When Dave began teaching a new class, he often introduced himself as an historian-"both by vocation and by avocation.” Those who watched his life saw that history, in all its manifestations, was his guiding light.
Dave was born in Childress, Texas, in 1932, during what was called the “Dirty Thirties” as the country moved further into the Great Depression. His parents, David and Hannah Townsend, were hardworking Texans, who often had to send Dave and his younger brother Max to live with relatives who were “better off” financially. Later as the boys were growing up, the country moved into World War II. These events, the Depression and World War II, sparked Dave’s fascination with history, along with a deep commitment to his country.
The family survived both events and settled in Seagraves, Texas, where Dave graduated from high school in 1949. He immediately began his college education at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. In an introductory class in Western Civilization, Dave discovered the Athenian Pericles whose oration captured the ideals upon which Dave vowed to build his own life. Pericles’ admonition that “any man that takes no interest in public affairs is not merely harmless, but is a useless character” spoke loudly to the young Dave.
As the United States became more involved in the Korean Conflict, Dave enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 1951, certain that it was his time to be “useful” by serving his country.
While Dave was serving in Korea, his mother, sick with tuberculosis, was being visited by a young and very pretty home-health aide, a Miss Betty Joe, or “BJ”, Hudson. His mother proudly told Miss Hudson about her son who was serving in Korea. “BJ” thought it would be fun to send him toiletries anonymously. When Dave wrote to his mother, asking about these anonymous gifts, she told him about this young woman. He decided that he had to meet this girl. The rest, as they say, is history: Dave and “BJ” became husband and wife upon his honorable discharge from the Marines in January 1954.
The couple moved to Portales where Dave, using the G.I. Bill, re-entered Eastern New Mexico University. He finished his Bachelor of Arts degree in History in 1956.
Dave immediately applied for a position, teaching history and government in Alamogordo High School. Principal Ace Woodburn allegedly took one look at Dave, exclaimed, “God, you’re big and ugly,” and put him to work on the spot, thus beginning Dave’s thirty-five years in public education.
At Alamogordo High, Dave came under the influence of Department Head Lillian Tuttle, who, according to Dave, taught him how to teach school-history, in particular. He continued to credit Ms. Tuttle with his successes in the classroom for the rest of his remarkable career.
During these early years, he also found time to complete his master’s thesis, “An Historical Study of Laguna Sabinas, Gaines County, Texas 1845-1877” and was awarded a Master of Arts Degree in History from ENMU in 1958.
It was during this early part of Dave’s career that Henry Campbell, the first director of the newly founded Alamogordo branch of New Mexico State University (NMSU-A), hired Dave as a part-time instructor of the college.
But, California beckoned with its higher salaries in public education, so Dave and “BJ” loaded up their two children, David and Kristi, and spent one academic year, 1964-1965, in Covina, California. Dave often joked that the high school there was “a place where teenagers sometimes stopped on their way to the beach.” At any rate, both “BJ” and Dave agreed that the family should return to New Mexico as soon as the California school year ended.
Safely back in Alamogordo High School, Dave also resumed teaching part-time at NMSU-A. Then, he was hired as a full-time instructor to teach Western Civilization in January 1966 by Marvin D. Rohovec, who was by then the director of the branch campus.
When Dave saw that the history of New Mexico was not being taught on any NMSU campus, he and fellow professor of history, Peter D. Hendrickson (Pete), developed the first of such courses. Their highly successful New Mexico History course was offered as a televised version in 1973-74 on the local origination channel of TV Cable of Space City, a forerunner of today's online method of delivery.
Along with professors Linnie Jones and Lonnie Jarrett, Dave and Pete also created the very popular “short courses” on the Lincoln County War and on Pancho Villa’s Raid on Columbus, complete with on-site tours.
And, it was during these earlier years that Dave began his service to his adopted state by serving on the Constitutional Convention of New Mexico in 1969.
In 1976, Dave published his first book, Lacy at Ninety, a Tribute, a biographical study of the Reverend Lacy Simms, a pioneer of Otero County and Alamogordo. Then in 1984, Dave published You Take the Sundials and Give Me the Sun, a compilation of authoritative articles on the history of Alamogordo and of Otero County.
For the next thirty years, Dave was an influential force in the development of the Alamogordo campus of NMSU, eventually serving as an administrator for nine years. During his tenure as director (1978 through 1982), he expanded the vocational programs of the college, revived the Nursing Program, established the Weekend College, and acquired funding for the construction of both the new college library (now the David H. Townsend Library) and the first technical / vocational building. He then supervised the remodeling of the old campus library into the Student Center.
During these highly productive and demanding years, Dave continued his own formal education by earning a doctorate in community college administration and history from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, in 1979. His dissertation A Chronology of the Branch Community College Movement in New Mexico is still the definitive account of the history of New Mexico’s community colleges.
