of New Mexico’s first president, was a battle-tested Union artillery officer during the Civil War, served Kansas as a state legislator and lieutenant governor, and, after moving to New Mexico in 1876, was a Bernalillo County commissioner, a member of the Territorial Legislature in 1891 and a founder of the First National Bank of Albuquerque.
Pretty impressive. Unfortunately, he may be best remembered during his time as UNM president, 1891-1897, as the father of Roderick Stover, a student so unruly that faculty members asked President Stover to pull his son out of the university.
“Elias Stover, who was a (UNM) regent as well as president, was a businessman but he did not have any academic experience,” said Portia Vescio, UNM’s archivist. She said Stover did not leave a UNM legacy worth boasting about.
Vescio will talk about Stover and six other early UNM presidents during an Albuquerque Historical Society presentation titled “For Better and For Worse” at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16, at the Albuquerque Museum, 2000 Mountain NW.
Vescio said that due to Stover’s inexperience in academia, the university hired Hiram Hadley, president of the faculty at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now New Mexico State, as UNM vice president in charge of academics. One problem Hadley had to deal with was Roderick Stover.
“Roderick Stover did not seem to want to follow the rules of the university,” Vescio said. “He had a lot of clashes with his father and with Hadley.” She said the younger Stover was even suspected of a reckless and dangerous incident involving explosives in a university bell. No one was hurt.
“Hadley expelled him, but his father refused to enforce the expulsion,” Vescio said. She said Roderick graduated from UNM in 1909, a dozen years after his father completed his presidency.
Vescio will also talk about UNM presidents Clarence L. Herrick (1897-1901), William G. Tight (1902-1909), Edward D. M. Gray (1909-1912), David R. Boyd (1912-1919), David S. Hill (1919-1927) and James F. Zimmerman (1927-1944).
As UNM archivist since May 2016, Vescio is responsible for processing and promoting the university’s historical documents and photographs. She works with classes doing historical research, creates exhibits and hosts events related to UNM history.
Vescio, 45, is from Rome, N.Y. She did not set out to be an archivist. She got a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I thought I wanted to work in a chemistry lab,” she said during a phone interview from her university office. “But I had a student job working at MIT’s archives. I liked the fact that it was sort of like solving puzzles, solving mysteries. People – researchers from other institutions, genealogists, students – would come in with questions and you have to go to different sources. It wasn’t like you found that one document that had everything you wanted.”
Deciding she was happier in a library environment than in a laboratory setting, Vescio changed course and earned a master’s of library science degree from Indiana University. Before coming to UNM, she worked as the manuscripts librarian for the Rio Grande Historical Collections at New Mexico State in 2001-2002 and assistant director of the university archives and historical collections at Michigan State University from 2002-2016.
Her presentation at the Albuquerque Museum grew out of a program she did for the UNM faculty.
Vescio said William G. Tight, UNM’s third president, may have been the most colorful of UNM’s leaders.
“He definitely was a character,” she said. “He was the one who started the pueblo-style architecture at UNM. He would do manual labor. There’s a story about him doing work outside his house when a woman drives up and says, ‘Excuse me, is this President Tight’s house?’ He says, ‘Yes, just a moment and I will get him.’ He goes inside, changes into his formal attire and comes out to greet her.” Vescio said she believes Tight did a lot of good for UNM.
“He built the first dormitories on campus,” she said. “UNM’s first two Rhodes scholars (postgraduates selected for study at England’s University of Oxford) were from Tight’s administration.”
However, Tight’s term was derailed after seven years by scandals attached to his name and by political infighting on campus. He deserted a wife and child to take the UNM job and was sued for abandonment. An Albuquerque newspaper reported he had taken an unchaperoned buggy ride with a woman drawing instructor. And, in 1908, he got married – but not to the drawing instructor – in a quickie ceremony that raised some eyebrows.
These indiscretions became part of the discussion among UNM’s regents when two professors Tight tried to fire appealed their terminations. The regents upheld the firing of the professors, but they dismissed Tight as well.
UNM’s early years were often tumultuous. The university was pitted in a never-ending battle to secure funding from the state Legislature.
“My feeling is Zimmerman was the first (president) to bring long-term stability to UNM,” Vescio said. “He spent a lot of time, especially in his early years, working with the Legislature, fighting for money. Zimmerman was one of the more successful at that because he was able to present things in such a way that the Legislature couldn’t argue with it.”
Zimmerman was still serving as UNM president when he died as a result of a heart attack in 1944. He was 57.