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Road Trip II: Ron Hamm & Ross Calvin

Posted by Ron George on August 5, 2017

Ron Hamm — he doesn’t like to smile for photos — Peggy Hamm, Mary and me: Celebrating a gracious stay in Silver City, N.M.

In two relatively long strides from our home in Corpus Christi – via Fort Davis, Texas – Mary and I arrived in Silver City, N.M., to spend a couple of days with Ron and Peggy Hamm and their wonderful dog, Smokie.

Ron is originally from the professional tribe of journalism from back when it was mostly about newspapers and wire services – hot lead and linotype machines in the back-shop; typewriters, copy paper and glue pots in the newsroom; also, silver halide film, Speed Graphic cameras and photo engraving.

Reporters didn’t take digital photos and video with their phones and put their names on news releases they didn’t write. Photographers took the pictures, developed the film and made prints on paper in a darkroom. Reporters used their own words to write news stories they gathered in person – on the telephone or, preferably, on the street or on the beat. Editors used pencils.

Yes, it was an utterly different news-gathering world.

Ron, however – and for the usual reason – found his way into a profession that paid more; actually, it paid enough – which news-gathering did not – to rear a family, buy a home and ascend into the middle class. It was either that or moonlight writing copy for advertising agencies or freelance your paper’s cop-shop stories to true-detective pulp magazines. All of which is a somewhat exaggerated version of how it was, but not by much.

Ron retired almost 20 years ago from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, formerly Texas A&I University, as assistant vice president of external affairs, with a doctorate in education administration. His specialty was public relations and governmental affairs, and that’s how Mary and I got to know him. As a former journalist, Ron knew a good story when he saw it and often brought them to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times newsroom; and, very often, to Mary, who wrote features. (The Caller-Times no longer has a features section. Too bad. They were usually the most interesting stories in the paper, especially when either Mary or I wrote them. Not bragging – well, yes. I’m bragging. They don’t make news writers like us, anymore.)

Ron, Mary and Smokie: On the trail to Gila National Forest — and our vain efforts to keep up with Ron’s hiking pace.

Ron also knew talent when he saw it, and that’s why he courted Mary to leave the newspaper in 1990 and work for him at Texas A&I. By then, we had become friends with Ron and Peggy; and, over time, we became dear friends. We went our separate ways in the mid-1990s – Mary to graduate school at Texas A&M in College Station; Ron and Peggy to retirement in Silver City.

Ron is not a great man as the world knows greatness, but he’s been a significant man in the lives of many, even a good man in many ways – good for us, indeed, because he lured Mary away from the newspaper and set her on a course toward the success she had in higher-education.

Ron is typical of the many good men who make the world a better place without wanting or succeeding in making a name for themselves. They work hard. They’re loyal to the institutions they serve. (Ron also served in the U.S. Marine Corps.) They are committed to improving society in whatever way they’re able, large or small. They’re like most of us – and society is great as much because of them as due to anything a “great” man might accomplish on the world stage.

Ron, of course, would take no credit for the path Mary chose after going to work for him. He would diminish his role by saying he needed help and knew where to find it. He’s right, of course. Mary chose her path, but he whetted her appetite for the mission, promoted her and supported her – and has maintained friendship with her for about 35 years.

I’m sure – because I’ve seen the kind of person he is – that Ron Hamm is extraordinary if for no other reason than that he never forgets a friend. He’s the guy who stays in touch, and my guess is that he’s got hundreds of friends like us, people with whom he’s stayed in touch and enhanced their lives with his generosity, curiosity and energy.

It should go without saying – but, of course, I’m going to say it – that our visit to Silver City was long overdue.

Ron retired, officially, but hasn’t been inactive. He’s avid about life and literally hiked rings around me and Mary at the Gila National Forest. He’s taught aboard U.S. Navy ships, travelled the world the hard way – hiking and biking – and written four books. The latest of these is a literary biography based on the output of New Mexico author Ross Calvin and interviews with the author’s surviving family members.

Ross Calvin was an intellectually gifted Episcopal priest who was more than just a bit of a snob, having risen far above his roots in rural Indiana. He earned a doctorate in philology at Harvard and then decided he wanted to do Christian ministry. Ron doesn’t say a lot about his motives, perhaps because there wasn’t a lot in the documents he researched.

