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Silver and Gold

A group in Santa Fe pays tribute to the grace and commitment of older folks, anointing them 'Living Treasures'


SANTA FE, N.M. — In the spring of 1984, fresh from working on yet another peace project, calligrapher and teacher Mary Lou Cook and a few of her friends realized they were tired of protest and longed to find a more positive outlet for their energies.

One day they spread some quilts on the bank of the Santa Fe River, sat down and began talking about the need to recognize the accomplished older people living in the community.

And so the Living Treasures project was born. Each spring and fall, the loose-knit group--they call themselves the Network for the Common Good--honors three older New Mexicans, selecting them from a list of nominees for personal qualities of grace and commitment.

"The reason that they were named is they live from their hearts, and their age doesn't stop them," says Cook, now 79, herself a Living Treasure. "It's a thank-you to the person while they're still alive, and you can't beat that."

The more than 100 people honored over the last 14 years (including some couples who count as one award) have included writers, artists, doctors and teachers, as well as local merchants, a boxing coach and a motorcycle-riding priest. They represent a sampling of northern New Mexico's diverse ethnicities.

Although the rule has always been that honorees must be at least 70, a few younger people have been honored, including a 29-year-old man living with severe multiple sclerosis. "We made the rule and we break it any time we feel like it," Cook says.

The honorees' stories are captured in words and pictures in a book, "Living Treasures: Celebration of the Human Spirit," published in the fall.

Meanwhile, the Living Treasures concept has been adopted in other New Mexico communities, including Rio Arriba County and Taos, while versions of the program are also being tried in Denville, N.J., Ogden, Utah, and Sedona, Ariz.

"We've been fortunate to stumble upon this idea," Cook says. "It has worked so well that we wish we could help every community in the United States to start a Living Treasures program."

The project's success is due in no small measure to the enthusiasm of Cook herself, a lively woman with bright blue eyes who wears her hair in a gray bob.

Born in Chicago, she grew up in El Paso and Kansas City. She majored in art and design at the University of Kansas before marrying Sam Cook, a salesman for an electrical supply company.

While raising their three children in Milwaukee and later Des Moines, she led an uneventful life.

"I didn't make a single wave for the first third of my life," she says. "I didn't have a thought."

But Cook eventually began teaching arts and crafts and became active in social causes. She was one of the first recruiters for the Peace Corps in the 1960s.

Thirty years ago, she persuaded her husband that it was time for a change.

"I got him to retire very early to move to Santa Fe," she says. "He had 12 of the best years of his life here. . . . He died one night of a heart attack in 1981. I have been alone ever since."

She lives in a roomy, eclectically decorated adobe townhome on Santa Fe's north side. A window above her work table offers a view of the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo mountains, which she says provide her with inspiration.

One of Cook's closest collaborators has been Shirley Minett, who says they were inspired by a Japanese practice of honoring venerable craftspeople as "living national treasures." There was also a sense of doing something for the community.

"One of the first things we talked about was Gandhi's wonderful quote, 'You must be the change you wish to see in the world,' " Minett says.

When the Santa Fe group was looking for its first nominees, members put the word out.

"It was amazing the flood of nominations that came in," Minett says. "It was really neat that everybody knew someone they thought was a treasure."

Whenever someone is honored, he or she is photographed and interviewed for an ongoing oral history. Honorees are invited to a ceremony, where dozens of friends tell stories--what Minett calls "purposeful reminiscence." Sometimes the affairs take on a magical flavor, as when the celebrated Chiricahua Apache sculptor Allan Houser opted to play his flute instead of making a speech.

Minett says the group operates with a minimum of structure. "We have no rules, we have no bylaws, we have no money--we have no anything," she says. "It seems like it is kind of self-regulating."

But Cook is the glue that keeps things together, Minett says.

"Mary Lou has great vision and a great organizational capacity. She can see exactly who is the best person to call. She is so well-respected that people fall all over themselves to help her."

Long involved with local chapters of groups including Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Habitat for Humanity and the Community Peace Forum, Cook also was a founding director (and the only woman) to serve on the board of the United Southwest Bank, one of the first minority-owned banks in the country.

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