Education feature: CCC administrator turns passion for history into books

David Caffey’s biography on New Mexico. (Staff photo: Tony Bullocks)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Jutting mountains and rugged trails called David Caffey to the Cimarron region of New Mexico for 12 summers, just as it had Frank Springer roughly a century earlier.

As Cimarron grew dearer and dearer to Caffey, so did the story of Springer, a 19th-century pioneer from Iowa who settled in New Mexico and embarked on a series of philanthropic projects.

“Where I come from is all flat, hot and sometimes dusty,” said Caffey, who hails from Abilene, Texas. He first visited the Philmont Scout Ranch of Cimarron in northern New Mexico at the age of 15, later securing a summer job there as a scout and ranger.

“I loved the mountains, the wildlife, the ruggedness of the trails, the history. In many places, there was visible evidence of the past — gold mine and mill ruins, railroad tracks, building ruins. If you hear about something, you can go out and look at what is left of it.”

Much of what Springer left behind, Caffey discovered from his descendants, mainly from Springer’s grandson, Leslie Owens, who passed away in 2001, five years before Caffey’s 277-page tribute to his grandfather was published.

Caffey confessed his interest in writing about Springer in a letter to Owens.

Owens then invited the part-time author — also the vice president of institutional effectiveness at the Clovis Community College — into his home. He gave him access to his grandfather’s most intimate writing, 10 small diaries penned during the Civil War period.

The Springer biography, “Frank Springer & New Mexico,” is the college administrator and government professor’s fourth book on the history of the Southwest.

“I feel extremely lucky,” said Caffey from his CCC office, “to be able to write about Springer. It should have been done 30 years ago.”
With the blessing of Springer’s descendants, Caffey pieced together the life of a “many-sided man,” as he writes in his book, oftentimes sprawling Springer’s pocket-sized diaries across his living room floor.

A slice of Springer’s contributions to the state include the construction of Eagle Nest dam, the Museum of New Mexico and the New Mexico Normal University.

“He was also a world-class paleontologist who amassed a huge collection of fossils. … He was an outstanding lawyer, a capable businessman. … He died in 1927, but his work is thriving,” said Caffey, his connection with Cimarron country not the only similarity between him and Springer.

The men bear an uncanny resemblance — the same dense, salt and pepper mustaches, the same deep crow’s feet, the same square chins, the same direct gaze and prominent noses.

Of Springer, Caffey writes, “A passion for work … was one of the defining feature’s of Springer’s character. … He was a compulsive worker.”

The same, also, is true of Caffey, according to his colleagues.

“He has a really strong work ethic,” said Becky Rowley, interim president at CCC who has worked with Caffey for more than a decade.
Occasionally, she spies Caffey in the college library, buried in research on the Southwest.

“From what I know, as soon as he finishes one (book) project, he starts on another,” Rowley said.

Though Caffey laughs off their resemblance, physical and otherwise, he admits the pioneer crept into his life more so than his previous subjects.
“With Springer,” Caffey smiled, “sometimes my writing voice would take on his voice — he had an old, formal, almost stilted way of expression (in his own writings). I would read what I had written and would have to go back and loosen it up a little.

“I have heard research is a process of discovery. That,” Caffey said, “I think is true.”