Home Local News Devoted Lea politician, trailblazer, Dorothy Runnels dies at 97

Devoted Lea politician, trailblazer, Dorothy Runnels dies at 97

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Dorothy Runnels is described as a great force who devoted her life to New Mexicans.

“I love being a New Mexican and I love being an American,” Dorothy said in a News-Sun article in April 2015.

A life in politics next to her husband, former U.S. Representative Harold Runnels, Dorothy became a political force for decades.

That love for America, New Mexico and Lea County continued until the day she died. Dorothy Runnels was 97 when passed away in her home Wednesday. Funeral services are pending.

Friends and family who spoke of Dorothy praised her spunk and energy even later in her life. A strong woman who loved everyone she came across.

“She had a lot of energy,” said New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce, a friend of Dorothy’s. “Just really pleasant to be around. Always had good compliments and kind words to say, to almost anybody. So she would always leave you feeling very good and no matter how turbulent her life was she had a kind word for you.”

Dorothy was a political figure described as a trailblazer throughout her life. Yet she was also a devoted wife and mom to their four children — three sons, the late Michael, Phillip Mathew, and a daughter, Eydie.

Eydie was with Dorothy through the last years of her life and spoke about the time she cherished with her mother. Describing her mother as a strong woman who loved everyone and her community.

“She was very very unique and she loved everybody,” said Eydie. “She was strong my entire life… If anyone ever met my mother, they didn’t forget her and she would want everyone in Lea County to know, that she loved Lea County, and she loved the United States or you could say this nation.”

Although neither Dorothy or Harold where born in Lea County, this is where they were meant to be, according to Eydie.

“It’s like, I wasn’t born here but I got here as fast as I could,” said Eydie. “God chose it for them…They just found a place that was home and that they could put down roots.”

Harold surprised Dorothy and their kids when he ran for politics, according to Eydie. Harold for a New Mexico Senate spot as a Democrat.

“DAD WALKED IN and mother said, ‘Why are you putting on a suit?’ He said, ‘Well I’m going to run for Jack Danglade’s old office.’ She said, ‘You’re going to do what?’ So just out of the clear blue, he’s decided to get into politics.”

Harold died in 1980 while serving his twelfth year as the U.S. Representative from New Mexico’s Second Congressional District. After his passing Dorothy continued to be a part of politics and ran for Harold’s congressional seat as a write-in candidate.

“Dorothy was a strong supporter of (Harold’s) work, helping serve the citizens of Lea County, the State of New Mexico and beyond,” said Judy Hanna, Dorothy’s former press secretary and friend.

HANNA SAID during Dorothy’s campaign, they traveled for weeks on end to every city in New Mexico and tribal reservations day after day.

“Her resolve was strong and for the most part, she never met a stranger while her giddy smile, love of everyone, and her knowledge of the needs of the people drove her spirit to make a positive difference in the lives of all she met,” Hanna said.

In a letter from the New Mexico Republican Party, Joe Skeen narrowly beat Dorothy in the race. Yet her campaign educated New Mexicans.

“Dorothy’s strong finish made headlines after her successful legal fight got her name on the ballot,” the letter states. “Runnels’s write-in campaign helped teach New Mexico voters how that process works.”

Dorothy continued participating in politics and was a voice for people running in government, according to Hanna.

“She served as the Lea County Democratic Party Chairwoman and ran for County Commissioner,” Hanna said. “She was a voice of reason and mentor for countless individuals who ran for office, and her voice was always respected, heard, and requested by candidates.”

Pearce, who’s political career included time in the New Mexico House and as the U.S. Representative of the Second Congressional District, said he was a pilot for Dorothy when she was running for office and described her as a mentor who always supported him through the years. Pearce said that before Dorothy, he never thought about running for office.

“I never even thought about it and she planted the seed in me,” Pearce told the the New-Sun on Thursday. “Then as soon as I said I was going to run for state rep. she became an immediate supporter.”

Dorothy supported Pearce publicly while running for office even though she was a registered Democrat and he a Republican.

