National radio and TV talk show host Don Imus says there’s more than one reason behind the decision to shut down the New Mexico ranch he co-founded for children with cancer.
Imus points out his age – 74 – and says his son, Wyatt, born the year the ranch was established, is 16, a high school rodeo star in Texas and about to head to college.
Then, there is Imus’ health. In 2000, he was thrown from a horse at the ranch, suffering five broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a broken collarbone and a separated shoulder.
“I just never recovered from that,” Imus said in a telephone interview last week. “It’s difficult to breathe there (at the ranch). I’m on oxygen all the time.”
The elevation of the ranch, outside the small community of Ribera in San Miguel County, is more than 6,000 feet.
Imus announced in 2009 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, joking that he would be “changing the name of the Imus cattle ranch for kids with cancer to the Imus cattle ranch for kids with cancer and me.”
Financial considerations were also behind the decision to close the ranch. It’s a year-round working cattle ranch but hosts children only in the summer.
The ranch costs more than $2 million a year to operate. Imus either has to raise most of that money or come up with it out of his own pocket. Imus says he won’t have that kind of income once he leaves the air.
“Our business plan when we founded the ranch wasn’t a good one,” he says, adding that he has already pumped $10 million to $12 million of his money into the ranch.
Imus says he and his wife, Deirdre Coleman Imus, think they can help more organizations and children with the proceeds from the sale of the ranch and interest earned on the money.
The Imus Ranch is a nonprofit organization, meaning it owns the property and the sale proceeds will flow to it and not the Imuses. They are, however, directors of the nonprofit.
The ranch, spread over more than 2,400 acres of juniper, sagebrush and cactus and including a 15,000-square-foot hacienda featured in Architectural Digest, is listed for sale at $32 million. Nearby vacant land privately owned by the Imuses is also on the market for $3 million.
Imus says he would like the ranch to be sold to someone who would do something similar with it.
“It’s just time to move on,” he says.
Bill Richardson, who visited the ranch while governor and has often been a guest on Imus’ show, says Imus has brought attention to New Mexico through his show and the ranch.
“Don Imus and his ranch are a part of New Mexico lore, part of New Mexico culture,” Richardson says. “He’s been very identified with New Mexico.”
Richardson was a sometimes-target of Imus’ caustic talk, but he was one of Imus’ first guests when Imus returned to the air in 2007 after being off for eight months because of racist and sexist comments about members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team.
Imus, his wife and his brother, Fred, founded the ranch in 1998. Fred died in 2011. Imus has raised money and other donations through his talk show.
The stated purpose of the ranch is to provide the “experience of the ranch life of the great American cowboy” for children with cancer or blood disorders, their siblings and the siblings of children who have died of sudden infant death syndrome.
About 100 kids from across the county have come to the ranch each summer for 10 days or so at no cost to their families.
A main street of a 19th century Western town was re-created. Abandoning the New York City area for summers on the ranch with the children, Imus has broadcast from a studio on the street.
Children, outfitted with cowboy hats, boots and jeans from the general store, were expected to work, while also learning ranch skills, such as roping and riding a horse. Ranch policy would not allow mention of illness. The goal was to treat the kids like normal children so they felt like normal kids.
Children stayed with the Imus family in a well-appointed hacienda.
“We wanted to create for these dying children a beautiful place for them to come, to work, to learn how to be little cowboys and cowgirls,” Imus said in an interview in 2001. “I could have taken people’s money and built crummy cabins for the kids to live in, but that’s not what I did.”
Like Imus, the ranch has been controversial at times.
In 1998, at the request of Fred Imus, the administration of Gov. Gary Johnson had a dilapidated ranch house, barns and corrals razed on state land leased to the Imus Ranch.
Don Imus later agreed to pay the cost of the work. There were also concerns about the historic nature of the destroyed structures, but an inquiry by the new Mexico Attorney General’s Office found no criminal intent.
The New York Attorney General’s Office in 2005 questioned Imus about the ranch amid allegations that he used the property as much for personal pleasure as for charity. The New Mexico AG’s Office also made inquiries.
Nothing came of either investigation, but the San Miguel County Assessor’s Office in 2000 gave a property tax exemption for charity purposes to only 55 percent of the ranch.
Over the years, there have also been dust-ups between the Imuses and a ranch interior designer, a ranch chef, an Imus nanny and a physician who cared for children at the ranch. Neighbors also worried about the ranch’s water use.
Perhaps most notable was Imus’ support of the renovation of an old schoolhouse in Ribera into a community center. In 2007, Imus – on the air – called Richardson a “fat sissy” and a “fat baby,” saying the governor had given the runaround to the renovation plan.
Richardson later obtained from the Legislature a $600,000 appropriation for the schoolhouse.
A government report issued in 2013 found that the schoolhouse project was marred by cost overruns and overseen by a contractor that didn’t do any of the work itself and was chosen without competitive bids. The state sold the schoolhouse to a nonprofit in 2012 for $39,000.
Imus’ New Mexico connections date to before the founding of the ranch.
In 1995, Auto Body Express – a clothing company owned by Imus and brother Fred – was moved from El Paso to Santa Fe.
Fred Imus lived in Eldorado, just outside Santa Fe, and was a frequent guest on his brother’s show. Don Imus told listeners he bought his cowboy hats at the Man’s Hat Shop in Downtown Albuquerque.
Fred Imus set off a firestorm in 1997 when – on his brother’s show – he derided people from Rio Arriba County as “Mexicans” who get pregnant young and would rather drink beer than pick up a book.
Fred Imus later apologized, but commissioners for Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties passed resolutions calling for boycotts of Auto Body Express. It closed several years ago.
Don Imus sold his Connecticut home and bought a ranch in Texas last year but says the sale of the Imus Ranch won’t be the end of his ties to New Mexico. He says he owns vacant land in Santa Fe.
“We’re not going to abandon New Mexico,” he says. “We love New Mexico.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.