Willis Gene Schoemaker
Willis Gene Schoemaker, who worked as a land developer and builder of homes and neighborhoods in El Paso for 40 years, and was a member of El Paso’s Downtown Lions Club and life director of the National Association of Builders, died recently at 66.
In the late ’70s he was president of the El Paso Association of Builders and the Texas Association of Builders.
“The city of El Paso will truly miss this special man,” said architect Edward McCormick. “In talking to him it was especially exciting to have him share his dreams and his love of God’s world.”
His nephew Douglas Schoemaker, also an architect, said, “He had a charismatic quality about him that made people feel comfortable.”
Willis was born Sept. 6, 1932, in Scotia, Neb., the fourth of eight children. His parents were Walter and Elsie Hernsmeyer Schoemaker.
In 1939, when Willis was 7, his family moved to Le Seur County outside Mankato, Minn. During high school he studied journalism, was on the school’s newspaper staff, and practiced gymnastics. After school hours he studied a book about wiring buildings for electricity. He wired the family farm buildings and REA provided the service.
He was selected as one of a group of exchange students with the state of Mississippi on the basis of his 4-H achievements. Willis was also sent to the National 4-H Congress in Chicago.
After graduating from high school in 1950, he entered Mankato State College and transferred later to the University of Minnesota, graduating with an engineering degree. During his college years he had met Sally Huebner, a student of interior design. They married June 23, 1956, and moved to Peoria, Ill., where he worked briefly as a research engineer for Caterpillar Tractor Co. before his ROTC orders sent him to Fort Bliss.
“When we moved to El Paso in 1957, we were in a state of shock,” wife Sally said. “We had come from green Minnesota to live in a desert.”
Willis was a second lieutenant in the Army. He was sent to the Air Defense Missile School and then he was assigned to the Army Reserve, retiring as a captain in 1966. While in the Reserves he worked for El Paso Natural Gas Co.
In 1959 Willis and Sally opened Willis Construction Co. in El Paso.
Daughter Teri pointed out that during the years he showed much interest in land-use and worked with the city on subdivision ordinances. “Dad was really concerned about the use of the land and how we are not protecting the desert,” Teri said. “He fought many battles in city hall. With West Side El Paso’s Sky Island, his last subdivision, he was able to protect the beauty of the desert.”
John Edmonson said, “We worked together on one issue or another regarding his development activities and had rather frustrating dealings with the city. As always, his work reflected his commitment to high quality work in the face of obstacles.”
Sally told about their time in Santa Fe.
“It was 1992 when we sold our home of 25 years and moved to Santa Fe to develop a piece of property into a subdivision now known as La Cantera. One man said it would cost a lot just to fill in this old quarry. Then Willis said, ‘We won’t need to fill it in, we’ll use it as it is.’ He developed 16 homesites there. After that we returned to El Paso.”
Out of the many trips they made together, Sally remembers a housing tour to communist Russia.
“The tour made us so very grateful for our homes in the U.S.,” she said. “We were also able to appreciate the culture of Russia. One highlight was attending the opera, ‘Prince Igor,’ inside the Kremlin’s walls.”
Willis died on May 11. His son-in-law John Froetschel and daughters Teri Froetschel and Amy Schoemaker have worked with Willis for many years and desire to carry on the world he loved.
He is survived by his wife of 42 year; his daughters, Lisa, Teri and Amy; his mother, Elsie; four sisters Vernice, Eleanor, Ellen, Darlene; three brothers, Vernon, Wayne, Daryl; and two grandchildren, Kyle and Lorin.
Willis was a member of the First Baptist Church where the memorial service was held with Dr. Levi Price Jr. and pastor Mike Woods officiating. Interment was in Restlawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
Mabel Lee Yeager Prager
Mabel Lee Yeager Prager, an El Paso resident for 53 years who taught music and English in El Paso public schools, was perhaps best known for the private piano teaching she did until she was 80 years old.
Mabel was born in 1910 on the Army post of Fort Bayard, N.M., the first child of Maud Ellen Lee and Clarence Edgar Yeager.
Her father had a dream that his daughter should go to college. Mabel’s daughter, Nickie, says it this way:
“It was unthinkable at that time for most women to ever have a chance to get a college education. Family members thought he just put dreams in her head that could never be realized.