“I ran for governor, she stood by me, I ran for U.S. Senate, she always supported me in the congressional races,” said Pearce. “That was one reason that I never, I mean you get to respect people in both parties and so you find yourself talking respect about both parties and that was another gift that she gave. She hardly ever thought about me being a Republican. I didn’t think about her being Democrat, we just were friends … We just, I think, set the standard from how people with different political beliefs can and should get along.”

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The RPNM letter talked about Pearce’s close relationship with Dorothy.

“I’ve lost a friend, and I’ve lost a mentor. Dorothy will always be a part of me,” said Pearce. “She has influenced my life in so many ways, and I’ll always cherish her generosity, kindness, and strong will. She was truly a New Mexico treasure and her legacy will live forever in our great state.”

Pearce knowing both Dorothy and Harold said that they never stopped putting New Mexico first in their political operations.

“Between the two of them, they kept their focus on New Mexico always,” said Pearce. “That’s a tribute to a representative who gets in D.C., and a lot of times you hear about well they drank the Potomac water and now they think like people back east, instead of like we do. Well, they never lost their sense of who they were and where they came from. That was a big deal for Lea County and for the country.”

Pearce said the love Dorothy had for people is what he will take with him now that she has passed.

“If you’re going to be a public servant then you can’t do it unless you love the people,” said Pearce. “That was a lesson that she almost taught me by herself. Just this love of humanity and that is a very powerful lesson no matter what you’re going to go into but especially if you’re going to be running for elected office.”

On top of being a strong political figure, Dorothy was considered the rock of her family, according to a past News-Sun article. She was also considered the central figure in the development of the Lea County Museum, serving on the board since it’s founding in 1969, until the day she died with the official title of Board Member Emeritus.

THE HAROLD RUNNELS Room sits in the LCM with family photos of the Runnels hanging on the walls, the furniture from Harold’s office from D.C., and some things of Dorothy’s such as her wedding dress, according Jim Harris, Lea County Museum director.

“Dorothy has been a major force in the development of the museum and then it’s consistency over the years,” said Harris. “Doing things for the community also it’s growth and the changes that have taken place.”

Harris said his life was full of influence from Dorothy and knows that he can’t be the only person.

“Dorothy Runnels had a tremendous impact on the quality of life in this community specifically as it relates to preserving our history,” said Harris. “My favorite thing about Dorothy is she was always so engaged and active… She’s had that sort of personal impact on me but I have this feeling that there are maybe dozens of people in our community here and Lea County and elsewhere … I have this feeling that she’s had that kind of impact on just dozens of people.”

After her passing Dorothy’s granddaughter, Abby Clement, posted a tribute to her grandmother. In the post, she talked about the intensity of Dorothy’s life.

“I think of her adventures; of tall, golden sand dunes in Egypt, of mouths full of crickets in Zimbabwe, and of a personality so large that it could easily span the continent between the two,” said Clement. “I think of the colors royal purple and glinting copper, even though she always said her favorite was yellow.”

The post shared what everyone who spoke to the News-Sun said, Dorothy loved everyone and was full of spunk.

“One of her frequent phrases was ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,’ and it didn’t really apply to her, of course,” said Clement.

On top of being considered kind, Dorothy was said to be a force to be reckoned with.

“My grandmother yanked my brothers and I into a closed-off wing of the Capitol to show us the statue of Po’Pay (A Native American leader during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680) and security could not have stopped her had they wanted to,” said Clement in her post.

Dorothy met 11 presidents including John F. Kennedy. She met prime ministers and the King of Spain, according to Hanna. At 93-years-old she continued attending the First Ladies Luncheon in Washington, D.C.

Age never slowed Dorothy down, according to Hanna, and the memory of the 97-year-old is said to live on through the lives she touched.

“Dorothy Runnels told me recently that her recipe for living a long life for her included the fact that she loved everybody, never held grudges, and didn’t look for fault, but recognized the good in everyone. She embraced and embodied kindness and had a decisive smile and laugh that shone upon any room she entered,” said Hanna. “Her legacy will live on. Her sage advice and involvement has left a lasting imprint on lives, and her spunky spirit can’t be replicated.”

Christina Rankin may be reached at courts@hobbsnews.com.

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