Monday, September 14, 2009
One-On-One with Robert Matteucci
By Autumn Gray
Assistant Business Editor
The Basics: Born Robert Peter Matteucci on March 1, 1935, in Albuquerque; married to Mary since March 1956 — "I had known the woman I married, my wife, since I was 5 — from birthday parties;" history major and political science minor at the University of New Mexico; four daughters and two sons; 12 grandchildren; no pets.
Position: Central New Mexico Community College Governing Board chairman
What You Didn't Know: He worked as a stringer on the sports desk at the Albuquerque Journal from 1952, when he was a junior in high school, until 1958, his senior year in college. "I was terribly interested in sports. And I thought, my gosh, what an opportunity."
From a distance, the items on the conference room table look as if they've been carelessly left behind from a meeting earlier in the day. Easy enough to push aside, make room for this interview — until the yellowed newspaper and outdated font catches the eye.
There's 80 years of Albuquerque history here and a man with almost as long of a memory but waning eyesight has just walked in.
He is Robert Matteucci. He goes by Bobby. And he is serving his third term as chairman of Central New Mexico Community College's Governing Board. Matteucci is its longest serving member, since 1986.
"A month-and-a-half ago, I decided to quit driving ... but I still get all my stuff done," Matteucci says, emphasizing he keeps up with his community responsibilities. Family takes him where he needs to go by car, including to CNM on this day. He says he's also doing more walking.
That's how he got around in the '40s, too. As a young boy and only child, he preferred his feet over his bike when he would leave the family's house near 10th and Gold just west of the middle of Downtown. Often, he was headed to his father's shoe store, Paris Shoes on Central, which was nationally renowned and would grow to become one of the largest shoe stores in the Southwest.
An article on the business, started by his grandfather at the turn of the 20th Century, was the lead story in the New Mexico State Tribune on Feb. 11, 1932. Matteucci had brought a laminated copy of the newspaper to the table, as well as old family photos and clippings from the University of New Mexico's Daily Lobo telling of his election to student body president and of being voted Outstanding Senior Man.
That kind of leadership continued when he entered the business world. Matteucci would serve as chairman of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, New Mexico Student Loans, United Way of Albuquerque, the New Mexico Retail Association and the New Mexico Board of Educational Finance. He also was president of the UNM Alumni Association and the Lobo Club and was a board member for Presbyterian Hospital.
As for his chosen profession, he eventually came to work in the family business. But that didn't happen until after discovering some occupations that weren't a good fit: law and pouring root beer.
Q: So you thought you wanted to be a lawyer?
A: Yes, it was a wonderful experience, but it turned out to be not for me. When I graduated from UNM, everybody kept saying, 'Bobby, you're such a star. What are you gonna do?' I didn't know what to say." So I had a professor that was a graduate of Harvard, and he said, 'You know what you ought to do? You're a good student. Apply to Harvard Law School.' And I did. And I got accepted. And I went back to Cambridge, Mass., with my bride in hand. ... I didn't really dig the law like everybody else in my class did. For example, Ralph Nader was in my class. ... I can only say this: I wasn't cut out for it. I was there less than a year.
Q: And the root beer? What's the story behind that?
A: We had a lady next door that owned one of these stands that sold root beer. They were yellow and black, and they were built like a huge root beer barrel. She owned one. And she came to me, and she said, 'Tomorrow I'm out of help. I need you to come in. If you can work for me tomorrow and it goes well for you and for me, I'll let you have a job on a part-time basis.' And it was a disaster. Her stand was at the corner of 10th and Central right there at Washington Junior High. All the kids from the junior high came over to this root beer barrel en masse, and she told me to stand up and pour the root beer. And I did that all right, and I got the root beer started and I could not for anything get it to stop. Here was this root beer, A&W Root Beer, and I kept filling things and the kids were saying, 'Give me more.' And she was kind of a crabby old woman. She just turned it off for me, and said, 'Bobby, you're not cut out for this.'
Q: So how did the shoe store start?
A: My grandfather and several of his brothers came over from Tuscany. He came straight through Ellis Island, straight on a train. They gave him a big old sign to wear around his neck that said, 'Let me off in Albuquerque, New Mexico.' (He didn't speak any English). And he opened the shoe store. A lot of the shoes he made. And he learned that because when he was very young, 17, 18 and 19, in Italy he was in the Italian Army, and they taught some people how to take care of the boots the soldiers wore. And so he became a bootmaker. And so that's what he did when he got to Albuquerque. My dad took it over, and I came in. And then a couple of my older children graduated from college and they came in. I got the dubious honor of closing it (in 1994). That was very difficult. The business was 90 years old.
Q: Is there anything you've wanted to do that you've not done yet?
A: Be a college history professor.
Q: What one thing would you say you're the most passionate about today?
A: To see some of the students that we have that come in, some of them come in with a huge deficit in several things and to see them really change their life because of what they've picked up here — it's just very exciting. ... I'm very interested in the economy of Albuquerque. It's the only place I've ever lived, and I like to make sure that our people have good jobs, and that's a lot of what we do, obviously, here. (CNM's enrollment for the fall term is 28,044, setting a new all-time high. The previous record was 24,870, set in fall 2008.)
Q: Are you close to retiring from board work?
A: Yes, but I won a new term on the (CNM) board in February. So I'm going to serve those four years — if I'm still alive.
(Point of interest: Decades ago, CNM's main building had been the location of University Heights Elementary School. Matteucci's wife had been a student there, her classroom just down the hall from where this interview took place.)