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Leader, philanthropist dies of cancer

Don Chalmers, long-time area businessman, community leader and generous supporter of countless organizations and causes, lost his battle with cancer on Easter Sunday at his home in Las Campanas, near Santa Fe.

He was two weeks away from his 66th birthday, and slated to receive a Distinguished Leadership Award from Leadership New Mexico Annual Awards Dinner on May 2 at Sandia Resort & Casino.

He is survived by his wife, Dianne, their two children, and two grandchildren; he also is survived by two brothers.

Chalmers, who owned Don Chalmers Ford on NM 528, will be remembered as a leader, a mentor, a friend and a partner.


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Tributes flowed this week from the city of Rio Rancho and across the state.

“Personally, he was a good example of a leader, an individual who had a heart to help all people,” former Rio Rancho Mayor Tom Swisstack said. “He was very pro-youth in helping them achieve their dreams, and an individual who was very passionate about what he believed in.”

“I went to him on occasion to help with the Mayor’s Ball and UNM, the start of that process and developing a campus… and sometimes to get his advice on how to approach some economic issues in our community,” Swisstack added. “He was always a gentleman, no matter what the issue was.”

Added newly elected Mayor Gregg Hull: “Over the past two decades, Mr. Chalmers’ name became synonymous with Rio Rancho. His contributions to the city, region and state are immense. Whether it was through his successful auto dealerships or his involvement with numerous educational, health care, economic development and community service initiatives, Mr. Chalmers made a positive impact.”

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry sent his condolences in a statement: “Albuquerque has lost a great man who dedicated himself to the community. He will be greatly missed and it will be up to all of us to carry on his tradition of selfless community service.”

Posting on his Facebook page, Lt. Gov. John Sanchez said, “Don was a dedicated leader in our business community and a passionate philanthropist who faithfully worked to improve the lives of others.”

“Don was an early advocate and a long-time vocal supporter of the Rio Rancho Public Schools,” noted RRPS Superintendent Sue Cleveland. “Each year he supported the top 25 academic graduates at Rio Rancho High School at the Crimson Dinner, while also supporting the 25 students who overcame adversities to earn that diploma at the Phoenix event.  He also supported district’s athletic programs, as he had been an outstanding collegiate athlete.

“Seats & Eats has been a lasting legacy of both Don and Dianne. He was always the most positive, driving force for good,” she said. “His ‘can-do’ attitude was an inspiration to all who were honored to know him and his passing is a profound loss for New Mexico.”


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“When I think of Don, the word ‘generous’ comes to mind immediately, of course,” said Jeanette Miller, director of communications and marketing for United Way of Central New Mexico. “But I also think of Don’s true understanding of the challenges communities face. Don always listened to what was presented to him, then worked to help develop real solutions, particularly for schools.

“The development of Rio Rancho Public Schools ‘SciMatic’ challenges wouldn’t have been possible without his support. I remember, too, how he and Dianne were so instrumental in creating and sustaining Seats & Eats for the Rio Rancho Education Foundation,” Miller added. “What a wonderful legacy.”

Last summer, he led a committee that successfully worked to preserve a quarter-cent sales tax enacted in Rio Rancho for higher education buildings and infrastructure.

“He walked the talk; he led by example,” said Debbi Moore, president and CEO of the Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce. “He encouraged his employees to be involved; he read to the children at the schools.”

She said she remembers calling Chalmers and asking how he was, “and he would always say it’s all chicken but the gravy,” which, as a fellow Oklahoman, she understood.

But there was much more to understand, she said.

“What stands out in my mind, as I process this, is he was a genuine person,” she said. “He cared about his community. He impacted the state of New Mexico. He was sincere, humble; he loved his family; he loved his community; he had such a passion for giving back for leadership — and a passion for selling cars.

“His face lit up when he talked about the impact purchasing a car could have for a family,” she said.

“He would speak every year at our leadership class on ethics and leadership, and he talked about his philanthropy — he was trained that way by his parents,” Moore said. “It wasn’t just money, it was time, and it was being there to give back.”

Chalmers was raised in Tulsa, where he once was a Little League all-star baseball player.

He attended Tulane University where he was a member of Sigma Chi fraternity; he earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing at Oklahoma State University in 1970, and did graduate work on his master’s.

He began his business career in Houston, working for Ford Motor Company. He left Ford after five years to work as a manager in a retail automotive dealership in San Antonio and, two years later, became partner in Sound Ford in Seattle.

During the next 10 years, he built a corporation of eight automobile dealerships in the Seattle area, including 12 franchises at which he employed 700 people.

In 1987, he sold his interests in Seattle and returned to Tulsa, where he owned and managed two successful Chevrolet, Subaru, Suzuki, Hyundai, Kia and Oldsmobile dealerships.

In 1996, he sold his dealerships in the Tulsa area and moved to New Mexico, where he became the owner of Don Chalmers Ford in Rio Rancho and Chalmers Capitol Ford Lincoln in Santa Fe. The Rio Rancho business celebrated a ribbon-cutting on Sept. 4 that year.

“Rio Rancho is the fastest-growing community in the state and we’re really proud to be the first dealership to offer full service to the 50,000 people who live here,” Chalmers told the Observer at the time.

In the almost 18 years that have passed, Chalmers had a hand in countless community and business events and organizations, as well as winning auto industry awards.

“To the business community, he was a leader, a mentor,” Moore said. “It’s our responsibility as a community to listen to the echoes of those footsteps. … I’ll miss him deeply.”

Web extra: A list of groups Chalmers participated in and awards he received is connected to the web version of this article at