Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
You didn’t have to know Jim Belshaw personally to understand who he was. He revealed his many layers, the things he loved and the things he abhorred, his sense of humor and his sense of decency in the thousands of columns he wrote for the Albuquerque Journal from the early ’80s until his retirement in 2009.
More importantly, he told the stories of New Mexico’s people, people you might not have known about if he had not introduced them, people you may have too quickly forgotten if he had let you.
Journal staff writer Dan McKay recalls the columns Belshaw wrote about a 29-year-old man, a chemical analyst, who was so badly beaten by a gang of skinheads that he remained in a coma for weeks and sustained permanent brain damage.
“He wrote extensively about that case, the impact it had on the victim and the victim’s family,” McKay said. “It is common for us to dip in and dip out of a story, but he stuck with that story, a recovery that took years, how it changed the victim’s life. He made you see how crime is something people have to grapple with. It’s not just a headline.”
Belshaw suffered a stroke at his Corrales home a week ago and died Saturday at an Albuquerque hospital. He was 78. Survivors include his wife, Elizabeth “Liz” Staley. Services are pending.
The Journal’s voice
“He was the voice of the Journal for decades,” said Tom Harmon, an editor and editorial writer at the Journal from 1978-2009. “He was passionate about people who were getting a raw deal.”
Harmon said Belshaw could turn names in the paper into people readers could relate to, and he remembers in particular a column Belshaw wrote about a customer who was shot and killed during a nighttime robbery at a convenience store.
“ Jim found out the victim was a guy who came in every night, had a cup of coffee and talked with the clerk,” he said.
Belshaw made trips to Vietnam in 1994, 1995 and 2003, and sent back stories about American veterans returning things they had taken from that country and exchanging information with the Vietnamese that might help both sides find those missing in action. Harmon took Belshaw’s dictation for some of those articles.
“They were warm-hearted stories about these soldiers on both sides finding their humanity across old battle lines,” he said.
Belshaw’s columns could summon up sympathy or outrage among his readers, but they could also make people smile or laugh out loud.
Here he is writing about the time he and Tony Hillerman, best-selling Albuquerque author of mystery-suspense fiction, former University of New Mexico journalism professor and Belshaw’s longtime friend, went to a Super Bowl game together only to discover, much to their horror, that their hotel room had just one bed.
“It was king-size – but still one bed. We stared at it for a long time, the way guys stare at a broken car engine in the hope it will fix itself.”
Tim Coder, an editor at the Journal and Journal North from 1985-2006, reveled in Belshaw’s humor.
“Jim was never without an opinion,” Coder said. “He raged at the political state and the fractious state of this republic. But the columns I remember most are the frivolous columns he wrote about Dr. Swamp Cooler.”
Those columns were based on Belshaw’s semi-annual struggles with his own swamp cooler.
“When I thought he could not get funnier, he did,” Coder said.
A Chicago guy
Belshaw was born on the South Side of Chicago.
“You can’t talk about Belshaw without talking about Chicago – the South Side,” said Coder, who is also from Chicago’s South Side. “He loved his adopted state of New Mexico – the people, it’s quirkiness and beauty – but he remained a Chicago guy at heart with old loyalties and grudges.”
He said Belshaw was a huge fan of the South Side’s Chicago White Sox and took no joy when the North Side’s Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016, ending a series victory drought that went back to 1908.
“He wanted the North Siders to suffer the curse forever,” Coder said. “I always told him he could have written for the Chicago Tribune. Jim could have touched the people in Chicago with the way he wrote.”
Belshaw joined the Air Force after graduating high school in 1962. He served eight years in base security and was introduced to New Mexico when he was assigned to a radar site 10 miles west of Albuquerque. He left that post in 1968 and, in 1969, he served with a K-9 (police dog) sentry unit at Ubon Air Base in Thailand.
Discharged in 1970, he returned to New Mexico and enrolled at UNM as a journalism major. Hillerman was his freshman adviser. He graduated from UNM in 1973, joined the Journal in 1974, left the paper in 1975 for a two-year stint with UNM’s public information office, and then returned to the Journal as assistant city editor.
“I took Belshaw’s place as assistant city editor,” Harmon said. “On that job, you worked nighttimes, Saturdays and Sundays. Jim wanted to move to the features desk, but he couldn’t until he found someone to take his place. I just wanted a job, and I think he helped me get it because he wanted out of it. He’d say, ‘This guy is great. He really catches on fast.’ ”
Belshaw became Journal features editor and, a few years later, started writing his columns, which appeared, along with his mugshot, several times a week.
In 1982, Staley, Belshaw’s wife, left a copy editor job at The Albuquerque Tribune to take a reporter’s position at the Journal. That’s when she got to know Belshaw. They were married in 1986, but she said she fell in love with his writing first.
“I was a copy editor,” she explained. “But I had the privilege of having a front-row seat to the genesis of Jim’s column writing. It started off well, but, as he found his voice and hit his stride, the columns went from good to excellent to people asking each other if they’d read Belshaw that day.”
Early on, readers were asking each other if they had read Arnholz. Belshaw’s father died when he was 8, and he grew up using and, for a lot of years, writing under Arnholz, his stepfather’s name. But, in the early ’90s, he took back his birth name.
Staley said he worried how the name change might affect his identity among his readers, “but there was never a hiccup.”
She said he took everything about his columns very seriously.
“Once his columns were in the paper, he refused to be in the same room while I read them,” she said. “But, if he heard me laugh, he’d have to know what I was enjoying.”
She said most of his columns evolved from things he noticed in newspapers, the Journal or the several other papers he read in the pre-dawn hours each day.
It was an article about the 1999 murders of three young men in Albuquerque’s East Mountains that made Belshaw aware of the Rev. John Carney, a tough-talking Catholic priest who had served as an Army combat officer in Vietnam prior to his ordination. A call he made to Carney resulted in a friendship that lasted until Belshaw’s death.
“I don’t think two weeks ever went by without me calling Jim,” said Carney, who is now retired in Rio Rancho. “I never met a man with greater intensity and passion for justice and fair play – especially for the ‘little guy.’ He hated bullies. He hated hard-hearted bureaucracy. He could not stand it. He would just jump up and down.”
The poker game
Belshaw was a principal figure in a near-legendary poker game played – at first weekly and later twice weekly – from at least 1975 until COVID’s rude interruption. Hillerman, who died in 2008, was a mainstay in the game, as were other Albuquerque authors, educators and journalists.
Mike Gallagher, a Journal investigative reporter from 1986 until his retirement this year, joined the game in the 2000s.
“There were nights when those guys just ate my lunch,” Gallagher said of the others at the card table. “Jim was actually a very good poker player. I guess he learned that in the military. The best part of the game was listening to Jim tell stories – him and Hillerman. The stories were priceless, worth being there even if you were losing.”
More recently – and again before COVID’s intrusion – Belshaw enjoyed getting together with other newspaper veterans for Friday morning coffee at Hannah & Nate’s, a Corrales cafe. Coder was part of that group.
“Former readers would stop at Hannah & Nate’s, study his face and the light bulb would flick on,” Coder said. ” ‘Didn’t you used to be Jim Belshaw,’ they’d ask. He loved it.”