Historic Fairview Cemetery is the final resting place of Bernard Shandon Rodey, who had enormous influence on New Mexico’s statehood and the development of higher education in the state. As January 6 is Statehood Day in New Mexico, here is some of Rodey’s remarkable story, prepared by Kip Purcell, a Director and Shareholder at Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, P.A. in Albuquerque, New Mexico. You can download the entire story with citations on PDF here.

Bernard Shandon Rodey

Bernard Shandon Rodey

Bernard Shandon Rodey

In the Albuquerque boardroom of Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, P.A., hangs an arresting photographic portrait – apparently from the 1880s or 1890s – that hovers over deponents and arbitration witnesses like an admonition to tell the truth. The subject’s forehead, like his starched white collar, is high; his bearing erect; his moustache trim and to the point. But it is his eyes that bore through the mists of time and transfix the modern-day viewer. To meet that gaze is to get some sense of its owner’s fierce determination, his single-minded devotion to causes great and small, and the long day at the office that awaited each of his adversaries.

The subject of the portrait is Bernard Shandon Rodey, founder of the Rodey Firm and father of the University of New Mexico. In the style of his day, the New Mexico Reports often identified him as “B.S. Rodey,” but there was no B.S. about him; he was all action, all the time. To the contemporary observer, he seems larger than life – and indeed, he must have been a remarkable figure. Yet he also reminds us that in territorial times, in many ways, life itself was larger than it is today.

He was born in 1856 in County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland, in the aftermath of the great potato famine that claimed a million Irish lives (more than 100,000 of them in County Mayo) and that launched a million more Irish citizens into exile. His parents joined the exodus in 1862, emigrating with six-year-old Bernard to Sherbrooke, Quebec, where they sought a fresh start as farmers. For the next fifteen years, one of his eulogists noted, Bernard “had little chance for education, and spent altogether perhaps a little over three months in school.” Yet at some point (according to the late Don Dickason, who became a name partner in the firm that Rodey established), Bernard studied at a seminary in Spain, where he developed the fluency in Spanish that later served him so well.

Around 1877, Rodey “came to this country as a poor and friendless young man and settled in Boston, being equipped then with little more than a healthy body, a stout heart, clean life, bright intelligence, strength of will, and determination to succeed in the land of his adoption.” Eventually he turned to the study of law, though not within the confines of any law school. He was a self-made man; there would be no Harvard degree, nor any other gaudy educational credentials, for him.

Heading West

Within a few years of arriving in Boston, the young man went west. He moved to Albuquerque in 1881 to take a job as a private secretary for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company, which was building a line between Albuquerque and Needles, California. Albuquerque was a town of 5000 at the time, but the railroad was about to change its fortunes.

Rodey’s stenographic skills later earned him a job as a court reporter. Through on-the-job osmosis and after-hours study, he acquired a comprehensive knowledge of the law; and on December 11, 1883, he was admitted to practice before the District Court of Socorro County in the Territory of New Mexico. It is on the strength of Rodey’s 1883 license from the Socorro district court that Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb proudly proclaims its status as one of the oldest law firms in New Mexico.

And because the Rodey Firm traces its origins to Bernard Rodey’s shingle, the firm cannot be accused of having come into this world sucking a silver spoon. Like most rookie lawyers, Rodey took the business that came in the door, including a heavy dose of criminal defense work. (But unlike many lawyers, he continued to defend underdogs and the underprivileged even after he had risen to prominence.) Indeed, anyone casually acquainted with the present-day Rodey Firm would be surprised to learn that Bernard Rodey not only represented plaintiffs in personal injury actions; he was a plaintiff himself. In 1886 he won a judgment for $90 under a pair of disability policies by persuading a justice of the peace, a jury, and finally the territorial supreme court that “violent external causes” had ruptured his eardrum during a dive into a California swimming pool.

It did not take long for the bar to notice that Bernard Rodey was a talented and energetic advocate. In what was evidently his first appearance before the New Mexico Supreme Court, the court commended him for constructing “a very elaborate and painstaking defense for his client” – and for “argu[ing] with force and ingenuity a number of points [in support of] reversal” – though the court ultimately rejected the arguments and affirmed the conviction. In 1887, less than four years after obtaining his license to practice law in Socorro, he became the Albuquerque town attorney.

Territorial Politics and Education

And his political ascent was as rapid as the growth of his legal reputation. In 1888 he was elected to the territorial legislature from Bernalillo County. He served in the legislature for a single term – comprising one two-month session – but he made it count.

Though Rodey himself was almost entirely self-educated, he had run for office with the goal of securing a university for the town of Albuquerque. The prospects for success could not have seemed bright. Territorial New Mexico did not have a public school system at all, and many legislators deemed talk of public universities extravagant and premature. At the same time, if the legislature were to create such institutions, other communities enjoyed greater political pull than Albuquerque and were more likely to land them. Mocking Rodey as “that beardless and gum-chewing boy,” the Santa Fe New Mexican professed to feel “sorry for him,” because he “[could] not see beyond a very narrow limit.”

Yet it was that very concentration of Rodey’s focus – coupled with a gift for timely horse-trading – that eventually carried the day. Rodey had sought to create a single University of New Mexico, but his bill had prompted other representatives to propose colleges for their own communities. With all such bills headed for defeat as the session drew to a close, Rodey recognized that the only chance for passage lay in rolling the various measures into an omnibus bill that would smooth over the competing parochial interests. He proceeded to pull an all-nighter – and then some – to accomplish that feat. Cloistered for 36 consecutive hours at Santa Fe’s Palace Hotel with fellow lawyer and legislator Neill B. Field and soon-to-be-supreme-court-justice John R. McFie.

