She wouldn’t stop.
Edith Surgan was a woman possessed, organized and articulate, and energetic to a point where it was hard, perhaps impossible, to say no to her.
Surgan and her husband, Philip, moved to Albuquerque in 1976 and began shaking things up – including the state’s most powerful officials – championing the cause of victims of violent crime with her story, her speeches, her charisma and her words, plunked out on an old portable typewriter on her kitchen table.
I have been fortunate to know many champions of crime victims. Pat Caristo. Joan Shirley. Lois Duncan. Sandy Dietz. Terry Huertaz. Nadine Milford. Linda Atkinson. Patti March. Robin Brulé. And so many more parents who have turned their grief into advocacy.
Until recently, I had not heard of Surgan, but I’ve learned she is worth knowing about. Allow me to introduce you to this spitfire, arguably the first in New Mexico to push for the rights of, and reparation for, victims of crime and their families.
“I know what it feels like to be a victim,” she said during one of her many speeches. “I know what it’s like to be shunned, to be made to feel like what happened was your own fault, even though that’s not true. I know what it all feels like.”
For her, it began on a cold night in November 1974 when her only daughter was stabbed to death on her college campus in Long Island, New York, by a man she described as an “escaped mental patient.”
Helen Surgan was 19.
It took six years for Gerald Melton, 27, to be treated to competency, at least enough to plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter, then be sent back to a psychiatric hospital.
The pain and the ordeal was so relentless that the Surgans moved away from Tenafly, New Jersey, landing in Albuquerque two years after their daughter’s death.
But the pain followed Edith. So, she channeled that pain into the typewriter that had been her daughter’s high school graduation present. She typed volumes of letters to the editor, to judges, prosecutors, parole board members and legislators about how absurd the law was, providing plenty of rights to criminals, but nearly none to victims.
She wrote frequently to the Journal. In August 1979, she railed against a wire article published in the paper about convicted armed robber Michael “Red” Brown, who became a model prisoner and book author behind bars in California.
“In the entire news story, there was not one word about the victim of the many crimes committed by Red Brown,” she wrote. “Yes, all the justice is for the criminals. None is for the victims. The victims are forgotten and ignored.”
Soon, her words became speeches, and her speeches became action.
“The person who does these things is helped,” she told one group. “That person gets legal help. He can get psychiatric help. They have rehabilitation programs. All of this is done with taxpayers’ money. And not one penny is given to the victims. The state has to take care of the offenders. We realize this and we don’t begrudge the money that has to be spent on that. But doing absolutely nothing for the people who really and truly are innocent victims of crime just doesn’t make any sense.”
In 1978, she founded the Crime Victims Assistance Organization, a support group and a band of advocates for victims’ rights.
Among those who joined were sisters Carole Chavez Rael and Sandra Carver, whose father had been shot to death in 1976 in a burglary by a farm hand he had sometimes hired for odd jobs.
Frank Chavez was the original owner of the Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico, home of the famous green chile cheeseburger. He was killed in his home behind the Owl.
“Edith was great,” Rael said. “She was tireless and organized, and she always gave us direction on what we needed to do to convince the legislators of the need for changes in the system.”
In 1981, Surgan, the sisters and other members convinced legislators to pass a bill establishing the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission, which provides monetary compensation to victims. Gov. Bruce King appointed Surgan the commission’s first chairwoman.
Surgan and her group continued to lobby for what was then groundbreaking rights for crime victims, among them more compensation, providing victim impact statements to judges before sentencing, restricting profits a defendant can make through the sale of books or movie rights, and requiring that victims be notified if the defendant is released.
Even breast cancer did not slow down Surgan, Rael said.
“She told us about the diagnosis, so we knew all along,” she said. “But she kept going, kept organizing.”
In 1984, it was clear that the cancer treatments had not worked.
“She was getting weaker by the day,” Rael said. “But she wouldn’t stop. She was still making calls right until the end.”
Surgan died July 16, 1984. She was 62.
Every year, the National Organization for Victim Assistance presents the Edith Surgan Award, an honor for her and for the person who carries on the cause for crime victims.
But her true legacy is the trail she blazed for those who refuse to let her work ever stop.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.