“My grandfather worked at the Fort Bayard Post in the VA Hospital (which specialized in tuberculosis treatments). Even though he himself had TB, he worked every day. The day after Mabel received her bachelor of arts degree from the University of Arizona, he retired.
“In all the world I’ve never seen anyone so willing to do anything for his family. He was the opposite to chauvinistic man that we hear so much about. The husband she later chose was the same type of unselfish man.”
Mabel attended grade and high school in many different places, then enrolled in New Mexico Western University before completing work at the University of Arizona.
She met Myron Sidney Prager at a dance. Because of a practical joke (when a friend took Myron’s car) he and Mabel were left alone at the dance. It was a long distance to her home and they walked until daylight. She was wearing a formal and high-heeled shoes.
“She discovered that he had worked his way through Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania after his family had lost everything when the bank where they kept their savings went broke, like so many others did during those days,” Nickie said. “He hitchhiked from New Mexico to attend the college of his choice in Pennsylvania.”
They were married in 1936.
After World War II Mabel and Myron moved to El Paso. Mabel wanted her youngest daughter, Sidney, to attend kindergarten, but could find none, so she created her own and called it “The Blue Bonnet Kindergarten.”
“It grew to be quite large,” said Nickie. “My mother was a born teacher. She gave her first piano lesson at age 16. At 18 she taught for the first time in a New Mexico public school. The year before she and my Dad were married she taught in Carlsbad High School.”
Mabel’s husband, who was a member of El Paso’s Buckner and Bymark certified public accounting firm, was killed in an automobile accident in 1954.
“Now my mother had to make a completely new life for herself,” Nickie said. “She taught music and English at Bassett Middle School, but she only received half the pay of a man. She was there seven years. Then in 1965 she began teaching private piano lessons, which she continued for the remainder of her career.”
She was a member of the El Paso Music Teachers Association, which chose her as its 1968 Piano Teacher of the Year.
She was a member of Trinity First United Methodist Church, on the board of directors for the Community Concert Association, worked with the Opera Guild, was patroness of Sigma Alpha Iota Music Fraternity, a judge for the National Guild of Piano Teachers, and active with the American Association of University Women.
Mabel died May 24, at age 88.
She is survived by her daughters Ann Elaine (Nickie) Prager Hulen, Sydney Messett and son-in-law William J. Massett, and two grandsons, Billy Massett II and Jeff Massett.
A memorial service was held at Trinity First United Methodist Church. Several tributes were given by her former students. Friends are invited to send memorial contributions to their favorite charities or to the Trinity First United Methodist Church TV Fund.
John Navarrete, former special agent in charge of the El Paso FBI office, died of cancer May 23 at age 57. He was buried in Fairfax, Va., near where his wife and three sons live. The family has received 4,000 cards and 500 persons were present at the funeral. John requested: “No tears ... just well-said prayers.”
Another memorial service took place at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church, at noon on June 26. “The close-knit FBI conducted the Service,” John’s sister Ofelia said. “Approximately 175 dignitaries and law enforcement officers were present as a tribute to him.”
John was born in El Paso, second child of Jose and Ignacia Chavez Navarrete.
His grandparents were from Mexico and migrated to the United States when the priests were being persecuted in 1912. In 1951 they came to El Paso. His father, Jose Navarrete, started working on the Santa Fe Railway and continued working for it for 38 years. John attended Ascarate Elementary School and Ysleta High School.
“He loved sports and enjoyed being water boy for the football teams,” Ofelia said. “He was in the student patrol group, and a member of the library club.”
A 1960 graduate of the Texas Western College (UTEP), he became a Spanish teacher and coach at Sageland Elementary School while working on the master’s degree he received in 1969. That same year his application was accepted by the FBI and he married Olga Bafidis.
One of his friends was Congressman Silvestre Reyes.
“I began working with John when I was chief of the Border Patrol and he was head special agent with the FBI,” Reyes said.”But our acquaintance extended back 10 years before that. John had tremendous vision and was the kind of individual all of us watched. He was a role model for school children. He and I worked in South El Paso with the Boys Club. I would describe him as being very concerned, dedicated, committed to the city of El Paso.”
