Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sandia Preparatory School celebrates 40 years, but its roots run much deeper

by Mo Palmer

This is a tale of two ladies and a possum. They weave other threads into our community tapestry - New Town, tuberculosis, technology and growth.

In 1880, 10 days before the railroad tracks reached Albuquerque, a girl was born in Ohio. No big whoop; "everybody's" born. What matters was that she got into politics, publishing and education way before the Equal Rights Amendment, the women's movement and bra burning came and went.

In Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms' day, the world was strictly divided into two spheres - the masculine and the feminine. Men functioned in the dangerous, amoral outside world, while women did domestic duty - making a man's castle a refuge and acting as moral compasses for their men. Didn't always work, but that's another story.

Ruth, a senator's daughter, stepped over the gender line and never looked back. She married a senator, fought for women's suffrage, was widowed, elected to the House of Representatives and married Rep. Albert Gallatin Simms. She was the first American woman ever to grace the cover of Time.

When Albert got tuberculosis, the couple headed west to Albuquerque, "chasing the cure" in our high, dry climate. In 1932, we were known as the "Sunshine State" and had a sanitarium on nearly every corner. Albert, and his brother, John, caught the cure and became community pillars, while Ruth remained involved in social issues and found time to start a school for girls.

Simms' school started in one room of Franz Huning's ancient home on Central Avenue, La Glorieta. We've talked before about that house. Manzano Day School is there today.

By the '30s, the Hunings had moved on, and the ancient adobe belonged to another family. The new school opened with a small scattering of pupils. Interested parents pitched in, and as it grew big enough for a new name - Sandia School for Girls - it outgrew its location.

Ruth moved her school to a small house at 901 Roma Ave. N.W. William Lyon built this house in the early 1880s for his sweetheart, Corrie. His love letters are a cornucopia of early Albuquerque tidbits - the love nest's progress, laying the cornerstone for one of the teeny churches and a few rants about Charles Darwin's theories, a hot topic du jour for late Victorians and early Edwardians. The little home he built still stands - a New Town original.

Sandia School's motto became "Constantia Possumus" - that's Latin. It means if you stick with it, you can do anything. But pronounce it correctly. The students dubbed it "Constant Possum" and the wee school moved forward.

By the mid-30s, the facility was lodged on a campus of beautiful buildings designed by healed tubercular and architect extraordinaire John Gaw Meem, "way out" on the southeast mesa, surrounded by nothing but views. Such serenity was doomed to suffer, along with the entire world, the devastation of World War II.

The combination of super flying weather, aviation, weapons technology and the war created our first military base - right across from the school. Ruth decided to close Sandia School, and the gorgeous buildings became a convalescent hospital. Later, they became the Kirtland Air Force Base Officers' Club. I had dinner there once - awesome. Today, some governmental agency operates there, and you can catch but a glimpse because it is behind the security gate on Gibson Boulevard Southeast, between Carlisle and Maxwell.

And so the winds of war blew away Sandia School for Girls, and the possum was silenced.

Barbara Young's father was Frank Young, artist, educator and owner of the American Academy for Art. His wife, like Albert Gallatin Simms, was stricken by tuberculosis and took the cure in one of our friendly neighborhood sanitariums. Barbara met Albert Simms, Ruth's nephew, and the two began one of Albuquerque's great romances. Coincidence?

While Albert practiced medicine, Barbara raised five kids, taught Sunday school, worked with the Junior League, did community service and somehow managed to record the stories of truly notable New Mexicans, long before oral history became a buzzword and preserving vocal memories was the bailiwick of ballad hunters. Barbara says she has no idea how she did all that.

In her "leisure" time, Barbara Young Simms started a school on property vacated by the uque Academy when it moved up to Wyoming Boulevard and Academy Road Northeast. With support and a ton of hard work from parents and believers - just like Ruth - a new Sandia School for Girls debuted in 1967 at what is now Osuna Road and Edith Boulevard Northwest. Osuna wasn't even there yet and Edith was a country path, part of the high road for the old Camino Real.

The constant possum awakened from hibernation to a couple of primitive buildings, no air conditioning, a handful of kids, a pocketful of dreams and a long struggle ahead. Against a lot of odds, the school survived, carrying forward the original school's traditions of community service, drama, music, academics, sports and spirit.

A boy was admitted in 1973. The name Sandia School for Girls became a lie, and a new moniker - Sandia Preparatory School - was selected. Today, what began as sort of a frontier outpost is a great green campus with many buildings and exuberant boys and girls from grade six through high school.

This year is the regenerated organization's 40th birthday. On Saturday, we had a bash, replete with '60s music, hair and costumes. Go-go boots, miniskirts, long dresses, granny boots, enormous earrings and one Jimi Hendrix 'Fro. Far out, man. I had forgotten all that. It was easy for me - I combed my hair, grabbed something out of the closet and went. Funny how some people never change their style.

So here's my happy birthday card for Sandia School in all its incarnations. For Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms, Barbara Young Simms and that constant possum: Thanks. Ya done good.

Originally published in The Albuquerque Tribune, April 12, 2007.
The Tribune articles are used with the permission of Scripps Howard.

The Missing Photos:
(William Walton/Courtesy of The Albuquerque Museum, PA1992.005.284)

This photo, circa 1915, shows La Glorieta, once the home of city father Franz Huning. Today, Manzano Day School uses the building on Central Avenue, which also once housed the Sandia School for Girls founded by Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms.

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