Remembering the late Jim Cleveland, he will be missed by many

Jim Cleveland takes to the floor at a 2014 Cleveland High School basketball game.
(Gary Harron/ Rio Rancho Observer)

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — After spending the past few years in declining health, Jim Cleveland, 74, passed away on May 24.

He was the husband of Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent Sue Cleveland, a former member of many community boards and an active supporter of student-athletics.

He was born April 17, 1945, in Pennsylvania.

After high school graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, where he met and married Sue Horton. After separating from the Air Force, he enrolled at New Mexico State University, earning a mechanical engineering degree.

He had a career in engineering design and heat-treating at two tool companies in Houston, and in forging at a bearing company in South Carolina.

The Clevelands headed to Rio Rancho in 1994, after Sue took on the job of being the first superintendent for RRPS. After working as a consultant, Cleveland focused raising their two sons.

He played a role in many high-school sports happenings in the city, especially when it was time to see his sons, James and then Royce, play for the Cleveland High baseball team.

“I know Jim did a lot of volunteer work for Cibola Little League and for Mountain View Middle School before I ever got to know him,” said former RRPS Athletic Director Bruce Carver. “He was a great volunteer for us at RRPS. He loved watching games and a variety of sports.

Carver said Cleveland gravitated to baseball since his sons played, but he helped out long before and after they were on the team.

“He was a hard worker and just loved helping in any way he could,” Carver continued. “… He was always friendly and laughing — a great guy to be around.”

Cleveland helped New Mexico Activities Association directors Gary Tripp and Sally Marquez for years at several state tournaments.

“Jim was very close to (my wife) Jeannette and I,” recalled Tripp. “Jeannette taught both James and Royce, so we have been close since James was in third grade. Jim took care of the officials at Santa Ana Star Center during the state basketball tournament for many years and the umpires at Cleveland High School for the state baseball tournament. He was loved and appreciated by not only officials, but many New Mexicans that enjoyed his kindness when they came to NMAA state tournaments. I know the Tripp household appreciated his loyal friendship.”

Marquez said Cleveland was part of the NMAA family for years.

“He was the smile that coaches and officials in both volleyball and basketball looked forward to when playing at Santa Ana Star Center,” she said. “Jim never met a stranger; he (was) always giving an encouraging word to anyone he met.”

Dusty Young, an associate director for the NMAA, met Cleveland not long after joining the association.

“He was a great man and a true joy to be around,” Young said. “I looked forward to hosting games at Cleveland High School because I knew he would not only be there to help the event run smoothly, but he also had a way of keeping things light during a hectic week of state championships. He loved to talk, but also enjoyed listening and he definitely earned my utmost respect after just a few meetings.”

Gary Hveem, the district’s first athletic director, was friends with Cleveland for 22 years.

“He and Dr. (Sue) Cleveland were a dynamic force in the building of Rio Rancho Public Schools,” Hveem said. “The major thing, I think, was his genuine friendliness and compassion for young people. The two of them together watched not only their children grow, but the children of hundreds of parents over the years in the enrichment of Rio Rancho Public Schools.”

RRPS Athletic Director Larry Chavez called Cleveland an extraordinary man. He remembers Cleveland serving as a court monitor for Gus Macker/Hoop it Up tournaments and filling water jugs at baseball games.

“Jim was a free spirit and had a smile on his face all the time,” Chavez added. “People like Jim don’t come along that often and will be sorely missed by anyone involved in (RRPS).”

Kim Vesely, RRPS special projects and district analyst, echoed Chavez’s comments.

“Jim was a great, giving gentleman — quiet and reserved, but underneath that reserve was a guy who embraced adventure and deeply loved his family, his friends and his community. In addition to white-water rafting, kayaking, biking, sports of all sorts, coaching, trains and travel, he loved balloons and going ballooning,” she said.

Vesely recalled that Cleveland would call her with an offer to help every year before the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

As a volunteer for Albuquerque Aloft, a program that has hot-air balloons inflate and possibly take off at local schools, Cleveland arrived at the designated Rio Rancho school earlier than even Vesely, a balloon pilot, she recalled.

“He was a man of strong faith, a deacon in his church and spent countless hours helping out at schools, on civic boards and at sporting events,” Vesely said. “But above all, I knew Jim as James’ and Royce’s full-time daddy. He was a terrific father and a great role model for his sons, who grew up into fine young men.

“And in becoming a stay-at-home father, he gave not only his own children but all children in Rio Rancho a great gift, allowing his wife, Sue, to direct her energy toward building the Rio Rancho school district,” Vesely continued. “I’ll miss him.”