2018 Tradiciones

Citizen of the Year: Francis Córdova

Taos’ 1st Sergeant

By Staci Matlock
editor@taosnews.com
Posted 10/12/18

It doesn’t take long for Francis A. Córdova to make people around him laugh. He has a gift for levity, poking gentle fun at himself and those around him. 

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2018 Tradiciones

Citizen of the Year: Francis Córdova

Taos’ 1st Sergeant

Posted

It doesn’t take long for Francis A. Córdova to make people around him laugh.

He has a gift for levity, poking gentle fun at himself and those around him. 

“I have horses,” he says to a visitor. “One is named after me.” 

Really?

“Yeah,” he deadpans. “Short of Cash.”

(His black stallion really is of the Dash for Cash bloodline for those of you racing quarter horse fans).

A few minutes later the retired National Guardsman, who is a staunch advocate for veterans and has helmed the Taos Feeds Taos holiday food effort at Christmas for years, mentions St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe.

“That street is named after me,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “Minus the saint.”

His wife and stalwart companion, Ernestina, sitting next to him at the kitchen table of their El Prado home smiles, and if she’s heard these jokes many times before, she doesn’t show it. 

They met at Taos High School.

Did he play football?

“No, I played left out.” 

He grins, then chuckles gleefully.

Córdova, 71, said he was part of a stand-out track team back in the day.  

Both sides of the couple’s families have been in the region for generations. She comes from the Abeyta and Santistevan clans; he is part of the Antonio Martinez Land Grant. One of his grandmothers was Jicarilla Apache.

Their parents grew up during the Great Depression. From them, they learned not to waste, to fix things that broke, to work hard and help others.

In September, the couple celebrated their 51st anniversary. “She’s a good partner,” he said.

“I was the first sergeant ,but she was the colonel.”

“We’ve been together through good days and bad, more good than bad,” he said. “We’ve been blessed. Our children have a strong foundation.”

They raised three daughters and a son. Stephanie, the eldest, retired from the Air Force and is an electrical engineer. Son Francisco owns Diamond Finish Construction. Yolanda works for the state Department of Transportation and earned a master’s degree in business administration. Their youngest, Consuelo, is a computer engineer and contractor for the federal government. 

Córdova joined the Fifth Army attached to the National Guard, but was able to stay in New Mexico for his career. Part of his job was to train new guardsmen on equipment: tanks, missiles, trucks.  Any new equipment or artillery that came in, he learned to use it.

“I didn’t want to be out there and be embarrassed by a private,” said Córdova, who retired in 2004 as a 1st Sergeant after 35 years with the guard. 

As things changed in the National Guard, Córdova shifted with them. When a general asked him years ago what he thought about having females in the guard, “because it has always been all male units here in Taos and other places that I worked at. I told him, ‘My mother was a female, my wife is female and my girls are females. I have all the respect in the world for women.’ ”

“I was lucky to have women join the force,” Córdova said. “You would see those young girls drive those (big) trucks all over and backing them up.”

During the brutal 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary outside of Santa Fe, about 65 guardsmen from Taos were sent down to help bring the situation under control. Córdova was one of them.

“Talk about PTSD,” Córdova said. “That was like going to war.”

He later worked with Sen. Carlos Cisneros to get some benefits for some of the National Guard who had been there.

“Guardsmen needed to get the credit they deserved,” he said.

After he retired, he continued to work on veterans issues, helping bring a VA clinic to Taos. He continued to advocate for local veterans who weren’t receiving the benefits to which they were entitled.

He helped fill out paperwork, call the Veterans Administration and push for their compensation. He said he helped one World War II veteran from Trampas get his benefits. “He got a big payout for back benefits. I asked what he was going to do with all the money. He said he was going to buy himself a new set of teeth and eat a big steak,” Córdova said, chuckling. “Isn’t that something?”

Some of the veterans and their paperwork kept getting rejected until Córdova stepped in.

“We’ve gotten a lot of people their veterans benefits,” he said. “The widows, too.”

Córdova may be good-humored, but he also is relentlessly committed once he takes on a project, say those who have worked with him on a variety of projects from Taos Feeds Taos to a veterans’ clinic to a veterans’ cemetery.

“Once Francis is committed to something, he doesn’t stop,” said Cisneros, the region’s state lawmaker from Questa who has worked with Córdova on funding for a number of veterans’ initiatives. 

Taos County donated 20 acres of land for the cemetery. Córdova, Cisneros and others have been working since then to obtain state permission and funding to make it an official burial site for veterans.

“Francis Cordova has been an incredible voice of the people all of his life,” said U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján. “I’ve worked with him on a number of important projects, including the establishment of the Taos Veterans Cemetery, working to help the heroes in our community through veterans casework, and numerous others. We are all grateful for his dedicated service to New Mexico, and all are better because of his example.”

Cordova also served as commander for the Disabled American Veterans in Taos for six years. Most people, however, associate him with aiding the hungry.

Córdova helped launch Taos Feeds Taos after Jim Ulmer came to him with the idea in 1986. He needed a big place to put together hundreds of bags of food before Christmas for low-income residents.

Córdova sought permission from Gen. Edward D. Baca, now retired, to use the National Guard facility for the endeavor.

“He gave us his blessing,” Córdova said. “The majority of the volunteers those first years were guardsmen. They didn’t get paid.”
“When Francis (Córdova) and Jim (Ulmer) approached me about using the guardsmen, the armory, and our vehicles to collect and distribute food to the needy in Taos County, I saw the perfect opportunity to accomplish all of our goals,” Baca later said of the project. “Taos Feeds Taos is an example of how the Guard can, and should, interact with (its) community.” 

Córdova, then a board member of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, used his contacts there to get the co-op involved. They’ve remained stalwart volunteers ever since.

Bill Knief, who serves on the Taos Feeds Taos board with Córdova, said it was Córdova’s broad contacts and ability to get people working together that helped make Taos Feeds Taos happen. 

Now about 300 volunteers from all walks of life, including local youth, gather at the armory to pack up about 1,200 boxes of groceries for delivery to families in need.

It is a massive undertaking requiring someone who is hyper-efficient. That skill is what Córdova brings to the annual event, along with his humor. 

“He’s still the sergeant,” said Knief. “Command and control comes to mind. He runs a tight ship. For 30-something years he’s been the heart and soul.”

The organization has to raise about $72,000 a year, most of it through private donations and an annual pancake breakfast to pay for the gas, food and other expenses. Taos grocery stores sell them food at cost to help out.

Each year, people apply for the food baskets. Ernestina helps manage the lists. 

“There’s a lot of people who really, really need it,” Francis Córdova said of the food effort. “I think it is the best one in the state.”

Whatever boxes aren’t handed out are taken to church food programs at Shared Table, St. James Episcopal Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. 

“It’s a good feeling to help people out,” Córdova said.

“Because what goes around comes around. If you help people it all falls back into place.”

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