Al Cruz, an FBI special agent, described John as “a true professional.”
In the late 1980s John was one of the Hispanic plantiffs in the trial against the FBI when the federal agency was accused of discriminating against Hispanic agents.
“He was not the one to initiate the process,” said Reyes, “but was one of the Hispanics interviewed on the discrimination charge. He was not afraid to take a stand on the issue. His object was to get the national agency and the Hispanics to work together.”
Al Cruz talked more on the subject: “John was a member of a group which was involved in a class action suit. Certain biases were lifted. John was considered one of the leaders in management for the FBI, and when questioned during the trial stood by his convictions. John, being a proud individual, accepted his role as leader in the burdens and hurdles of life. The results? The judge listened to the testimony and ruled in favor of the Hispanic special agents.”
Although he started his career in El Paso, John&Mac226;s line of duty took him to Miami, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and back to El Paso.
Sheriff Lee Samaniego said, “I could write a book about John. He had a lot of concerns that we did not have time to carry out. Many concerns were for El Paso. He was a special individual and we missed him when he went to Washington, D.C.”
John was continually developing programs to help youth. One was the Junior Special Agent program.
“The El Paso office of the FBI adopted a sixth-grade class on an annual basis and gave that class instruction for three years,” said Cruz. “At the end of this time the members of the class received certificates and a Junior Special Agent badge.”
At the memorial service in the state of Virginia, Ofelia gave the eulogy.
“He loved God, his family, and the FBI,” she said. “As we wipe our tears and try to see and live life as John would want us to do, let us not forget his great gift of generosity, and of caring about others regardless of their station in life.”
Survivors are: his wife Olga, sons John, Dan, and Mike; his mother, Ignacia Navarrete; his father Jose Navarrete; sisters Ofelia and Eva; and brothers Henry and Ernie.
Francisco Salas-Porras, “Pancho.” former owner of of Sunland Motor Sports Center and former president of family-owned Azteca Films, passed away recently, a victim of cancer. Born Nov. 2, l924, he was the oldest of two sons parented by Alberto Salas-Porras and Ana Marquez.
“His parents had come to El Paso from Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1923, fleeing the Mexican Revolution,” said his wife Pipina. “Hundreds of Mexican families sought refuge during 1913 when Villa was driving all foreigners, and critics of his plunder, to seek safety in the United States. The crossing between the two countries was a wooden bridge and at that time immigration restrictions did not exist.”
Pancho and his brother, Enrique, grew up in El Paso. They attended Lamar Elementary School, El Paso High School and College of Mines, (UTEP).
“He was an avid sportsman and an excellent basketball player,” Pipina said. “He was a member of the El Paso High School team that won the 1941 Texas State Championship. The team members have continued to meet and renew their friendships through the years. During his junior year Francisco suffered a severe head injury, which resulted in an epilipsy seizure disorder later in life. As a result, he became active in the promotion of the understanding and treatment of seizure disorders.”
At College of Mines, he was student athletic director and continued playing basketball. He chose history as his minor and chemical engineering as his major. With only one semester remaining to graduate, he was drafted and sent to Korea as part of the U.S. occupation forces after World War II.
When he returned to El Paso he married his high school sweetheart, Josefina “Pipina” Acevedo, on June 19, 1948. The wedding took place at the St. Ignatius Catholic Church and the reception was at the Cortez Hotel.
“Immediately afterward, we moved to Los Angeles, where Pancho was employed by Azteca Films, a worldwide film distribution company that his father and Ruben Calderon, owner of Colon Theater, had initiated. It was the golden era of movies all over the world,” said Pipina. “We attended Academy and Golden Globe award dinners, met producers, directors, cinematographers and stars of great fame. In due course he became president of the company.”
Sixteen years later Azteca was sold and the Salas-Porras family returned to El Paso with five children. Later a sixth child was born in El Paso.
He established Sunland Motor Sports Center in 1964 and remained actively engaged in the business until he sold it and retired in 1994. He and his family attended St. Matthew’s Catholic Church. He was a Rotarian for many years and served on the Governor’s Disbility Council, on the El Paso Charter Commission that rewrote the city charter, and was inducted into the El Paso High School Hall of Fame.
