News Column

Ben Lujan memorial: Hundreds Pay Respect to 'Prince Among Men'

Dec 28, 2012

Steve Terrell

Ben Lujan

Ben Lujan made his last trip to the Roundhouse on Thursday.

Lujan, who died last week at 77 while serving out his final term in the New Mexico House of Representatives, came to the Capitol Rotunda in a casket draped in an Indian blanket with a large Zia symbol and topped with roses, a crucifix and the gavel he wielded during the past 12 years as speaker of the House.

A crowd of about 400 people filled the Rotunda to pay respects to the silver-haired speaker. There were family members, friends, legislators past and present, other public officials, constituents, Capitol employees and others.

"He was a small, gentle guy, but he was a political giant," said former Gov. Bill Richardson, who was governor for eight of Lujan's years as speaker. Richardson said Lujan "will go down in history as perhaps New Mexico's greatest legislator. He was one of the finest men I ever knew."

Richardson said he's met kings, presidents, sultans, counts and a variety of other leaders. "I've known princes," he said. "Ben Lujan was a prince among men."

Richardson listed several of Lujan's physical attributes: "The teeth, the haircut, the swagger, the big smile."

Lujan truly loved the Legislature, Richardson said. And unlike most legislators, he even loved the special sessions. "For him [special sessions] were another day in the arena."

Lujan was credited for saving several of Richardson's legislative initiatives. On Thursday, Richardson spoke of one of those -- the 2004 bill that eliminated gross receipts taxes on groceries. The former governor told how the bill lost several Senate votes, but Lujan, working into the wee hours, kept it alive by repeatedly passing it in the House until the bill finally cleared the Senate.

Richardson said he had wanted to name the highway between Santa Fe and Pojoaque after Lujan. But the speaker insisted that Richardson not do that. "I already have a basketball tournament named after me," Lujan told him. (There's also a gymnasium named for Lujan at Pojoaque Valley High School.)

Rep. Kenny Martinez, D-Grants, who likely will replace Lujan as House speaker in January, paid tribute not only to Lujan, but also to his widow, Carmen Lujan. "When you try to speak of Speaker Lujan's legacy, it turns into a love story. Carmen was there watching over him every day." The Lujans were married for 53 years.

Ben Lujan would see his wife watching House floor sessions from the gallery, Martinez said. "He could see you. It was not only a comfort to him, it was a comfort to us."

Martinez -- who once tried to oust Lujan from the speakership -- said he admired how Lujan could work long hours in a session. "He could work 24 hours and take a short break," he said. "And he'd come back and not one hair would be out of place."

He noted that Lujan, who had been an ironworker in Los Alamos, was proud of being a laborer. "He didn't come to us from academia," Martinez said. "But don't be fooled. He was one of the smartest men to ever come to the Legislature. He could reduce to very simple terms the most complex issues facing New Mexico."

Martinez said Lujan was a very public citizen, who loved to show up at public events. However, he also had a very private side. Legislators realized this, Martinez said, on the first day of the 2012 session, when Lujan announced he was in advanced stages of lung cancer. Few knew until then that Lujan had been struggling with the illness for several years.

Both Democrats and Republicans spoke at and attended the memorial service.

House Republican leader Don Bratton of Hobbs noted that he frequently disagreed with Lujan. But he said, "He was slow to anger, and his door was always open."

A second visitation will be held at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 28, at the Ben Lujan Gymnasium in Pojoaque, with a rosary to be recited at 7 p.m.

A Mass of the Resurrection will be celebrated at 9 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 29, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, with interment to follow at Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Cemetery in Nambe.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that memorial contributions be made to the UNM Cancer Center or to the Speaker Ben Lujan Scholarship Memorial Fund at any Century Bank Branch.

Source: (c)2012 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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