After he returned to full-time teaching in 1982, he won the Donald C. Roush Award for Teaching Excellence, the highest award with which NMSU recognizes its master teachers, in 1986 and, again, in 1987. He also won the Valley Forge Freedoms Foundation Award and was awarded one of the first President Gerald Thomas Teaching Grants. He won the local NMSU-A Teaching Excellence Award for several consecutive years. (After he retired, the awards policy was changed to prohibit such consecutive awards.) He was chosen by the state’s Commission on Higher Education to be among the first group of New Mexico Eminent Scholars. He retired from NMSU-A with the rank of professor emeritus in 1990. In recognition of Dave’s service to NMSU-A and to the profession of education, the Board of Regents of New Mexico State University renamed the new NMSU-A Library as the David H. Townsend Library in 1992.
It was during these NMSU-A years that Dave and “BJ” opened their home on Union Avenue to the faculty and staff of the college. Any number of receptions were held there over the years. It is arguable that the esprit de corps of the college personnel has never been greater than it was during those foundational years. But, tragedy brought the Union Avenue years to an end when “BJ” unexpectedly passed away in December 1986.
In 1988, Dave married Linnie Briggs Jones, an English professor at NMSU-A. Dave sold the Union Avenue property and he and Linnie built a beautiful home on St. Andrews Court “out at the golf course.”
Both Dave and Linnie were avid members of the Historical Society of New Mexico and proud and enthusiastic members of the Tularosa Basin Historical Society. They were instrumental in the creation of the Alamogordo Founders Park, showcasing the bas-reliefs of Ernie Lee Miller, and of the Tularosa Basin Historical Museum. They were locally famous for riding their bicycle-built-for-two in local parades as representatives of the Historical Society and the Museum.
Dave was a recognized authority on the life and works of Eugene Manlove Rhodes. He offered short courses on Rhodes and his Code of the West. Dave was instrumental in ensuring that New Mexico State University and, by extension NMSU-A, be custodian of Rhodes’ gravesite. He and Professor Pete Eidenbach initiated tours of the gravesite through the community education program of NMSU-A.
Dave was a close personal friend and an ardent fan of Alamogordo Public Librarian June Harwell, who enlisted Dave’s help in establishing the Eugene Manlove Rhodes Room & Southwest Collection, which, according to its official site, “houses the Library’s most treasured collections. The shelves are filled with local history books and papers, biographies of New Mexico’s finest and most notorious citizens, and hundreds of volumes of celebrated New Mexico fiction.” Among Dave’s proudest possessions were first editions of several of Rhodes’ works. All too often, he joked that he was Alamogordo’s very own “Rhodes Scholar.” His most recent contributions to the Room include a permanent collection of signed copies of Michael McGarrity’s works and papers.
It was during these years that he published his third and most ambitious book-this time along with co-author Clif McDonald-Centennial: Where the Old West Meets the New Frontier (1999), a history of Alamogordo (1898-1998) and of Otero County (1899-1999). It contains many historical photographs, most of which are from Clif’s private collection or from the Rio Grande Historical Collections. The dust cover of the book includes the following: "The major miracle of the book is that Townsend and McDonald not only survived its birthing, but remain the closest of friends. They are happy to accept the title of either 'the unofficial-official historians of Otero County' or 'the official-unofficial historians of Otero County.''
Dave was a lifelong member of the Democratic Party. He was firmly convinced that the Party and FDR had rescued the country from the Great Depression and World War II. He and Linnie commissioned a monument commemorating FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps in New Mexico. It can be seen near the Capitol in Santa Fe on Don Gaspar Avenue.
Both Dave and Sonja Lujan, Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham’s recently deceased mother, were appointed to the Board of Regents for the New Mexico School for the Blind and the Visually Impaired in 1973. Dave served on the Board for the next twelve years, during which he was chairman for five years. Early on, Dave insisted that Jerry Watkins be hired as superintendent to deal immediately with staff turmoil, thus cementing an enduring friendship. Dave often claimed that he and Jerry vowed that they would never speak ill of the other-unless they really had to. Both Dave and Jerry became even better known throughout the community for the success of their respective institutions, for their advocacy of United Way, and for their support of the Chamber of Commerce.
Dave was named the Alamogordo Citizen of the Year in 1977. He received both the local and district Sertoma Service to Mankind Awards in 1982. He served on the state bar disciplinary board and was awarded the New Mexico Bar Association Non-Lawyer Distinguished Service Award in 1988.
But, perhaps his proudest achievement was being elected to serve in the New Mexico House of Representatives, where he represented District 53 from 1991 until 1995. During his tenure in Santa Fe, he concentrated on his abiding interests, history, public education, and libraries. The New Mexico Library Association awarded Dave its Legislator of the Year Award in 1992 and again in 1995. He received the White House Conference on Library and Information Services Task Force Legislator Award in 1995. Also in 1995, he was selected as the National Education Association’s Legislative Friend of Education. And at the local level, he served the Otero County Educational Retirees Association as chairman of the Legislative Committee for several years.
