AlamogordoTownNews.com Community Spotlight: Debra & Joe Lewandowski “Getting it Done”, in Historic Preservation

When one looks at a small-town community like Alamogordo, Otero County, New Mexico or any town for that matter; there are those that stand back and point to what needs to be done, there are those that criticize but never add value to the community, there are those that work discretely behind the scenes to fund and work the cogs of the bureaucracy to get things done, and then there are those that are “doers” that work daily, each and every day with passion, conviction and purpose in “getting it done.” 

When one looks at every major historical preservation project in Alamogordo over the last decade plus, Debra & Joe Lewandowski are “Getting it Done” in Historic Preservation. Taking a drive around the community, one sees the fingerprints of a passionate conviction and the “get it done” commitment of Debra & Joe Lewandowski.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” Mr. Shaw would be impressed by the conviction to historic preservation of Debra and Joe Lewandowski. 

When one looks at the Tularosa Basin Historical Society; it is backed by a volunteer board of directors, that are passionate about preserving the stories, and the structures, that make up the history of Alamogordo, and of Otero County. This platform has allowed Debra & Joe Lewandowski to find their passions and to shine.

These two individuals daily do the legwork or grunt work to bring about results in historic preservation. Long hours of mental and physical hard work, from research to actually building walls, nailing, painting, garbage removal, leading volunteers, interfacing with government officials, bureaucrats and the business community, building bridges and partnerships and doing it daily – is all in a day’s work for Debra and Joe Lewandowski.

A bit about Deb and Joe:

Joe and Deb Lewandowski were Alamogordo Mid-High School sweethearts. After graduating in 1974 and 1975, Joe joined the U.S. Army starting their adventure of moving around the world. This opportunity allowed for them to visit historical locations in the areas they served. After 6 1/2 years, they returned to Alamogordo, starting their first business in the solid waste collection business in 1981. 

Over the years, they started other businesses and continuing their involvement in solid waste consulting and management. Both have always had a love and curiosity of the true history story not the way it may have been portrayed. As Joe says, “Hollywood History”. 

In 2012, they started their involvement with the Tularosa Basin Historical Society. Working with great volunteers, they have been honored to be involved with the renovation of the “Plaza” and the La Luz Pottery Factory, two significant projects that put the Tula Basin Historic Society on the map, preserving two iconic buildings that otherwise could be derelict. 

The two are aggressively working on two more very visible projects in partnership with the Tularosa Basin Historic Society, the city of Alamogordo and the business community of the New York Avenue Business District. 

The first project is evolving, as previously reported by AlamogordoTownNews.com, on the corner of 10th Street and White Sands Blvd, as the Alamogordo Railroad History Park. The evolving park that will have artifacts and photographs from the early days of Alamogordo as a railroad town dating to the early 1900’s. The planning for the city and its roots date to 1898. 

Background on the importance of the railroad to Alamogordo, thus the park.

In 1912, incorporated Alamogordo, was founded as a company town, to support the building of the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad, a part of the transcontinental railway that was being constructed in the late 19th century.

Initially its main industry was timbering for railroad ties. The railroad founders were also eager to find a major town that would persist after the railroad was completed; they formed the Alamogordo Improvement Company to develop the area, making Alamogordo an early example of a planned community. The Alamogordo Improvement Company owned all the land, platted the streets, built the first houses and commercial buildings, donated land for a college. The early days of Alamogordo was driven by commerce around the railroad.

A modern park evolves under a partnered approach.

This walking park will showcase the influence of the railroad, across from the Tularosa Basin Museum and Walgreens. The park upgrades and preservation work are a joint historical preservation project between Alamogordo MainStreet (which secured a $20,000 grant from Union Pacific), the city of Alamogordo, and the design, implementation and oversite of the building project is being done by Joe and Debra under the umbrella of the Tularosa Basin Historic Society, and Operational Consultants.

Debra is tasked with creating the photo essay on the walking path that will tell the story of Alamogordo as the railroad town it once was. Joe is tasked with managing the buildout. Together the new park is evolving, and they are “getting it done via community partnerships.”

