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Family Fun Center founder dies

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Despite growing up during the Great Depression on a struggling family farm in Missouri, Gene Ellis Hinkle became a successful businessman, guided by the work ethic and life philosophy that “there’s never a problem, only an opportunity,” said his son, Bryan Hinkle.

Hinkle worked in finance and real estate ventures but is best known as the founder of the Hinkle Family Fun Center in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights.

Hinkle, 92, died July 31 at his home, surrounded by his family.

Businessman Gene Hinkle, beset known for establishing the Hinkle Family Fun Center, died July 31. He was 92.

“It was a nice way for him to go. There were no doctors or hospitals,” Bryan said. “Especially in this COVID era, it would just have been terrible for him to not have family around.”

His father, he said, wasn’t ill. “He just started slowing down,” even playing golf until near the end.

“He lived on the golf course at Canyon Club (formerly Four Hills Country Club), and he’d go out his back door and play the 5, 6 and 7 holes,” his son said.

From an early age, Gene Hinkle worked hard on the family farm, getting up with the sun to milk cows, feed hogs, chickens and horses, cut hay and shuck corn. Much of what was raised on the farm was sold in the family’s general store, where Hinkle often worked after school.

The experience taught him that he really didn’t want to be a farmer and that college could be the door to more lucrative possibilities, Bryan said.

He enrolled at the University of Missouri in 1945, where he met Betty Lou Blake, a beauty queen and cheerleader, who would later become his wife. Hinkle worked summer jobs as a smoke jumper in Montana, Idaho and Canada, hopping freight trains to get from one assignment to another. He graduated with a degree in business administration in 1950.

He followed Betty to Albuquerque, where she had moved with her family because her mother, sick with tuberculosis, was told the climate would be better for her health.

On Thanksgiving Day 1950, Hinkle and Betty were married. His new career as a bill collector for Securities Acceptance Corp., was interrupted in 1951 with a stint in the Air Force during the Korean War era, where he served on military bases in the United States.

At the conclusion of his military obligation, Hinkle resumed his business career, gravitating from collecting bills to selling life insurance to selling homes. In 1956 he started his own real estate company, Gene Hinkle & Co., and two years later he merged with George Walker in Walker and Hinkle Inc., which conducted all facets of residential, commercial and industrial real estate, including sales, leasing and management.

In 1959, Hinkle was involved in the inception, construction and development of the 18-story office building at San Mateo and Central that would become home to the First National Bank, and for years was the tallest building in New Mexico.

Walker and Hinkle parted ways about 1980. That led to the creation of the Hinkle Corp., which continued to invest in land, develop shopping centers and commercial buildings, and build entertainment centers, including the United Artists Regal Theaters and the Hinkle Family Fun Center, which was “the thing that brought him the most enjoyment and pride,” said son Bryan.

“A lot of kids who grew up and went to the fun center or worked there as kids now take their own kids there,” he said.

While developing the fun center at Indian School and Tramway NE, neighbors tried to stop Hinkle from including go-cart and bumper boat features, expressing concerns about the noise. Hinkle redesigned and lowered the go-cart track as a noise buffer and had noise studies conducted to show that the noise levels were in compliance, Bryan said.

The property was zoned to accommodate the park’s features, and the city initially issued Hinkle a permit, but then withdrew it under continued pressure from neighbors, he said. His father subsequently filed a lawsuit that went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the city must issue Hinkle the permit and pay him $1.5 million in damages.

Hinkle was the founder and charter president of the Albuquerque Economic Development Group, a former president of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, and was a member of numerous civic groups, including the Optimist’s, Toastmasters and Sertoma clubs, and the Economic Forum.

Hinkle is survived by his wife of nearly 70 years, Betty; their four children, Randy, Doug and Bryan Hinkle, and daughter Cindy Hinkle Keeran; seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

A private funeral and graveside service will be held for him.

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