Rio Rancho Public Schools will soon have its sixth school named for a distinguished person.
Three — Lincoln Middle School, and Ernest Stapleton and Martin Luther King Jr. elementaries — were handed over to RRPS from Albuquerque Public Schools when the district formed in 1994.
The next three — Maggie Cordova Elementary, V. Sue Cleveland High School and now Joe Harris Elementary — honor a trio who gave of their time and expertise to the district. Cordova was a lead administrator for special education who succumbed to cancer in January 2005, and Cleveland is the only superintendent in the district’s history. Harris was a Rio Rancho and Sandoval County lawman.
Groundbreaking for Joe Harris Elementary, to be built in Unit 10, was held April 1.
But just who was Joe Harris? The Reader’s Digest version will tell you Harris was hired as a police officer in Rio Rancho in April 1984.
He retired in 2004, after which he continued his law enforcement career as a deputy and then a sergeant for Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office.
Harris, 46, was fatally wounded July 16, 2009, in a shootout in a cabin in La Cueva, in the Jemez Springs area, while on a stakeout with fellow Deputy Theresa Moriarty. Accused multiple murderer Joseph Henry Burgess, aka the “Cookie Bandit,” was also killed in the shootout.
Flown by helicopter to University of New Mexico Hospital, Harris succumbed to his wound at 6:45 a.m. As then-Sheriff John Paul Trujillo said at his memorial service a few days later, “Our superman was gone.”
“Joe was definitely a cop’s cop,” says John Francis, who worked alongside Harris at the Rio Rancho Department of Public Service, the forerunner of Rio Rancho Police Department and Rio Rancho Fire Rescue Department.
“He was a people-person and really loved kids,” added Francis, now with RRPS as the assistant director of safety and security for the Transportation Department. “Joe and I taught the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program and GREAT (Gang Resistance Education and Training) program. He loved educating the kids of Rio Rancho; he loved sports.
“There probably wasn’t a person in Rio Rancho that didn’t know Joe from coaching their kids,” Francis said. “He was definitely someone who cared about his community, and just loved being a cop.”
Former RRPD lawman Steven Shaw, also a former city councilor, fondly remembers Harris.
“Every time you’d pull somebody over, they’d say, ‘You know Joe Harris?’ Everyone knew Joe Harris,” Shaw said. “Joe was just there for anybody and everybody; if you needed something, Joe was gonna be there to help you find it. He always knew somebody who knew somebody.”
Harris also had an impact on RRPS.
“I first met him when he was a Rio Rancho Police officer and worked in the Rio Rancho schools as a DARE instructor,” recalled former RRPS elementary school principal Cathy Gaarden. “Joe presented through the DARE and GREAT programs the facts students needed to empower them against substance abuse and the skills to make good choices in their daily lives.”
After joining the sheriff’s office, Harris returned to the schools.
“Joe, and later his partner Theresa Moriarty, joined Dean Alexander in taking the Kasey Says Program into the schools with their golden retrievers Harley, Lennie and Kasey,” Gaarden said. “Kasey Says educated students about bullying and taught them the skills needed to be kind, responsible, law-abiding citizens.
“The students adored and trusted Big Joe and his Kasey Says dog Harley — he listened and counseled them, and helped teachers, parents and administrators in supporting students to always do their best. He was cool; he was fun! Students and staff loved when he was around.
“He would hang out in the halls with Harley and greet the kids, joke around and made everyone feel special. Joe made everyone feel safe.”
Patricia Di Vasto, a longtime RRPS educator and administrator, said she had “many fond memories of him when he taught the DARE program at Lincoln in the early 1990s. He treated every student with great respect. The fondest memory was his New York accent, Italian heritage and his love for food!”
Shaw agreed about the food: “Everybody knew in briefing that you did not leave food or drink unattended when Joe was in the room — if it was there, it was his.
“I miss Joe and his laugh,” Shaw said. “He was a crazy guy.”