When Pancho was a boy, his family traveled extensively during the summer. He visited every state in the Union. His son Beco recalled that the family carried on the tradition of traveling.
“We went to the Mother Lode Country, Crater Lake and the Redwoods to see those incredible trees,” he said. “Dad was definitely a sportsman. We would attend the baseball games and see the Dodgers play. I remember catching a foul ball when I was 12 years old. My Dad said, ‘You better let me carry that ball out for you,’ and he bounced it up and down in his hands as we went out of the stadium.”
Francisco died May 2, at age 74. He left as survivors his wife, Josefina; sons Alberto “Beco,” who owns Rio Grande Hot Tubs and Pools, Francisco “Paco,” employed by El Paso Honda as finance manager, Daniel of Austin; daughters: Ana Luisa of California, Marta Hinson, who was a foreign exchange student to South Africa during her high school years and was chosen as 1974 Sun Queen, now living in San Francisco; Christiana Cordoza, a 1983 foreign-exchange student to Japan, now living in California; and nine grandchildren ranging in age from 10 months to 25 years.
The Funeral Mass was at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, with Monsignor Dixon Hartford officiating. Interment was at Memory Gardens of the Valley Cemetery in Santa Teresa, N.M.
Mary Tom Dunn Savoy
Mary Tom Dunn Savoy was an El Paso teacher, a lifelong member of the First Baptist Church and an active member of the Santa Teresa Country Club She died at her home in Santa Teresa at age 89.
“Both my mother and father came from a long line of pioneers,” said her daughter Sally Smith, including Sallie Tyre Harris who married Anderson Miller Walthall, a young lawyer in Fulton, Missouri, in 1877. “Both Walthall and Harris families can trace their American ancestry to early settlers of the Colony of Virginia prior to the Revolutionary War.”
Mary Tom received her unusual name from Sallie Tyre Harris’ father, Thomas Harris.
The Walthalls left Missouri and, after stopovers in other parts of Texas, were in El Paso by early 1898. A.M. Walthall later was appointed as an El Paso district judge and was later elected a judge of the 8th District Court of Appeals.
Mary Tom, one of four children of James Lee and Mary Miller Dunn, was born Feb. 17, 1910.
“Her birth was recorded in the Walthall family Bible,” daughter Sally said. “There was no birth certificate, so the only evidence of birth was the Family Bible.”
During her early years Mary Tom lived in Las Cruces where her father was an electrical engineer. He died two years after the couple’s fourth child was born, so Mary Miller Dunn and her children moved to El Paso to live with the Walthall family. Mary Tom attended attended El Paso High School, then transferred to the Mary Hardin-Simmons school for girls in Belton, Texas. Daughter Sally has a 1929 yearbook with a picture of Mary Tom, captioned “Cutest Girl.”
Mary Tom moved on to Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, and graduated in three years with a degree in chemistry.
She was offered a job in Hawaii with a sugar company, but chose to return to El Paso where she taught at Crockett Elementary School until her marriage to William Russell McCartney of Las Cruces in 1932. The couple had two children before he died.
She then moved back to El Paso in 1938 to live with her mother and grandparents in the Walthall family home, which still stands in the Loretto Academy neighborhood.
“In 1938 the house was close to the desert’s edge and the sand dunes,” Sally said. “With two young children to raise, Mary Tom went to work for Holzworth Jewelry Co. riding the street car downtown. Later she was hired as timekeeper for the Southern Pacific R.R. Co. She met an official of the railroad, William H. Ferguson of Watsonville, Calif., whom she married in 1943.”
They moved to California.
After the death of her second husband, in 1959, Mary Tom returned to the El Paso area. But she then left for California again, where she married her third husband, Dr. F. Stanley Savoy, in 1961.
After his retirement they moved back to the El Paso area, and built a house in the newly developed golf course community at Santa Teresa, N.M. Being one of the original residents of Santa Teresa and an avid golfer, Mary Tom was active in the Santa Teresa Country Club.
She played golf until she was 83. She won her last competition at a Turkey Shoot.
She and her husband traveled extensively with her brother James Walthall Dunn and his wife until Dr. Savoy died May 4, 1990.
