Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
“It’s the end of an era.”
That’s how former Santa Fe Opera general director Charles MacKay described the May 1 death of Santa Fe attorney Thomas “Tommy” Catron III. He was 98.
Catron was instrumental in the founding of the Opera by John Crosby in 1954 and was active on its board for 60 years.
When Crosby came to Santa Fe as a 27-year-old with the seemingly outlandish idea of starting an opera company, Catron volunteered to help.
“Without Tom’s belief in John’s vision and his tireless support over the course of seven decades, the opera and the rich arts community of Santa Fe would not be what it is today,” Santa Fe Opera General Director Robert Meya said in a statement. “He was a man of unmatched principles, a pillar of the community and a kind and selfless crusader for the betterment of humanity.”
Catron’s name opened doors. His grandfather Thomas B. Catron is credited with helping New Mexico achieve statehood in 1912. But the family is also associated with allegations of land grant theft in the late 1800s.
When Tommy Catron was named a Santa Fe Living Treasure in 2007, the organization that bequeathed the award said, “Coming from one of the most illustrious (and perhaps notorious) families in the American era in New Mexico, Thomas B. Catron III faced high expectations from the start. He exceeded them all.”
Catron was the son of Fletcher A. Catron and Carolyn Updike Catron Bergere. He grew up and attended elementary school in Santa Fe, but after his parents’ divorce, he moved to Los Angeles with his mother and stepfather Antonio Luna Bergere.
He attended New Mexico Military Institute for high school. His college years at Stanford University were interrupted when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II.
Catron’s military service took him to Italy, where he was introduced to opera, a lifelong passion.
Another longstanding love affair was with his wife, June Ellis Catron, whom he met in his freshman English class at Stanford in 1940 and married in San Francisco in 1946. The couple had three children, Fletcher, Stephen and Peggy, and celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary days before Catron’s death.
After Tommy Catron completed law school at Stanford, the Catrons moved to Santa Fe, where Tommy joined the Catron law firm on the Santa Fe Plaza founded by his grandfather in 1867.
MacKay said the first time he met Tommy and June Catron was when he was about 8 years old and a member of the Boy Scouts, one of the many civic organizations that Catron was active in. At one point, he was Santa Fe district chairman of the Boy Scouts of America.
“My frame of reference spans 60 years. My overriding impression was that Tom Catron was a really remarkable man. He always treated everyone with respect,” said MacKay, who began his career at the Opera as a parking lot attendant. He later served as general director from November 2007 to October 2018.
During his time on the Opera’s board, Catron held every position possible, MacKay said, including chairman, president, treasurer and secretary.
Catron played a pivotal role in keeping the Opera running when a fire destroyed the first amphitheater in July 1967.
“Tom was probably the one who filled out the insurance forms and obtained construction permits from the county to rebuild,” MacKay said. “He knew everyone. He knew how to make things happen.”
In 1962, Catron led the creation of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation. He served as its chairman for 26 years and on its board until his death. Prior to the foundation’s formation, state museums had no way to solicit donations or acquire.
Catron is credited with facilitating the donation of designer Alexander Girard’s 1,000-piece folk art collection to the Museum of International Folk Art on Museum Hill in Santa Fe. He was also a director and vice president of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, which operates the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art.
In 1972, Catron helped organize Santa Fe’s Capital Bank, which was eventually acquired by Bank of America. Catron served as chairman of the board for 20 years and the bank became Santa Fe’s largest bank.
Catron has been buried in the National Veterans Cemetery in Santa Fe. A memorial service will be held when it is deemed safe for groups to gather in the wake of the coronavirus.