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In the past 15 months, Margo Shirley has seen two city parks named after Santa Feans. She wonders why none has been named for her late husband, Ron Shirley, who headed up the city’s parks and recreation department for more than a quarter century.
“If anyone deserves it, it’s Ron,” she said in a phone interview last week from Phoenix where she was visiting family, including her and Ron’s three grandchildren. “Ron loved his job. He was vested in the community and vested in his parks. He knew what it meant to have pride in parks because they were his parks.”
Margo noted that her husband, who started with the parks and recreation department as a laborer, was an “exempt” employee who worked under several mayoral administrations over 28 years until retiring in 2007.
“To be in that position for so long and retire is pretty monumental,” she said. “I want to leave that legacy for my children and grandchildren.”
After a five-year battle with cancer, Ron Shirley died in December 2018, two weeks after the City Council voted to rename Torreón Park on West Alameda after Mike Jaramillo under shade of controversy.
Last month, the council approved the naming of a new park on Calle Nueva Vista in the southside Vistas Bonitas subdivision after Bill and Dusty Dawson. A dedication ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday, St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday the Dawsons revered.
Margo Shirley says she’s happy for them.
“I love them. We were patrons of the Green Onion,” she said of the tavern on St. Michael’s Drive owned by the Dawsons.
In fact, she remembers that when she and Ron were married nearly 40 years ago they held their reception at the Green Onion, and the Dawsons were kind enough to cut them a break on the cost.
Margo says efforts to get a park named for her husband have hit roadblocks.
“I have to tell you, I started this process over a year ago and I didn’t realize how political it would be,” she said. “I could have gone around kissing babies if that’s what I needed to do. But I didn’t know how to go about it, so shame on me.”
Parks director John Muñoz said sometimes it take longer than that.
“Dawson Park took three years,” he said. “We went through several iterations before we got there.”
Muñoz said naming a park after someone is a “process” that requires different groups and committees to sign off on.
“So the process continues. We’re looking at various parks and working with our committees.”
Parks and politics
Politics may have been at play more than a year ago when the city named Torreón Park after Mike T. Jaramillo, the late husband of the Santa Fe’s only female mayor, Debbie Jaramillo, and a former city employee.
He was also fired by the city in 1980 for failing to report numerous real estate transactions while serving as zoning administrator. This was during a time when he was subject of a separate investigation by the Attorney General’s Office into “irregularities” with zoning changes.
In 1984, he pleaded guilty to tax evasion for failing to report more than $125,000 in taxes, most of it during the time he was a city employee. For that crime, he served four months in federal prison.
While Jaramillo is credited with Torreón Park’s creation and preservation, one city stipulation for naming is a park after someone is that they “must have been of high integrity and good moral character,” and Jaramillo’s past indiscretions called that into question.
Other requirements are that the person must be deceased, have made significant contributions to the community, have lived in Santa Fe County or have a strong connection to northern New Mexico, or have made charitable contributions of time or money.
Councilors Mike Harris, no longer on the council, and Carol Romero-Wirth cast votes against naming the park after Mike Jaramillo. A compromise motion by Harris to name the park “Jaramillo Torreón Park,” a moniker that would infer recognition of Debbie, as well, was rejected by the Finance Committee.
In addition, at the time the council approved renaming the park after Mike Jaramillo, there was a newspaper report that a “deal” had been struck between Councilor Signe Lindell and Debbie Jaramillo to have Debbie’s photo hung on a wall at City Hall among other former mayors and to have the park named after her late husband.
Other than hanging Debbie Jaramillo’s photo on the wall – something the city presumably had the ability to do all along – it’s unclear what the city got out of the so-called deal.
Lindell maintained there was no quid pro quo and a city spokesman said the report was a mischaracterization of the facts.
Be that as it may, Debbie Jaramillo’s photo is now among the collection of Santa Fe mayors displayed at City Hall and Santa Fe has a park named after a convicted felon.
The luck of the Dawsons
The Dawsons were well-known and well-respected in the community. The Green Onion first opened in 1973 at a different location, but moved to St. Michael’s Drive, where the Irish-style pub evolved into one of the city’s first sports bars, and was a popular hangout for students at the nearby college and police officers. The Dawsons sold the tavern in 1994 and the new owner shut it down 14 years later.