When we travel, Mary drives and I read aloud. Just call me Dr. Audiobook. I read Ron’s book, Ross Calvin: Interpreter of the American Southwest, from Silver City to Sacramento, Calif., to Durango, Colo., and back to Corpus Christi.

Mary and I concluded that the Rev. Mr. Calvin was a jerk; a gifted jerk but still a jerk. When deciding which kind of Christian minister he wanted to be, he chose the Episcopal Church because “the right people” in Pittsburgh belonged to it. Worse, he comes off as an arrogant, self-absorbed prick when it came to his first-born son, whom he alienated beyond redemption through inattention and ridicule.

Ross Calvin country: It inspired him to write a seminal book about climate, culture and change.

Calvin loved his first wife, Adine, who died of the flu in 1918, but it’s clear that he loved himself even more. He married money the second time around, and not incidentally because his next church assignment required a married man. All of this, I suppose, constituted acceptable behavior in the 1930s, or at least behavior countenanced by the social strata he inhabited – the world of snooty Episcopalians.

Ron was attracted to Calvin because he wrote a fascinating book about New Mexico – Sky Determines ­­– that Ron never forgot after reading it decades ago. In essence, Ron’s book is about Calvin’s seminal book, which is highly regarded as regional literature by experts in New Mexico. Ron’s meticulously researched and documented work drives my desire to read it Sky Determines, because I want to know more about how this man’s insights were so compelling for Ron, whose book truly was a labor of love. He didn’t write it to make money; and, of course, he hasn’t.

Sky Determines, apparently, is an exquisitely written book analyzing how the harsh though productive natural environment of New Mexico has affected societies, cultures and the wide range of species of plant and animal life in Southwest New Mexico. In theory, it reminds me of Chet Raymo’s The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universea deep look into a particular environment from which to draw philosophical conclusions about the nature of change.

Ron’s book was a joy to read because we know the author, of course; but it’s also a fine work that doesn’t blink when the data indicate that the principal subject is a bit of a pill despite the magnificence of his work. Moreover, Ron doesn’t opine on any of this – and, frankly, I don’t know how he resisted, except that he’s still a better news reporter than I ever was – but rather presents a straightforward account based on verifiable information.

Calvin went to some lengths to keep personal information out of public view: He ordered that his personal papers be destroyed upon his death. All that remained – and it was a lot – were published works and some correspondence retained by his survivors, not all of it very pleasant to read, as he continued to his dying day to berate his first-born son for not being a snob like his father.

Ron’s coherent account not only of Calvin’s often-tortuous family life but also his career as an Episcopal priest is due to the skill, intelligence and diligence he brought to the project. I didn’t know Ron when he was a reporter for United Press International, but my guess is that he was dogged, perceptive, honest and fair-minded – the kind of journalist most of us would like to become, even though we sometimes fall short, and not on purpose.

And modest. Did I mention modest? This came up when I asked Ron in an off-hand way, “Have you written your obit?” I meant it to be a conversation about how much fun it is to quote yourself, but we went in an entirely new direction with his answer. There’s not going to be an obit, he said; in fact, there’s not going to be anything but ashes scattered somewhere – no ceremonies, no notices. 

I objected, of course. The journalist in me got a little riled up. Your privacy doesn’t weigh much against the desire of those who survive to remember you and continue to connect with you for the rest of their lives, I said. It’s your final gift to the world, to posterity.

In Ron’s case, it’s about all he’s contributed from his military service to his years as a journalist and then as a promoter of higher education in an underserved region. The rest of us want never to forget those whose friendship has influenced our lives for the better, as Ron has influenced ours. 

I’m not sure we made any headway on this topic; however, at one point, Ron said: “I don’t know how you’ll find out that I’m gone.”

Well, I said, we’re going to have to make sure that happens.

Then he wanted to know, in that case, if I’d take Smokie.

Yes, I said, stunned and gripped by emotion.

Some folks tend to look after their reputations. Others, like Ron Hamm, look after those they care about.

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