Mary Tom was active in many community organizations in both El Paso and Santa Teresa such as the Lighthouse for the Blind, Congress for the Blind, the El Paso Library and the YWCA. Death came on May 4 at her home in Santa Teresa. She was buried in Memorial Gardens of Santa Teresa.
“Two things Mother loved more than life,” Sally said, “were the Franklin Mountains, which she looked to for strength, and the Pacific Ocean, where she walked along the beach at Santa Barbara. She loved her friends and family, and they loved her in return. Everyone wanted to sit at her table.”
She was preceded in death by her sister, Francis Barton Dunn Ostrander of Virginia, and her brother James Walthall Dunn of El Paso. She is survived by her two children and their spouses, Sally F. and Basil R. Smith of El Paso, and William Russell and Syble Ferguson of Washington state; grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Tommy L. Couey Alford
An art exhibit at Americana Museum, Civic Center Plaza off Santa Fe Street, features a one-woman show through the month of July. Tommy Alford, the smiling woman who created these works, died in June.
Space will not permit an itemized list of her contributions to the community. One of her paintings is on permanent display in Founder’s Hall at Providence Memorial Hospital.
Victor Gomez, assistant curator of the Americana Museum, says of Alford’s work:
“It is uplifting and musical. To look at her paintings makes one happy.”
Tommy L. Couey Alford was born Nov. 13, 1931, on a ranch in central Texas, the oldest child of Thomas L. Couey and Merle Morgan Couey. She had two brothers.
Tommy attended Junction Elementary School, became a member of the Church of Christ at age 12, and was active in church summer programs. During the summer of 1945 the family moved to El Paso where Tommy enrolled in El Paso High School. Her talents were seen in many areas of school life, such as Senior National Honor Society, the creative writing club, Future Homemakers and P.E. Leaders. She played saxophone in both band and orchestra, singing in the A Capella Choir and Triple Trio groups. Fifty years later she was chairman of her 50th class reunion.
She was awarded a scholarship to Texas Western College (now UTEP). Her extracurricular activities continued in college, especially with the marching Band, the symphonic band, and A Capella Choir.
While enjoying the skating rink in Washington Park, Tommy met Harvey Alford, who had come to El Paso in 1947, at Biggs Field with the military. They were married in Alamogordo on March 4, 1950.
“She was full of life,” Harvey said, “She gave freely and unselfishly of her time and talent. She was my wife, the love of my life, and my best friend. A leader in many organizations, she was always at the meetings ahead of time to see if everything was all right.”
Best known for her pursuit of art, she was heard to say that she had a hard time choosing her priorities and decided to keep foremost everything related to art. She was a teacher of calligraphy and held many workshops. One memorable one was in her backyard where she had tubs full of water to make marbleized paper.
“She always called herself a non-objective artist,” said Rosellen Marslender, one of her art buddies. “It’s aim is to see what you can see in it, such as animals or other objects. She would sit back and listen. She was a little fighter, very ambitious.”
She served in at least 22 organizations in El Paso and was either president or vice president of 11 of them. High on the list was the PTA. She served on the PTA City Council Board for 23 years and as a district member for 15 years.
When the state convention was held in El Paso in November 1980, she served as general chairman. Tommy helped with Girl Scouts for 13 years, was on the YWCA board four years, a member of the Women’s Department of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, El Paso Woman&Mac226;s Club, El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso Symphony Association, Woman’s Auxiliary to Goodwill Industries, Upper Valley Rodeo Club, El Paso Zoological Society, Texas Society to Prevent Blindness, American Mensa, Arthritis Foundation, National League of American Pen Women and a longtime volunteer at Centennial Museum. She was editor of many newsletters for several groups.
Wanda Richardson, an artist friend, said, “I met Tommy at a calligraphy workship when our leader Alice Blue urged us to create a society of calligraphers. We chose Tommy as president and with her help organized the Pencrafters Guild in 1980. For 20 years Tommy and I traveled to calligraphy workshops every summer at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico.”
Tommy was preceded in death by her son Duane E. Alford. Survivors are husband Harvey; sons and their wives, Kevin and Norma Alford; Wyndom and Mary Ellen; five grandchildren; and two brothers, Ronald Couey and Van Couey.