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Storyteller ‘Abe’ Peña dies at 87

In the 1950s, Abe Peña was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to study sheep and wool production in Australia. He subsequently helped run what was then the largest sheep ranch in New Mexico. (Courtesy of Don Jaramillo/Cibola Beacon)

In the 1950s, Abe Peña was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to study sheep and wool production in Australia. He subsequently helped run what was then the largest sheep ranch in New Mexico. (Courtesy of Don Jaramillo/Cibola Beacon)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The people of Grants knew Abelicio “Abe” Peña as a storyteller, newspaper columnist, radio and TV host, diplomat, author and historian.

To Don Jaramillo, publisher of the Cibola Beacon, Abe Peña, a columnist there for 25 years, was also “a gentleman and a scholar,” a “natural writer” and someone who always gave 100 percent.

“We all preach it and we say it, but Abelicio lived it,” Jaramillo said.

Peña, 87, a resident of Grants, died Aug. 19.

Jaramillo called Peña “a generous man who spent his retirement years giving back to the community and land he loved most.”

Writing in a column in the Cibola Beacon, Jaramillo said that Peña was among the first people to welcome him to the publishing business some 15 years ago. Peña told him at the time, “There is nothing like the written word. We are honored and blessed to tell stories to people.”

Born in the small New Mexico village of San Mateo, Peña’s family ran a sheep and cattle ranch. He and his four brothers and two sisters spoke Spanish at home and didn’t begin to learn English until they attended school.

After graduating from Grants Union High School in 1944, Peña attended New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (now New Mexico State University) in Las Cruces, graduating in 1949 with a degree in Animal Husbandry. He then became foreman of sheep operations at the Hartsell Ranch in Hartsell, Colo.

With the start of the Korean War, Peña joined the U.S. Army in 1950 and worked with the Veterinary Corps, inspecting meat, eggs and poultry in Chicago and Kansas City, Kan.

In 1953, following his military service, he received a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, where he studied sheep and wool production. He parlayed that experience into a job as foreman of the Frank A. Hubbell Co. Ranch in Quemado, then the largest sheep ranch in New Mexico.

In 1955, Peña married music teacher Viola Ruth Cisneros of Santa Fe, whom he often referred to as “God sent.” The couple had three daughters and a son. Peña and his family returned to his family’s ranch in San Mateo, where he became part owner and operator from 1957 until 1972.

PENA: "We are honored ... to tell stories to people" (Courtesy of Don Jaramillo/Cibola Beacon)

PENA: “We are honored … to tell stories to people” (Courtesy of Don Jaramillo/Cibola Beacon)

During this time, he became involved with and served on the executive boards of numerous civic and trade organizations, including the Western Valencia Stockman Association (Cibola County was formed from Valencia County in 1981), the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, the Grants-West Valencia County Chamber of Commerce, the New Mexico Wool Growers Association, Los Lunas Hospital and Training School, New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and the New Mexico Livestock Board.

Peña had been active with the Republican Party of New Mexico, serving as vice-chairman from 1969-72. He also ran unsuccessful bids for State House and State Senate.

His background in ranching and animal husbandry came in handy in 1972, when Peña accepted an appointment as country director of the Peace Corps program in Honduras. It was the beginning of a 12-year career with the U.S. Foreign Service.

He subsequently became country director for the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, mission director of the United States Agency for International Development in Paraguay and Bolivia, and a Foreign Service recruiter in the United States.

After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1984, he returned to Grants and again became involved in the family’s ranching business, and continuing to be active in volunteer and public service roles.

Peña served as race director for the Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon from 1987-89; an Elder Hostel instructor from 1987-2000; chairman of the Rio Grande Historical Collections, New Mexico State University Library, 1994-95; and board member of the National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico, 1998-2001.

The popular traditions and history column he wrote for the Beacon were expanded into a 1997 book, “Memories of Cibola,” published by the University of New Mexico Press.

He also hosted a local public access TV program in the 1990s, “Enchanting New Mexico,” in which he interviewed personalities, and highlighted area history and cultural attractions, and, in 2004, he started a radio program on KDSK-FM, “Memories of Cibola,” that encouraged area economic development.

Among Peña’s many awards and honors are: 1995 “Citizen of the Year,” shared with his wife Viola, from the Grants/Cibola County Chamber of Commerce; 1987 “Outstanding Centennial Alumnus” and 1978 “Honorary Doctorate” from New Mexico State University; 1977 “Superior Honor Award,” United States Department of State; and 1968 “Conservationist of the Year.”

While still in his 40s, a horse riding incident caused a spinal cord injury that forced Peña to gradually move from using a cane to a walker to a wheelchair. These physical setbacks, however, never slowed him down, family members said.

He is survived by his wife, three daughters, a son, a brother, two sisters, a sister-in-law, three granddaughters, two grandsons and two great-grandchildren.

Services for Peña were held Saturday at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Grants. Burial followed at Grants Memorial Park.