Back in the early 1970s, Paul Rhetts was the public relations director for Howard County Public Schools, between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., when an elementary school art teacher he had never met charged into his office.
“The first words out of her mouth were, ‘You’re not doing a very good job,’ ” Rhetts said. The art teacher’s name was Barbe Awalt. And despite their rather abrupt and unsettling introduction, Awalt and Rhetts got married about 10 years later.
Awalt’s take-no-prisoners approach to saying what she thought and campaigning for what she believed was very much in evidence after she and Rhetts moved to Los Ranchos de Albuquerque in 1990 and started publishing books on the art, history and culture of the Southwest a couple of years after that.
“She only knew how to go ahead at full speed,” said Don Bullis, a New Mexico history writer published by Awalt and Rhetts. “And she was unapologetic.”
Awalt, co-owner of Rio Grande Books and LPD Press and co-founder of the New Mexico Book Co-op, died on May 13, just two months after she had been diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. She was 67.
“I once said that Barbe was one person I was pretty sure never needed assertiveness training,” said New Mexico writer and humorist Slim Randles, another author published by Awalt and Rhetts. “I have had other publishers but none of them have ever promoted books the way she and Paul did.
“She was hell on wheels and a thorn in the side of people she thought were taking advantage of other people.”
‘Tiger of a woman’
Awalt was born in Baltimore. She earned an undergraduate degree in art education from Towson (Md.) State University in 1973 and a master’s degree in educational administration at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University in 1976. She taught art at the Howard County Public Schools for more than 15 years. She and Rhetts started a public relations firm in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area shortly before they married and built it into a company that represented clients ranging from the FBI to a governor of Arizona.
A shared love for Hispanic devotional art (santos) prompted Awalt and Rhetts’ move to Los Ranchos. In late 1994, they published “Charlie Carrillo: Tradition & Soul,” a book about the prominent santero that they themselves had written and designed.
Awalts and Rhett went on to publish books by Bullis, Randles, Rudolfo Anaya, Francelle E. Alexander, Nasario Garcia and many others. Today, Rio Grande Books and LPD Press, with about 350 titles to its credit, is one of the largest independent publishing companies in New Mexico.
“Her office was the Flying Star on Rio Grande,” said Randles, author of such Rio Grande Books titles as “Ol’ Jimmy Dollar,” a children’s book, and “Home Country,” a collection of humorous essays.
“She’d call and say, ‘I’ll meet you at the office at 10 o’clock,’ and I knew that’s where she meant. I didn’t have a problem with her as an editor. The advice she gave me worked – like not using italics. She said italics made people work too hard.”
Francelle Alexander’s two-volume history of Albuquerque’s North Valley – “Los Griegos & Los Candelarias” and “Alameda & Los Ranchos” – both published by Rio Grande Books, won the 2019 National Federation of Press Women’s award for general nonfiction. Alexander met Awalt and Rhetts about 10 years ago when she approached them with the manuscript of her first book “Among the Cottonwoods,” about the lower Rio Grande villages of Peralta and Los Pinos. Rio Grande Books published “Among the Cottonwoods” in 2012.
“Before that I had never written anything except letters and memos,” Alexander said. “They took a chance on me, gave me a lot of good advice, told me how to clean it up.”
But Alexander admits she was “thoroughly intimidated” by Awalt early on.
“She was a blunt, aggressive, tiger of a woman,” Alexander said. “But I came to be really fond of her. She would take on any battle, including (those) for an author. They (Awalt and Rhetts) were always encouraging me. ‘When are you going to do something on the South Valley?'”
Nasario Garcia, the author of more than two dozen books, including such Rio Grande Books titles as “Grandma Lale’s Magical Adobe Oven,” a bilingual children’s book, and “Bernalillo: Yesterday’s Sunshine/Today’s Shadows,” oral history, said the thing he will miss most about Awalt is her candor.
“She was very frank with me when she needed to be, but not offensive,” he said. “I did not have a problem with frankness. She was very cordial, very professional, very open.”
And Garcia said Awalt had a soft, even sentimental, side.
“At Christmas time, she always had some knickknack, some little gift related to one of your books, that she would give you.”
Champion of causes
Awalt and Rhetts founded the New Mexico Book Co-op in 1994.
“In our first-hand experience of writing and publishing books we found a variety of obstacles for local authors and publishers, not the least of which was establishing an ongoing relationship with bookstores where people could get the (local) books,” Rhetts said. “Barbe was a proponent of the idea that the more people who are behind something, the more likely it would be to succeed. The whole point of the co-op was to promote local books.”
To that end, Awalt and Rhetts started the New Mexico Book Awards program in 2007 and expanded that into the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards in 2012. During the awards program’s first 10 years, 2,282 awards were given in recognition of 1,389 titles.
“Barbe championed all kinds of causes other people might not have taken on,” Rhetts said. “She was a champion for (taking action) against criminal acts or stupid public acts. She was a champion for open government and buying locally. But I think she had a dual personality. She found quiet ways to recharge. She would sit here and watch soap operas.”
In addition to Rhetts, her husband of 37 years, Awalt is survived by her mother, Rosalie Jane Kriete Awalt of Parkville, Md., and a brother, Robert Donald Awalt of Cockeysville, Md.
Services are planned for Wednesday in Parkville. Rhetts said Albuquerque services will be announced later. Instead of flowers, Rhetts requested donations to the Pancreatic Care Action Network, www.pancan.org.
“Barbe particularly wanted me to carry on the banner for the New Mexico Book Co-op and the NewMexico-Arizona Book Awards, and I’m going to keep publishing, too,” Rhetts said. “Her legacy was such that someone has to pick up the banner and keep it waving.”