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Fairies rock! And a bright spot for a deserving chemist

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One thing you can say about rocks is that we have plenty of them.

In a state built on limestone, sandstone and shale, that’s not surprising.

But what is surprising is how many rock fairies we have.

I recently wrote a column about such a rock fairy, who painted small stones and scattered them around her Northeast Heights neighborhood along with clues for a scavenger hunt.

“She is an incredible artist!” reader Jane Ripple told us.

We traveled to Ripple’s neighborhood off Louisiana NE in search of this elusive Rock Fairy, but though we found many colorful examples of her handiwork we did not find her. And maybe, I said, it was just enough to know there are rock fairies like her out there, trying to bring a smile and sprinkle a little fun, a little joy into their communities.

This rock, featuring a painted image of the Albuquerque Journal, was found in the yard of Jane Ripple. It appears to be a thank you for her alerting the Journal to the presence of a Rock Fairy in her neighborhood. (Courtesy of Jane Ripple)

The column, which was published July 25, was labeled a Bright Spot, a designation the Journal uses for stories to make you smile.

I hope you did.

Then came your emails and posts, and I was the one smiling.

Joann Danella wrote that Corrales is a haven for rock fairies like her, their handiwork present along ditch banks, horse trails and the folds of stately cottonwoods. The fairies even have a Facebook page called Corrales Rocks!, which has 173 members.

“When walking down the ditch banks between Corrales Road and Loma Larga you will find little surprises of fun, encouragement and joy. We have painted and planted 50 rocks for folks to enjoy,” said Annette Hoffman-Rodden, another rock fairy. “We are asking others to add rocks, too.”

Across town in the Sandia foothills, Diane Ogawa has been posting photos of rocks she finds on her walks since April, many of them painted with uplifting words such as “Be mindful,” “You’re the best” and “Just listen.”

“The rock fairies have been busy,” she said.

In the West Side community of Andalucia, rock fairies craft their stones with useful messages.

“They are painted rocks with cute masked faces, reminding us silently to mask up,” Corinne Berendt wrote. “My friend/neighbor and I have painted numerous rocks with illustrative and worded reminders for dog walkers to pick up their poop.”

Back in Ripple’s neighborhood, a new rock appeared two days after the column was published, this one right in her front yard.

The rock had the painted image of the Albuquerque Journal with the headline “Rock Fairy” and the words “Thank you!” It was signed by RF.

Some wise sage said, enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things. These painted rocks are put there by people who want only to spread a little joy, provide a bright spot, maybe a little wisdom to strangers who pass by. They remind us of the goodness still in this crazy world and they beckon us to become rock fairies, too, spreading joy.

And that’s pretty big.

bright spotA bright spot at last

You have to admire the tenacity of Ken Gillen, a retired Sandia National Laboratories chemist who hoped that his prestigious award in the field of rubber technology was bright enough to be considered a Journal Bright Spot.

He emailed the newsroom May 16 but never heard back. He sent several more. He also sent emails to me, and those, too, got lost in the clutter.

Weeks passed. But he didn’t give up. He contacted our circulation department, which in turn contacted me. To my embarrassment, I found two previous emails from him.

Ken Gillen

Gillen is the first person from a national laboratory to win the 2020 Melvin Mooney Distinguished Technology Award from the Rubber Division of the American Chemical Society, but that’s not the only reason he tried so hard to get his news in the newspaper.

“I have been a subscriber to the Journal for 45 years and I have always wanted to get my picture in the paper besides an eventual obituary,” he wrote.

I can certainly appreciate that.

We can all appreciate Gillen for the work he and his Sandia colleagues have done over the years with aging polymers, researching the effects of temperature, radiation, humidity and mechanical stress on the rubber we use in everything from children’s toys to the seals in nuclear weapons. Every time we get in our cars, we can thank Gillen for the strength and endurance of our tires. Every time we walk on a floor, wear kitchen gloves, spot a satellite in the sky or undergo surgical procedures requiring the use of medical tubing, we can thank Gillen.

His award thanks him for his “exceptional technical competence by making significant and repeated contributions to rubber technology.”

Gillen retired from Sandia in 2004 after 30 years, but he continues doing research, writing papers and giving talks.

He not only deserves his bright spot. He is one.

I’m honored to share his light with you.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793,, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.

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