Dudley School Preservation Project:

The next project, the duo of Debra and Joe, recently kicked off, was a well-attended public meeting seeking volunteers is the Dudley School Preservation Project. Since kickoff there have been two volunteer days where a large amount of cleanout has begun. The work is ongoing and will need volunteers again in the upcoming weeks.

Alamogordo’s Hispanic History, A Story Getting Representation Through Preservation:

Dudley School was the historically Hispanic School. Dudley School was built in 1914 and had four classrooms. Dudley School was set up as part of a segregation plan at the time and specialized in children that did not speak English being educated in a separate school facility. Hispanics could not go north of 10th Street or into the “plaza” at the time. The city of Alamogordo, New Mexico with its proximity to Texas was a racially divided city until the 1950’s. The Dudley School project is important in that it is a historic structure from the early 1900’s, and it was one of the two schools that served students of color during the years of segregation. The project will bring the building back to its origins of 4 rooms and will be a community center as well as a museum telling firsthand family stories of students that attended the Dudley School. The revitalized school will also have playground equipment and will be available to the public for rentals. This is another community partnership effort led by the duo in working the process of partnerships between the city, the Tularosa Basin Historic Society and the public in volunteering to assist in the grunt work of preservation.

According to Joe and Debra, “helping with the setup and planning of these projects, supporting the history, gathering and educating public on the stories of the Basin has been and continues to be very rewarding.”

Both have served at different times on the TBHS Board of Directors.  Debra serves as the TBHS Manager which oversees the daily operations of the museum on White Sands and 10th Street, schedules with Joe the tours and preservation of the Pottery Factory and of course these other multiple projects. 

Passion, Commitment, Heart:

As one drives around the city of Alamogordo and Otero County from the La Luz Pottery Factory to the Plaza, the Dudley School and beyond; the commitment, passion and hard work ethic of Debra & Joe Lewandowski can be felt. Steve Jobs the founder of Apple said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

It is apparent, in each interaction with Debra & Joe Lewandowski, they are creating a legacy of historic preservation. Each puts the elbow grease and hard work into the projects, and they have found the work “they love.” 

We as a community in Alamogordo, and Otero County are fortunate to have them as leaders in our community. From our hearts on New York Avenue and beyond, Thank you!

Byline Chris Edwards, AlamogordoTownNews.com, Influence Magazine

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New Mexico History- The Founding of Alamogordo and the evolution of High School Athletics 1912- 1950’s.

Alamogordo, (Alamogordo means “fat cottonwood.” Gordo = fat; alamo = poplar or cottonwood), New Mexico founded in 1898 embraced education and the idea of interscholastic sports with an open mind for one selected group.

In 1898 Alamogordo was split into two cities: Alamogordo a primarily Caucasian enclave and Chihuahua a primarily Mexican/Latin American enclave. The two were merged in 1912 and became the incorporated city of Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Alamogordo is in the Tularosa Basin of the Chihuahua Desert, it is bordered on the east by the Sacramento Mountains and to the west by Holloman Air Force Base. Alamogordo in modern times is known for its connection with the Trinity test, the first explosion of an atomic bomb.

Alamogordo was founded as a company town to support the building of the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad, a part of the transcontinental railway that was being constructed in the late 19th century.

Initially its main industry was timbering for railroad ties. The railroad founders were also eager to find a major town that would persist after the railroad was completed; they formed the Alamogordo Improvement Company to develop the area, making Alamogordo an early example of a planned community. The Alamogordo Improvement Company owned all the land, platted the streets, built the first houses and commercial buildings, donated land for a college, and placed a restrictive covenant on each deed prohibiting the manufacture, distribution, or sale of intoxicating liquor. Education was a priority and the city founders, Charles Eddy and brother, John Arthur Eddy. The brothers were both strong willed, and constantly battled over the decisions that had to be made. Ultimately, they agreed that interscholastic sports and a strong educational foundation as part of the progressive educational movement of the time would fuel the business interest they were developing.

Tourism became an important part of the local economy from the creation of White Sands National Monument in 1934.

