You remember it. Christmas Eve 1992, the night a young family was all but obliterated on its way home from midnight Mass; a once honorable man named Gordon House became the most despised person in New Mexico; and a powerhouse of a woman with a poofy hairdo and a God-fearing faith that not even the worst tragedy – and this was that – could shake emerged as the most formidable crusader for DWI reform this state has ever known.
That woman was Nadine Milford.
|Coming Christmas Eve|
|The Milford family has created a commemorative video to
share with the public. A link will be posted on ABQjournal.com on Monday. UPDATE: Here’s the video
“I want the world to know why my babies died,” Milford said in one of the first interviews she gave after House, fueled with 7 1/2 beers, went speeding down Interstate 40 the wrong way west of Albuquerque, slamming head-on into an Oldsmobile driven by Paul Cravens, severely injuring him and killing his wife, Melanie Cravens, 31, and her daughters Kandyce, 9, Erin, 8, and Kacee, 5.
Melanie was Milford’s daughter. Her girls were Milford’s granddaughters.
“I’ll do anything it takes to keep this before the public,” she said then. “I’m sick of it.”
And so were we. I remember editing that first story about the crash and thinking that a woman who could be as poignant and as powerful as Milford was, just hours after having her heart ripped out, might finally be the one to finally shake New Mexico from its drunken, deadly stupor.
She tried. Lord, did she try.
During the next legislative session, which began days after the deadly crash, the then-54-year-old woman who had been content to quietly raise her children and praise her God became a ubiquitous figure in Santa Fe, fighting for reform of DWI laws and rankling some powerful lawmakers with her blunt criticism of what she called the “snake pit” of slimy dealings at the Roundhouse.
“I don’t care what they say or what they think,” she said in a 1993 interview. “Ultimately, I am going to win. Watch me.”
And we did. And she did. That year, with her efforts, the Legislature passed bills that decreased the presumed level of intoxication from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent, increased a fourth DWI charge from a misdemeanor to a felony, imposed a mandatory DWI education course for new drivers and required additional training for alcohol servers.
Later, as president and lobbyist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in New Mexico, she was instrumental in the state’s decision to shut down drive-up liquor windows and increase penalties for vehicular homicide from three to six years. Paul Cravens’ brother, former state Sen. Kent Cravens, also fought for anti-DWI legislation, including passing a law that requires an interlock device for first-time DWI offenders.
Was it enough? No. After a slow but steady decline, New Mexico traffic fatalities have jumped nearly 25 percent this year to the highest level since 2007, with DWI considered a factor in the increase.
“It breaks my heart to see the latest DWI fatality reported on the news, and I think sometimes I need to jump back into the fight,” said Milford, whom I visited this week at her West Side home days before the 20th anniversary of That Night.
But time has moved on. She is 74 now, her body worn down from the stress of those years. Husband Bob has health problems of his own that require her attention.
No, Milford has done more than her share to fight our state’s drinking problem, grieving on the run in those early years as she stormed lawmakers’ offices and provided sound bites to media to keep the battle of the bottle in the public eye.
These days, she is content to keep close to home and surround herself with her large family. Since That Night, six grandchildren have been born and the first great-grandchild is on the way.
Christmas Eve for Milford and her family had been unbearable in those early years, so several years ago they created a new way to celebrate – no presents, just one another’s presence in a day of play, family teams, cheers, scavenger hunts, games, skits and anything else they can come up with to simply smile and enjoy one another.
They call it their Christmas Extravaganza.
“There comes a point in your grief where you can choose to sit in the pain or jump back into life to make things better – this is better,” Milford said. “We don’t dread Christmas anymore.”
Healing, she said, isn’t a miracle but a journey, and the road she has chosen is one of faith and forgiveness.
At House’s February 2009 parole hearing, the family did not oppose his early release from prison. With credit for good time under the law at the time, House was released from prison in 2009 after serving nearly 11 years of his 22-year sentence.
Milford has been professing that forgiveness since she stood in the chill of the crash site That Night and heard God speak to her, telling her she would be given beauty for ashes.
She didn’t understand that then. She does now.
“We survived,” she said. “We’re OK. We’ve picked up the pieces of our lives, and we are so, so blessed. That’s beauty.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal