When I refer to Manny Cortez as a pillar of the Caverns, I am referring to him “as one who occupied a central and responsible position.” He came to the caverns on January 30, 1966, and was promoted within 18 months.
I met him in June of 1971 when I received a permanent position appointment here and his professionalism was immediately evident to me. He cared about the park resources and visitors beyond the call of duty. He spoke with kindness and knowledge to the visitors and always did everything possible to make their visits memorable. He wore his uniform with pride, a pride of presenting himself as sharp-looking as possible and as close to the NPS uniform regulations as possible.
Remember this is not hearsay on my part; I was here and witnessed the excellent work he did, his excellent manner with others. It was obvious to me, then a 24-year-old beginning park guide, that he was the total package of what an outstanding park guide should be. That was the reason he commanded respect from the visitors and co-workers alike.
He was promoted to Supervisory Park Guide in November 1971.
In the summer of 1971, kind-hearted follow Park Guide Chris Fernandez consented to marry me later that year in October. Why she consented makes sense if you know the back-story of our relationship: I told her that without her hand in marriage, I would throw the rest of me in the Bottomless Pit.
Chris and I were delighted that Manny and Dolores Cortez, as well as other Caverns co-workers, including: the Claude Fernandez family, Tom Lorig, Bob Devine, Olive “Johnny” Johnson, Sue Cowles, Jan Wobbenhorst, the Bill Jackson family, and Fernandez and Hoff family relatives attended our wedding over 38 years ago.
Mr. Manuel “Manny” H. Cortez was born on October 9, 1930 in the village of Seven Rivers north of Carlsbad. Excelling at academics, Manny graduated 2nd in his class at Artesia High School, then went on to the University of New Mexico where he completed his degree. (Note: I hope to have more specific information next week when I will be reviewing the oral history interview tape that I recorded in January 2003.)
For many years, the high levels of seasonal employees hired each year at the caverns made it a “back door” entrance to permanent National Park Service jobs. Supervisors like Manny, Olive “Johnny” Johnson, and Claude Fernandez played a large role in the training, mentoring, and supervision of the 25 seasonal employees that were sometimes employed in the summer with a smaller number of park guides during the rest of the year.
While other staff were involved with the seasonal employees (as well as with permanent employees working here) these three supplied a majority of support services for all employees
The day-to-day operations included the monitoring of the education programs and tours by the park guides and the providing of feedback to them.
While this was happening, some of the biggest visitation days in the park’s history were occurring. Sometimes thousands of visitors entered the caverns and park on a holiday weekend.
Meanwhile, services for visitors were being increased: another cave, New Cave (or Slaughter Canyon as it was also named) opened to guided tours. Off-trail tours were established and conducted, as well as programs for formal education and school groups.
A park newspaper was established and issued quarterly. Programs to reduce cave vandalism were implemented. Bat flights were present on spring, summer, and fall evenings. Visitors touched, broke off, and tried to steal cave formations, threw garbage in cave pools, and urinated and worse on the caverns” trails.
Sometimes the unusual came up in the daily operations: guides wrote tickets to enforce resource protection laws; someone became ill or hurt or lost in the caverns or on the surface. Family arguments or domestic abuse occurred. Vehicles were broken into. Guides were needed to fight local fires or sent to other states to do so, sometimes for three to four weeks. Manny faced not only responding to such issues with other employees, but he was also involved in brainstorming better plans to deal with these challenges to park resources and visitors and employees’ well-being while in the park.
In July 1979, four terrorists took over the caverns lunchroom for several hours. Eventually the terrorists were convinced by a newspaper editor and law enforcement officers to surrender peacefully.
Later that month Secretary of Interior Cecil Andrus sent a message to caverns Superintendent Donald Dayton that included: “What you and your park people accomplished in that time of crisis and danger is in keeping with the highest standards and precepts of the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the entire Federal Service. I want you all to know that you deserve the highest respect and praise of our citizenry.” Superintendent’s Monthly Log, July 1979
These employees response earned them a Unit Award for Excellence of Service award in January 1980.--Harold West, Bobby Crisman, Manny Cortez, Tom “Boomer” Bemis, Peggy Justice, Diane Esquibel, Celia Valdez, Bob Turner, and Amelia Tully.
In January of 1972, my wife Chris and I left to go to the Grand Canyon for me to attend the Horace Albright Training Academy for a six weeks Introduction to National Park Service Operations course. Unbeknownst to us, ahead of us were assignments in a variety of parks over a 15 year period. I returned to the caverns in 1987 to work as an interpretive supervisor on one of the three interpretive crews supervised by the Chief of the Interpretive Division: Manny Cortez.
When the Park Curator Jeff Denny, seasonal employee Bill Cantine and I conducted an oral history interview of the retiring caverns Management Assistant Bob Crisman in summer/fall of 1996, this is what he told us about Manny: “I thought Manny was an excellent person in that job; he was very supportive of management. Whatever he felt or thought management needed done, he was always accommodating, saying “we'll get it done.
I think that Manny evolved in that job over time since he didn't have any Park Service experience before he came to Carlsbad Caverns. I think his background was military, an U.S. Army technician along with Bob Turner. Considering the training and the background that he had, I think he evolved into a pretty good person for that position. Initially, He didn't have the interpretive strengths that would have been ideal for that position, but sometimes people can grow into those positions and I think Manny did over time.”
In another part of the interview, Crisman said that if Manny had had the liberty to transfer to various parks to pick up various experiences that he would have retired at a higher grade.
Added to all that he accomplished at the caverns was Manny’s contributions as a Spanish-bi-lingual interpreter and facilitator for our Spanish-speaking visitors, who without his services and enthusiasm for helping them, would have received a far less pleasant and profitable visit.
As was mentioned at his Rosary, Manny was a frequent user of the phrase, “got a minute?” Personally, I believe that this was his way of saying I need to talk to you, but I will keep it short because I respect how important time is to all of us. That’s what I like to think.
In his 26 years here at the caverns, his time in the military, his work on the Federal credit union matters, and his kind and voluminous contributions to his church and church school, Manny always showed us that he had time for others, a most admirable trait in a human, wouldn’t you agree?
In closing, I restate my view: Manny was a central positive example person for the caverns and a pillar to the caverns history and tradition, legacy and reputation.
His retirement on April 4, 1992, left an operations and inspiration void that has not ever been replaced, and very likely won’t be.
RIP, Manny, we will miss you and everything that you stood for, in the NPS and out of the NPS.