Local businessperson Tom Charles, grandfather of the 1950’s Alamogordo High School Women’s PE Coach Margaret “Markie” Rutz, was instrumental in pushing for recognition of White Sands as a National Monument and eventual National Park.

Local Construction began on the Alamogordo Army Airfield (the present-day Holloman Air Force Base) in 1942, and the Federal government has been a strong presence in Alamogordo ever since.

Education has also been an important part of the local economy. In addition to the local school system, Alamogordo is home to the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, founded in 1903, and a branch of New Mexico State University founded in 1958.

Holloman Air Force Base, found approximately 3 miles (4.8 km) west of the city limits, is the largest employer of Alamogordo residents, and has a major effect on the local economy. According to some estimates, Holloman accounts for half of the Alamogordo economy today. The military influence has had a major impact on the diversity and quality of students and athletes that were available to take part in Alamogordo athletic programs for several generations.

According to the 49th Fighter Wing Public Affairs office, as of January 2008 Holloman directly employs 6,111 personnel with a gross payroll of $266 million. It indirectly creates another 2,047 jobs with a payroll of $77 million. The estimated amount spent in the community is $482 million. The influence of the military has had a historical impact on the politics around athletics and other public- school programs since the 1950’s.

An estimated 6,700 military retirees now live in the area. There are 1,383 active military and 1,641 military dependents living on base and 2,765 active military and 2,942 military dependents living off base.

A blow to the economy and to the sports programs at Alamogordo High School came when after 27 years of training at Holloman, the German Air Force left in 2019. They moved their pilot training to Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.

The region peaked in business interests and the regional brains trust in the 1960s with many industries from Levi’s to Space Contractors having offices in the city. The city and region had one of the highest concentrations of space and rocket engineers, scientists and high-tech leaders in the nation for a city its size. The result of this concentration of people helped create a large high school talent pool which aided in athletic and academic success of Alamogordo High School ranking it the 3rd best in the nation during the 1960s.

Due to the concentration of space and military contracts the city and region integrated earlier than many, as being the first in the state. Alamogordo High School set a national example in education and sports, unusual for a city its size. Public education began in Alamogordo in 1898 via a tent city. The tent was used for court on one end, with school on the other end. When court was in session there was no school to attend. During this time, Alamogordo was primarily a tent city and most of the residents were tuberculosis patients.

In 1900, a two-story brick school was built which had six classrooms. This was named the East Building. An additional two-story brick building was then added in 1910, having eight classrooms. It became the Central Building. Alamogordo High School, a two-story brick building with 13 classrooms and a multi-use auditorium was constructed in 1910 and launched an organized athletic program around 1912.

Meanwhile in other parts of the country more developed than Alamogordo New Mexico, construction of gymnasiums in the high schools became a priority in school development and laid the foundation for the development of indoor sports, particularly basketball and Track & Field activities such as jumps and sprints. Educators by this time saw physical education as intrinsic to the development of American high school youth. Gymnasiums were originally designed for gymnastics and calisthenics instruction, but boys organized games soon took more and more time on the floor space, as educators saw that they had value in their educational mission. Although indoor baseball was played in some high school gymnasiums on the east coast, participants usually searched for larger facilities, such as armories. Eventually, most colleges and many high schools-built gymnasiums with the support and endorsement of business leaders and progressive politicians.

Back in Alamogordo, Dudley School was built in 1914 and had four classrooms. Dudley School was set up as part of a segregation plan at the time and specialized in children that did not speak English being educated in a separate school facility. Hispanics could not go north of 10th Street or into the plaza at the time. The city of Alamogordo, New Mexico with its proximity to Texas was a racially divided city.

Alamogordo High School began an organized sports program in 1912 for Caucasian boys offering PE, Track & Field and Basketball and Football.  The African American School was called the Delaware School and the school that spoke Spanish only was the Dudley School. Athletes from those schools were segregated from the white schools of the time. More on that to follow as we review the 1940’s and 50’s and the cultural shifts that were about to occur in a future story, post or broadcast.

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