Rodey pulled together the bill’s various strands and dictated its 73 sections to his African-American secretary, Fred Simms. In addition to establishing the University of New Mexico as a coeducational, nonsectarian institution of higher learning on high ground in Albuquerque, Rodey’s bill located a school of mines in Socorro, a college of agriculture and mechanic arts in Las Cruces, and an insane asylum in Las Vegas. It passed on the last day of the session. With only hours left before adjournment, Rodey then threw himself into the task of championing a bill that would give the territory its first system of public schools. Although he failed in that endeavor on that particular day, the same bill – slightly amended – became law in the next legislative session.

Twenty years later, Rodey would write that “[t]here [was] not in all [his] lifework, anything [he was] so proud of, as being the humble author of the bill that brought the University to Albuquerque.” But in 1889, at age 32, he could hardly afford to rest on his laurels, even if he were inclined to. Accordingly, after his short stint as a territorial legislator – and apart from his brief tenure as a delegate to New Mexico’s first constitutional convention in 1890 – Rodey re-dedicated himself to private practice….

National Politics and Statehood

Public service beckoned Rodey again in 1900, when the Republican Party nominated him as its candidate for Congress, and he defeated future governor and United States senator Octaviano Larrazolo in the general election.35 (He won reelection, over a different opponent and by a wide margin, in 1902.) This time his platform was New Mexican statehood – and he pursued the objective with characteristic fervor. “He was denominated as the man of one idea in ceaselessly urging the right of [the] then territory ….”

He led fellow congressmen on tours of New Mexico and Arizona, hoping to win their hearts and minds; he lobbied Teddy Roosevelt before a crowd of New Mexicans who had gathered to witness the first visit to Albuquerque by an American President. Indefatigable as Rodey was, however, he was initially no match for a bloc of senators who considered the admission of Western territories to statehood inimical to the interests of Eastern states. “Liberty of speech is a grand privilege,” he would later write, “but … as I learned [in the Senate] when they talked eighty-two days to kill my statehood bill, there can be such a thing as too much of it.”

When Rodey realized that he could not win statehood for New Mexico alone, he persuaded Congress to admit New Mexico and Arizona to the Union as a single state. But the bill that ultimately cleared Congress called for approval of this proposal by the voters of each territory. While New Mexicans voted in favor of joint statehood, Arizonans rejected it. Not until several years after Rodey’s service in Congress did the political climate permit the two territories to achieve separate statehood. Rodey then suggested – “earnestly,” as was his style, though perhaps in jest – that New Mexico re- christen itself “Acoma,” because that name “would bring it to the top of the list at roll call.”

In something of an upset, New Mexico’s Republican Party dumped Rodey at its 1904 convention and nominated another candidate for Congress instead. Rodey ran for the seat as an independent candidate but was trounced. The experience temporarily embittered him. It also invigorated his advocacy of primary elections – a system that the legislature eventually mandated, though not until after his death.

But Rodey did not have long to brood over his defeat. In 1906, President Roosevelt appointed him to a federal judgeship in Puerto Rico (or, as it was then popularly known, “Porto Rico”), less than eight years after Spain had ceded the island to the United States in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Rodey was, according to his biographers, the first person ever – and perhaps the only one – to be named the territorial judge of another territory. The appointment was a testament not only to Rodey’s legal acumen, but also to his ability to speak beautiful Spanish through a lifelong Irish brogue.

After four years on the bench, Rodey lit out for yet another territory. President Taft selected him to serve as a United States District Attorney for the Second Division in the Territory of Alaska. Based in Nome and accomplishing much of his travel by dog sled, Rodey prosecuted coal fraud and enforced various local laws.

Bernard Rodey HeadstoneIn 1913, his wanderings as a public servant finally over, Rodey returned to Albuquerque and resumed private practice in a series of second-floor offices on Central Avenue. He had come home to a New Mexico that was a territory no longer. When his son Pearce graduated from Harvard Law School in 1915, the firm became known as Rodey & Rodey; and it was Pearce Rodey, after Bernard Rodey’s death, who gradually added Don Dickason, Bill Sloan, Jack Akin, and John Robb to the firm name.

Bernard Rodey, for his part, spent the rest of his career handling a variety of corporate, commercial, and probate matters, along with a sprinkling of criminal defense assignments. “He was a familiar sight on Albuquerque sidewalks, smoking a cigar and strolling with his hands behind his back.” When he died in March 1927, at age 71, the University of New Mexico closed for his funeral.

How to find the Rodey burial plots

You can find the Rodey family plots along Rodey Road in Historic Fairview Cemetery. The family plot with Bernard is catercorner to south east of the plot on Rodey Road. All of the family’s markers feature poetry related to death. Bernard’s headstone features the line: “There is no death. The stars go down to rise upon some other shore.”

Pearce Rodey’s headstone features the last line from Thanatopsis: “Approach thy grave like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Learn more about Historic Fairview Cemetery.

Rodey Family Plot

Rodey Family Plot: Bernard’s grave is catercorner to the left on the other side of the dividing wall.