Editor’s note: The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a twice a month column in which staff writer Elaine D. Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.
Friday night lights have illuminated the city’s first high school stadium for decades.
What’s in its name? Not much at first. The stadium started out with a pretty generic name: Public School Stadium.
It could have been the name of any stadium in any town. That changed when the man who oversaw its construction suddenly died of a heart attack while vacationing in California.
That man was John Milne and he is the longest serving superintendent in Albuquerque Public Schools history. The average tenure, according to the APS website, is just under three years. APS officials appointed Milne superintendent in 1911 and he retired in 1956, dying just a few months later.
Crews began construction on Milne Stadium in the winter of 1939. It is home to the district’s football games and track meets and is often used for statewide high school sporting events. Lights were installed sometime in the 1940s, and the district has completed several other renovations and upgrades to keep the 82-year-old stadium operational.
Milne ushered APS into the modern age. Enrollment sat at 1,500 when he stepped into the role of superintendent and skyrocketed to 38,000 by the end of his tenure. The increase probably came as no surprise. From 1946 to 1956, the population in the city grew from 45,000 to 160,000. APS had only five schools, including one high school, in 1911. It had 64 schools by 1956.
Milne steered the district through that crazy, fast-paced boom.
Stories in Jan. 5 and 6, 1956 editions of the Albuquerque Journal reflected on his time as superintendent in which Milne predicted Albuquerque’s continued growth.
It praised his foresight in buying land to keep up with the district’s growth and demand for more schools.
One of those purchases, was the land on which Milne Stadium sits today. It cost the district $3,300 in 1914. APS began using the property as a playing field, named Bulldog Field in reference to the mascot of Albuquerque High, before building the stadium there.
I don’t think the Public School Stadium name tickled that many fancies. Local media and community members continued to reference the playing field as Bulldog Field until Highland High School opened in 1949.
The school board voted to name the stadium after Milne in 1957 after his death.
According to his obituary, Milne was born in Scotland on Aug. 4, 1880, and came to America when he was 2 years old. He grew up on a farm near El Dorado, Illinois, and played basketball in high school. He went to college and taught briefly.
But Milne almost wasn’t a lifetime educator. It was trees that brought him to New Mexico. The chopped-down kind.
He came to Albuquerque to work for the American Lumber Co. at the urging of a friend. He said he felt like he was in the wild frontier when he first stepped off the train. One of his first outings was to the White Elephant gambling hall and saloon on First Street and Central Avenue.
He stuck it out in the lumber business for two years before deciding maybe his future in lumber wasn’t so bright.
He returned to teaching at APS in 1907. Just a year later, he was promoted as principal of Albuquerque High, the city’s first high school, and then superintendent in 1911.
He again began to question his choice of careers, according to the Jan. 5, 1956, Journal story. He was so discouraged during his first year as superintendent that he made up his mind to resign.
“I decided to tell the board to get someone else and let me go back to the classroom,” he told the Journal in 1956.
His wife Jeannette, also an educator, encouraged him to think about it a little longer before making a final decision.
“I took a different slant after that,” he said. “I learned to leave the problems at the office. Problems have to be settled. But they don’t have to be settled right then.”
He lasted another 44 years.
Milne was a man ahead of his time and a visionary. In the 1930s, when some school districts in New Mexico were segregating, Milne pushed back. According to a 1939 article in Time magazine, “Milne sought out Negro parents, helped them find homes and jobs in Albuquerque, placed their children in his own non-segregated schools.” He also advocated for Spanish-speaking children, insisting that the being multilingual was an asset.
Milne received a letter of praise from President Dwight Eisenhower upon his retirement from APS in 1956. According to an Albuquerque Journal blurb, the letter came on White House stationary and congratulated Milne for his years of service to American education.
In September of 1956, Milne traveled to California with his wife for rest and relaxation but never made it home. He suffered a heart attack after a few months of illness.
The family home he built Downtown near Central and Park Avenues is still standing. It was added to the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties in 1985 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. He lived there until his death.
I don’t know that APS will ever have another four-decade superintendent, but even if it does, Milne Stadium will probably outlive them.