Former mayor Sam Pick proclaimed St. Patrick’s Day 1986 “Bill Dawson Day,” according to the resolution. Pick said then that Bill Dawson had “demonstrated his love for our city in many ways.” The resolution also notes that Bill and Dusty donated money to open Salvador Perez Park.
But the Dawsons appear to have no direct link to the park being named after them, other than that their daughter, Sandy, lives in the Vistas Bonitas subdivision.
The park was initially an open space that was supposed to be developed into a park by the developer, according to a 2019 article in the Santa Fe Reporter. But the developer wasn’t able to get it up to standards before foreclosure put a halt to everything.
While the city did nothing to maintain the less than 1-acre plot for about six years, the park was maintained to some degree by residents of the area. Thanks largely to the efforts of Vistas Bonitas resident Abey Torres, the city took over the park about a year ago.
It is a bit unusual that the resolution to name the park was carried by District 3 City Councilor Roman Abeyta, while the park is located in District 4.
Abeyta says he doesn’t know why the Dawson family came to him with the idea.
“Apparently they had been working with the city even before I got on the council,” he said, adding that initially there was confusion as to which district the park was in. “It was one of the first initiatives that I took on as a councilor. It’s taken this long to get it done.”
City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, in whose district Dawson Park is located, said councilors try not to be territorial when it comes to some issues, such as parks.
“I’m not particularly in favor of councilors homing in on their district. We have to look at the city as a whole,” she said.
Vigil Coppler said she had been approached by Margo Shirley to have a park named for Ron.
“We’ve known each other a long time. She and I were princesas long ago in the 1970s,” referring to members of the royal court during the Santa Fe Fiesta.
She added that she also knew Ron Shirley when they both were city employees, Vigil Coppler a former human resources director.
Vigil Coppler sponsored a resolution to name Alto Park, across town in District 1, for Ron Shirley, but “some of the councilors don’t have an appetite for renaming that park,” she said without naming names.
Parks director Muñoz didn’t answer directly when asked why the proposal to name Alto Park after Shirley was on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission agenda last month, along with the naming of Dawson Park, but was dropped, again saying that naming a park after someone is a “process.”
Margo Shirley said the idea of naming the Municipal Recreation Complex, or MRC, or the Southwest Area Node Regional Park, known as SWAN Park, was also raised. But that too was spurned.
“For some reason, I don’t know why,” she said.
Instead, it was suggested naming a baseball field at MRC after Ron.
“I don’t want a baseball field as a token, because I think Ron deserves more,” she said.
Muñoz said naming a park after Ron Shirley is “in play.” He said he felt Shirley was deserving of having a park named for him.
“Our intention is that we get it in place,” he said. “There other parks that have been named (and it has) taken a while. We’ll continue the process of finding a park the family, committees and parks commission can agree to.”
The city lists a total of 60 parks on its website. Roughly 22, about 37% of them, are named after people. Examples of local people who have had parks named for them include murder victim Adam Gabriel Armijo, former mayor Frank Ortiz and Vietnam War veteran John Griego. Then there are such historical figures as Don Diego De Vargas, César Chávez and Martin Luther King Jr.
The fight continues
According to his obituary, Ron Shirley, who was affectionately known as “Ronnie,” “Shirl” or “Sherpa,” was a 1966 St. Michael’s High School graduate who went on to New Mexico State University. He got a degree in social work and for a time worked in that capacity at La Familia Medical Center and with Santa Fe Public Schools. He went on to head the city’s parks and recreation department, “serving the needs of the community and beautifying his beloved city.”
In retirement, he served as a youth coach and for a while was interim athletic director at Santa Fe High. He served on boards for the Santa Fe Independent Youth League and Santa Maria de la Paz Building Committee at his church.
“He lived his life serving the needs of others as a devoted husband, father, grandfather, uncle, friend, boss, community member and coach,” his obit reads. It goes on to say “his passion for sports was known by all.”
One of the teams Shirley rooted for was the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. And Margo Shirley is as determined as an Ara Parseghian-coached team to get the job done.
“I’ve seen other parks named after people in the past year and I’ll do what I have to do to make it happen,” she said. “I’m going to keep on fighting.”