Eagle Forum Legislative Alerts

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Alamo icon enjoys her golden years

Rathgeber, as a teenager in 1940(Courtesy photo)
Alamogordo Daily News
By Saturn Noriega, For the Daily News

Had her great-grandfather, George Bradley "G.B." Oliver, snipped one whisker off his beard or a hair off his head, Alamogordo's Maude Oliver Rathgeber would never have lived to see the sun come up over the Sacramentos.

"He vowed to his wife, Elissa, back in Cooper, Texas, that he would not shave or get a haircut until he had $500 in the bank for a new life in the New Mexico Territory, specifically Alamogordo," Maude said. "That was a lot of money in the 1800s."

Oliver first migrated to Roswell, then hitched a bumpy ride on a dray wagon (the horse equivalent of a flatbed truck) and arrived in Alamogordo in 1898 -- the year the town was officially founded as a railroad center bustling with timber, cattle, fresh produce and high ambitions.

"He imbued our family with a sense of humor, entrepreneurial spirit and a bent toward adventure," Maude said during a chat at her spacious home at the foot of Marble Canyon.

Just looking at his progeny testifies to that inheritance, particularly when Audra James Oliver "Dio Luz," or "gave light," as they say in Spanish, to Maude in 1923. That happy little "sprite" blossomed into a top civic leader who has given the town, county, state and nation a legacy steeped in civic, political and cultural accomplishment.

Besides 34 years as head of the state Eagle Forum, she served 13 years on the New Mexico Library Commission, the last four as chairman, putting a shine on the administrations of governors Garry Carruthers and Gary Johnson by pushing for an allocation of $18 million for a new state library building in Santa Fe.

National politics

She also represented New Mexico at GOP national conventions that chose Ronald Reagan in Detroit (1980) and Bob Dole in San Diego (1996). She had switched from Democrat to Republican and chaired the Otero GOP for 11 years, and yet she drew hundreds to a nonpartisan prayer breakfast held annually since 1980 for lawmakers prior to the state legislative session.

In Alamogordo, Maude founded Friends of the Library, now in its 52nd year, and served on the library board of directors for 18 years. But the one educational feat particularly dear to her heart centered on a Story Book Wall still standing at the local library.

Working with the American Association of University Women, "we gathered 1,000 drawings from school children throughout the county in 1960 to 1962," she said, "and we spent countless heartfelt hours picking out 247 followed by long, hard weeks transferring them into 6-by-6 inch tiles."
To finish the project, Maude and master plasterer Valente Sanchez worked long nights assembling the work that continues to draw visitors from throughout Otero County to look at the family names the children memorialized with their colorful artworks.

Back in time, great-grandfather Oliver, who finally got his shave and haircut, ended up with two dozen local properties as a legendary trader about town of real estate, foodstuff and more, even coyote pelts.
He passed his business "touch" on to his son, Ed, who also developed several businesses and in turn passed his savvy on to Maude's father, George Booth "G.B." Oliver Sr., who opened the town's first movie house and a grocery market, providing locals and the military with local meat and fresh produce.

Rodeo cowgirl

All the while, young Maude was busy into everything. As a teen she mimicked and learned Spanish from market customers. In high school, she and her beloved sorrel Billy won plaudits representing Alamogordo in barrel racing and roping at the annual Chamber of Commerce Youth Rodeo in El Paso at a time when few girls were into rodeo.

But as happens to all families, tragedy also struck at times -- twice in June 1928 when hardworking George Bradley died of a heart attack and Maude's grandfather Ed followed a week later during an appendectomy, a dangerous operation in those days.

"I was just a child, 5 years old," says Maude with moist eyes. "But I still remember. Always will."
This left Ed's widow, Martha Louise Booth (Mattie), a refined classical musician originally from Mississippi, as the family matriarch and Maude's dad, George Booth Oliver Sr., the family patriarch, who also served as mayor of the growing town during the war.

"I'm not going to any shoot-'em-up place," Mattie had exclaimed about New Mexico, but she carried 6-month-old G.B. Sr. on her lap on the first passenger train to arrive in Alamogordo in 1901, along with his three sisters. She was one of those rare women of her time with a college education (in music) and energetically tutored family children on all things cultural in her new town.

