Tom Popejoy’s vision was to bring world-class performances to the stage in New Mexico

 

Editor’s note: The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a twice a month column in which staff writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.

 

Decades ago, the University of New Mexico’s longest serving president had a vision of Broadway in the desert.

Tom Popejoy, left, with an associate on Oct. 14, 1966. (Journal File)

It took political wrangling and the fortitude to endure a marathon fundraising campaign, but Tom Popejoy would see that vision built on university grounds.

The world-class Popejoy Hall opened in October 1966, marking the state’s first true venue built for the performing arts.

But getting there was not easy.

In 1945, voters approved a tax increase to pay for a new city auditorium. The city and UNM agreed to build it on a portion of the campus golf course. The Korean War delayed construction and when they revisited the project in the early 1950s, the climate had changed.

An undated photo Popejoy Hall on the campus of University of New Mexico. (Journal File)

Political heavyweight Clyde Tingley, who was chairman of the city council, opposed the idea. Tingley, like Popejoy, was a man of vision and a powerful advocate for progress, pushing Albuquerque into the future one brick at a time. The problem was they didn’t have the same vision.

Tingley wanted a bigger venue with 7,000 seats, instead of Popejoy’s proposed 2,000. He also didn’t like the location, calling it “a hole nobody can find.” The university and the city parted ways on the project, the city taking with it the voter-approved funding.

Popejoy wasn’t about to give up. It would take him 10 years to raise enough money. His son, Thomas, has been quoted as saying that his father “told me he begged, borrowed and stole the money. It was a joke.”

Popejoy secured the necessary funding and the concert hall got built. UNM named it in Popejoy’s honor on May 5, 1968.

The interior of Popejoy Hall, which holds nearly 2,000 people. (Courtesy of Popejoy Presents)

Although I grew up here, I was pretty oblivious as to why it was named Popejoy. As a child, I thought it had something to do with Christmas. As an adult, I thought, well maybe, I still thought the same thing. It would not have been that hard to learn who Popejoy was if I had tried. His life left a large footprint on the state.

An UNM professor once wrote in a memo that “Tom Popejoy shows considerable promise …”

Promise indeed.

Popejoy was the first native New Mexican to be named president at UNM. He was appointed in 1948 and upon his retirement in 1968, 90 permanent buildings had been added to the 500-acre campus, including a new science building, the medical school and Popejoy Hall. The football stadium and The Pit were also his idea. Under his tenure, enrollment jumped from 5,000 students to more than 14,000.

Tom Popejoy grew up on a cattle ranch near Raton and first came to UNM not as a employee, but as a student. He enrolled for his freshman year in the early 1920s and played both football and baseball. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and upon graduating began working as a UNM economics instructor. The school had less than 1,000 students at the time. He probably didn’t know then, but he would someday lead the school to enrollment numbers more than 10 times that amount.

Popejoy worked his way up taking on several administrative duties, including student adviser and graduate manager of athletics, and finally comptroller before becoming president.

He was tenacious and steadfast when it came to his beliefs. He defended the right to free speech for his faculty and students during the Cold War, although it made him a target of local critics.

And when the university hired Chester Travelstead as dean for the College of Education in 1956 shortly after Travelstead was fired from the University of South Carolina for making a speech condemning racial segregation, Popejoy once again refused to be swayed by critics. During the news conference to announce the hiring, a reporter asked Popejoy “Did you know that Travelstead was fired from the University of South Carolina?” Popejoy answered “Well, yes. We looked at that as a recommendation.”

Two years spent in Washington D.C., when he took a hiatus from UNM to serve as deputy director of the National Youth Administration, lit a fire under Popejoy, making him determined to provide New Mexicans with access to the same caliber of performances he found there.

Today, Popejoy Hall is the state’s premier performance hall and has welcomed great Broadway hits such as the “The Book of Mormon,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Wicked,” “Lion King,” and the much anticipated “Hamilton.”

Popejoy Hall has served as a bridge between the university and the community. According to the 50-year anniversary documentary, Tom Popejoy referred to Popejoy Hall as the university’s handshake with the community.

Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at ebriseno@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”

 

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