ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — We found her – right before her family found me.
Faithful readers of this column will recall the story of little Donna Lee Vigil, who was 3 when she survived a near-drowning in the Santa Fe River on May 5, 1958, because of the heroism of Glen Malin, a 44-year-old World War II Navy veteran.
Malin, a “shy hero” as the Santa Fe New Mexican called him, had not been one to talk about his gallantry. That day at the river he had jumped into the water, scooped up the lifeless child and began resuscitation efforts.
When others arrived to help, he slipped away before anybody could get his name. His identity might have never been known had his boss not contacted the newspaper for what became a front-page story.
But Larry Malin, the youngest of his four sons, thought people should know about his father’s selfless act nearly 63 years ago. He also hoped that telling his father’s story could lead to finding Donna Lee to learn how the life his father had saved turned out.
“I have wondered about her for years,” he said. “I always hoped she had a good life.”
Several of you contacted me after the first column was published on April 15 with leads on several Donna Lees, but never the right one.
But one super sleuth kept looking, and on April 21, the same day a second column on Malin was published, she located birth records for an “unnamed female Vigil,” who would have been 3 in 1958.
I was on the phone with the woman’s husband confirming her identity when my other phone started ringing and my Facebook Messenger started dinging.
Two of her four children living thousands of miles from each other had just seen the column.
“That’s my mom!” daughter Tania Martinez said. “This is exciting news for our family!”
She and the other members of her family spoke gleefully, gratefully, eager to learn more about Glen Malin, who until then they had known only as “the sailor.”
“He’s the reason we are all here,” Donna Lee’s oldest son, Casey Martinez Jr., said. “We wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t saved our mom.”
She is Donna Lee Martinez now, more subdued than her ebullient family. Like Glen Malin, she is shy and modest.
Unlike him, she has shared her story so many times it had taken on almost mythic proportions.
Yet she hadn’t known the story at all until her aunt shared it with her years later. She remembers nothing of the river, how she got there, how she survived.
What she was told was that it was afternoon, almost time for her older sister, Linda, to return from school at Gonzales Elementary on West Alameda, just north of the Santa Fe River and a block south of their home at 901 Alto.
“My auntie said I asked my mother if I could sit on the porch to wait for Linda and she said I could but not to go any farther,” Martinez said.
She went farther.
She was on the bridge above the swift waters when boys came from behind and pushed her, she said. She fell, face down, her tiny body lodged between two boulders.
“I couldn’t swim,” she said. “I still can’t.”
She took swimming lessons when she was about 12. But once she reached the deep end of the pool, she panicked and began sinking to the bottom. She never went near deep water again.
“But I made sure all my kids had swimming lessons when they were very young,” she said. “They’re all excellent swimmers.”
Her life turned out pretty excellent, too. The little girl whose nickname was – and still is – Peanut grew up, met her husband, Casey Martinez, in high school, moved to Albuquerque to attend business school, got married and raised two boys and two girls – two with college degrees, two with their own businesses. She has been happily married for 45 years and is the proud grandmother of nine with a 10th due any day.
She is blessed, she said. And she knows none of it would have been possible had the sailor not saved her.
“I’ve always said how I tried to get in touch with that sailor to thank him,” she said. “I tell everybody that he’s my hero, that angels sent him to me that day.”
The guidance of a guardian angel is what Larry Malin remembers his mother telling him about how his father came to be at that river, late to pick up his two oldest sons at Gonzales Elementary but just in time to save Donna Lee.
That was one of the few times either of his parents had mentioned that day at the river. He was 8 months old then. Years later, he found a copy of the front-page article about his dad’s heroism tucked away in a desk.
That one shining moment at the river had been something good to hold onto during a turbulent childhood. It is something to hold onto even after his father’s death in 1994.
“Our dad may have had many transgressions in his life, but I feel in my heart that when he reached the pearly gates of Heaven and the Book of Life was read, those transgressions were forgiven because he gave life back to the little girl that day,” he said.
He was overjoyed when he learned Donna Lee had been found.
“Sister, if you’ve never seen happiness, I was grinning ear to ear,” he said.
Someday, Malin and Martinez say they hope to meet in person, but for now they are thankful enough to have that final piece of a story they have shared for years.
“I cried tears of joy when I found out that you had been contacted, have a wonderful family and have had a full life,” Malin recently wrote Martinez. “Your story and being contacted has drawn the family together after we had sort of drifted apart and plan to have a reunion. My plan is to hold the brothers to a yearly remembrance and celebration on the anniversary of your rescue, May 5.”
He signed the letter Larry Glen Malin – The Sailor’s Son.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, email@example.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.