LOVINGTON — According to the story, three kinds of people occupy this world — those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who look up from their smart phones and ask “what happened?”
But there’s a fourth kind — those who preserve history, who maintain the stories and the evidence, who ensure our children and their children will know what happened and how we all got here.
Jim Harris, director of the Lea County Museum for two decades, belongs to that fourth group.
Harris retired once already in the year 2000 after teaching college students literature and writing for 31 years — the last 26 years at New Mexico Junior College.
He’s about to retire again.
Actually, he denies he’s really retiring. “I’m 78, but I feel like I’m 58 or maybe 48, so I’m not ready to retire,” Harris told the News-Sun. “This (age) is not why I’m leaving the museum. I need to do some other things.”
Upon leaving the college in 2000 and at the invitation of the late Dorothy Runnels, then a member of the Lovington Women’s Club that founded the Lea County Museum in 1969, Harris agreed to serve on the board of directors.
“When I came on, there were women that started the museum still on the board and Dorothy Runnels was one of them,” Harris said. “After a year, they asked me if I would do the job. This has been an exciting kind of thing for me, a journey that turned out to be the best job I’ve ever had.”
During that first year, while Harris served on the board and got his feet wet at the museum, he labored under an agreement to spend a year writing a book about a renowned rancher in southern Lea County.
Harris is a novelist, a columnist, a published poet, a live music enthusiast, a runner and bicyclist (at least until recently when a knee went out) and an avid fisherman.
Lovington’s hometown newspaper, the Lovington Leader, has published a column written by Harris every week for most the the 21 years he has been at the museum, more than 900 columns, Harris counted. Then, more than 360 separate weekly columns were published in the Hobbs News-Sun over the last seven years.
From 1969 until the turn of the century, the many items of interest to county history buffs piled into the old Commercial Hotel that became the museum.
“This was major community attic, where people stored things. When I first came here, you had trouble walking down the hallways,” Harris said. “That freight wagon I have out here under a little awning was back there in one of those rooms and it was piled to the ceiling with stuff. In another room across the hall was a buggy.”
He reflected on challenges he faced as the first actual museum director.
“The initial challenge was dealing with these women that wanted to kill me for taking out some of that stuff that really didn’t belong in a museum,” Harris laughed. “I started creating some exhibits. They’re here. They’re upstairs.”
In time, the museum expanded, first with a donated house three blocks away, then eventually the Lister Building across the street from the county courthouse. Each has its own story, Harris said, always drifting into talking about other people.
“The place has grown dramatically since I’ve been here,” Harris said, enthusiastically crediting such entities as Nolan Brunson, Joe Beyers and the JF Maddox Foundation.
“Maddox is unbelievable. One of the reasons is that Don Maddox was sitting over there on the second floor of the courthouse watching what I was doing here and he got enthusiastic about it,” Harris said. “He was a friend of the museum and benefactor. The foundation just knocked it out of the park for us. One of the things the Maddox Foundation got for us in addition to the pavilion was the concrete block stucco wall that goes around the whole property.”
While his wife Mary still teaches at the University of the Southwest, her work is online, Harris said, meaning when he decides to travel to his place in Big Bend, Texas, she can go with him.
“Mary and I have been married since 1965. We will have been married 56 years next month,” Harris said. “I got lucky is what I got. I don’t deserve her. I feel blessed. You talk about planets aligning. Even getting this job here. I mean, working at the junior college used to be the greatest place I had ever worked until I came up here.”
Harris set his official retirement date as Dec. 15, having given the museum board of directors three months to find a replacement.
“I wanted to help the board choose somebody to do this. We want to make sure we keep the same mission,” Harris said. “We do a lot of things. We think we do everything the community deserves to have in what a museum can bring. We collect, study and exhibit different historical artifacts, including big artifacts like buildings. Historical preservation is what we’re all about.”
Mostly, the museum mission involves saving buildings that date back to 1906-1931, the museum director asserted.
“They’re not lengthy history by Santa Fe standards, but they are for us since Lea County didn’t even exist until 1917,” Harris said.
What will Jim Harris do after Dec. 15?
“I’m going to concentrate on my writing for a while, see if I can find some markets,” Harris said, noting he’s always been attracted to journalism. “I’m going to concentrate on the writing so I don’t have to be thinking about whatever is related to the museum, as much as I love all of the stuff we do here.”
Harris concluded, “I’ve been the manager of the museum, but now I’m feeling like instead of me managing the museum, the museum is managing me.”
The couple’s son Hawk runs a bicycle shop in Georgetown, Texas, Harris said, and they hope to spend more time with him, as well.