"Oh, Fair New Mexico"

Interestingly, in Alamogordo she took a young Elizabeth Garrett, a 12-year-old student at what was then called the New Mexico School for the Blind, and with her put together the state's song "Oh, Fair New Mexico." She gave it poetic lyrics and professional notation as a gift for the young girl. The rest is history, but without any credit for the gifted Mattie.

In awe of her grandmother, Maude took it to heart that a woman could do anything as well as a man. She and Mattie, whom she describes as "a walking encyclopedia and beautiful," lived together when Maude matriculated at the University of California at Los Angeles.

After completing her prerequisite college courses, Maude majored in music overall, adding on piano studies and French. Upon graduating, she turned down several California offers to come back and teach in the Alamogordo schools.

In keeping with her love of Alamogordo, Maude developed a knack for getting people to become involved. She spearheaded the National Community Concert Series locally that brought top classical artists to town and, by wit and sweat, raised thousands of dollars for a grand piano worthy of their talent.

The instrument became a community gem at the high school auditorium that served as a de facto concert center for the town. She has her own Baldwin at home.

It was at that venue that Maude gave a memorable piano concert as a young teacher with Virginia Sippel also performing on violin. Maude received standing ovations for her rendition of works from Debussy, Schumann, Chopin and one of her own compositions.

White Sands Ranch

During those years, the entrepreneurial bug bit G.B. Sr., who liquidated some of his holdings to assemble 100 square miles of private, state and federal lands into White Sands Ranch, with an adobe house that expanded into a stately estate with barns, corrals and a secondary house.

"We did many wonderful family things, big holiday events, including church services on Sundays, after which the boys played football," Maude said. "The family wanted to call it Twin Peaks for two nearby hills. But the sun rose gloriously over the Sacramentos and beautifully painted White Sands as it set, so I printed stationery using the name White Sands and it stuck."

When the "tragedy" of World War II came, many young Alamogordoans answered the call, including one Jack Rathgeber, the brother of Maude's best friend in high school, Laura Mamie Rathgeber, whose role as cupid didn't quite work.

Jack became a Navy pilot and after victory over Japan had the honor of joining seven other planes assigned to fly over Japan to see if they would be fired upon. They weren't. It was truly over, but then he went on to serve in Korea.

Stars did spark when he returned home, planning to continue as a Navy officer. But when he proposed, Maude -- with shades of Mattie's strong will -- declared that "I don't want to be a military wife."
So, Jack stayed and landed a job with Landaire, then with his great aviation experience at Ryan Aeronautical, where after 30 years he retired as a top executive for the drone developer.

Feds and the atomic age

As Alamogordo grew into an important military center, the federal government began taking over ranches for missile testing on the range after the war. Maude's father and other ranchers lobbied hard to keep the soil they worked, some cradling their rifles.

But Alamogordo had gone into the inevitable throes of giving birth to the Atomic Age with a 1945 Trinity test blast that led to the end of World War II and later spawned the world of American rocketry that continues to this day.

After one particularly intense l970 session with the feds in Santa Fe, a saddened G.B. Sr. returned home and suffered a major stroke a week later that Maude felt included a broken heart. He died in 1972 robbed of speech and most of his mobility.

Maude's two brothers, Henry James and G.B. Oliver Jr., have passed on. Maude suffered a serious heart ailment several years ago. In January, Jack passed away, and Maude decided to step down from her many chores.

So, as the sun rises over the Sacramentos and gloriously paints White Sands when it sets, a happy and content Maude Oliver Rathgeber enjoys her new free time. She keeps in touch with her beloved sister Martha Louise Sayles, of Mesquite, as they keep watch as all their progeny go forth as entrepreneurs, educators, executives, music lovers and new modern people with a rich old inheritance.

Editor's note: Maude Oliver Rathgeber recently stepped down after heading the Eagle Forum for 34 years and devoting a lifetime of service to Alamogordo's political, civic and cultural life as a member of a colorful pioneer family. Saturn Noriega is a former student of Rathgeber when she taught in local schools. Noriega writes novels, poetry and music at Lizard Lick Place in Otero County.

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