In 1999, Dave was appointed as one of the co-chairmen of the legislature’s Educational Initiatives and Accountability Taskforce. After two years of intense work, the taskforce produced a comprehensive plan for educational reform in New Mexico. The plan was embodied in a bill which was passed overwhelmingly by the 2001 session of the legislature. Even though the bill was subsequently vetoed by the governor, Dave’s efforts were recognized by the passage of a Senate Memorial praising the taskforce’s work and noting the contribution of the co-chairmen. He was later appointed to an ad hoc committee on education reform by the Legislative Education Study Committee.
After his service in the Legislature, Dave and old friend Clif McDonald committed themselves to attending all meetings of the New Mexico Department of Transportation Commission, even though they were never official members. These meetings were held in each of the six transportation districts around the state. Dave and Linnie and Clif and Barbara were persistent in promoting highway projects that would eventually benefit Alamogordo and Otero County. They were instrumental in securing the approval for and the construction of the widening of U.S. Highway 54 to El Paso into a four-lane highway, the Charlie Lee Memorial Relief Route, and the Holloman Air Force Base overpass.
In 2012, again with Barbara and Clif McDonald, Dave and Linnie proudly led the community and the county in celebrating the Centennial of New Mexico by giving any number of presentations on the history of Dave’s beloved adopted state. He was named Alamogordo’s official historian.
Dave taught his last course, The History of the Lincoln County War, in November 2012, to coincide with the Centennial of New Mexico. The course culminated with a mock trial of A. B. Fall, held in the Tays Center at NMSU-A. The well-attended “second trial” was sponsored by and performed by members of the Otero County Bar Association. Dave played the role of A. B. Fall.
A life-long lover of books and a rabid defender of the right to read, Dave co-founded a book group in 1983 along with Randy Burroughs and Bill Davis. For thirty-nine years, “The Group” has met once a month at a local restaurant to discuss books selected by each of the members. The membership of the group has varied over the years, but it has included some of the better-known names of the community. The Group will discuss Morris’ Tony Hillerman: A Life, Dave’s final selection, during its May meeting. The Group has renamed itself: The Townsend Readers.
Dave and Linnie spent many happy years together traveling and collaborating on writing projects. They were especially humbled to visit Greece, whose history and literature each had taught for many years. Later, they visited England and Ireland where Dave finally got to see the Book of Kells. Then in later years they toured Northern California, “Steinbeck Country,” where Dave toasted the author of (in his opinion) the greatest American novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
But, perhaps their most dramatic trip occurred in September 2001, when Linnie and Dave joined Lonnie Jarrett’s fall tour of the Big Apple and Broadway’s theaters. Dave’s first-hand account of the 9/11 attack covered four large articles in the Alamogordo Daily News. Those articles can now be read in the David H. Townsend Library on the NMSU-A campus.
During these retirement years, Dave and Linnie along with Bill and JoAnn Davis and Roger and Jonnie Haley formed an additional reading group, “The Willies,” so named because they planned to read all of the dramatic works of William Shakespeare. They met every five or six weeks in one another’s homes for pizza and for an often raucous discussion of the Bard’s works. After they “finished off” Shakespeare, they went on to Will and Ariel Durant’s philosophical works. Dave insisted that the Willies read and reread the Durants’ The Lessons of History, which had become his ”bible”-almost all of which he had committed to memory. Lately, the group has selected titles from Mustich’s 1000 Books to Read Before You Die. On March 3, 2022, Dave presented his last selection, Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey.
Dave’s supreme compliment, given to anyone who demonstrated elevated reading skills, was “Now that’s someone who can read a book!”
Linnie passed away in 2014 after suffering from Parkinson’s Disease for several years. After Linnie’s death, Dave moved into his “tiny house” in the Centennial Village. He was determined to maintain his independence in the face of advancing years and failing health with all the dignity that he had. And he was successful, even until the very end. He died after a brief illness on March 21, 2022. He is survived by his two children, David and Kristi (Jim); two grandchildren, Renee (Evan) and David (Mary); and his two great-grandchildren, Linnie and Les.
Dave loved to challenge his students to determine what makes a man great: Is it some intrinsic factor or is it simply the circumstances into which he is thrust by history? In short, is it “nature or nurture” that makes a man great? Dave refused to answer the question for his students. Yet, his life, surely and intentionally, provides an answer.
A memorial service will be held on May 7, 2022, at 2:00 p.m. at the Alamogordo Funeral Home. The family invites all of Dave’s friends, colleagues, and, above all, his ex-students to share their memories of Dave at that time.
The family asks for donations to the Historical Society of New Mexico, P.O. Box 1912, Santa Fe, NM 87504 (hsnm.org) in lieu of flowers.
And they extend their appreciation to Alamogordo Home Care and Hospice, Getz Funeral Home, and Alamogordo Funeral Home for their caring compassion during this difficult time.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Dr. David Hedges Townsend, please visit our floral store.