Los Alamos Historical Society:
Severo Gonzales stopped by the Los Alamos Historical Society offices last week. It’s always a pleasure to visit with him and his brother Ray, who—in their 80s—remain active and tell wonderful stories of their lives as children on the Pajarito Plateau in the 1930s. They were instrumental in helping to interpret the homestead-era Romero Cabin, the seasonal home of their maternal grandparents where the boys spent many summers.
On this visit, Severo regaled us with stories of Los Alamos Ranch School Director A.J. Connell. He delivered coffee to Connell every morning and got a reputation among the other workers as Mr. Connell’s favorite “waiter.” Connell would give Severo a list of supplies he needed each day (especially Cokes), and the young man would dutifully fill it at the school’s trading post, run by his father Bences.
It turns out many of the Ranch School employees were Gonzales relatives. Severo said with a hearty laugh, “Dad never hired anybody if it wasn’t his cousin.” And he made it clear that Connell only hired people if Bences recommended them!
The Gonzales family spans most of Los Alamos history. In fact, Bences Gonzales, son of a homestead family, trusted Ranch School employee, Manhattan Project worker, Atomic Energy Commission staff member, and early Los Alamos town councilor, lived through and contributed to nearly every part of 20th century Los Alamos history. He is the subject of an award-winning children’s coloring book, “Meet Bences Gonzales” as well as a museum campus-wide game that allows visitors to explore and further understand many different buildings and sites within the Los Alamos Historic District.
Bences served as a sharp shooter and Spanish translator for the US Army during World War I, helping to train other soldiers. He returned to New Mexico after the war and began working for the nascent Los Alamos Ranch School, running the trading post and cooking on camp outs, where his reputation for making sopapillas at over 9,000 feet in elevation became legendary. He served as a father to figure to many boys at the exclusive prep school, as Severo and Ray explained in a combined oral history interview conducted in the 1990s.
“He wasn’t probably as educated as the masters, but he had more common sense, more in heart,” Severo said. “All the boys, myself included, had respect for him.”
When the Manhattan Project took over the Ranch School in 1943, Bences and his family remained on the plateau. He went from running the school trading post to running the army commissary. He also served as a liaison for the local Hispano and Native American workers on the project, assisting with housing issues and workers’ rights. He remained an important and respected member of the community throughout his career and his life.
One of the pleasures of working in the field of Los Alamos history is getting to hear so many wonderful stories from so many people about so many subjects. Visitors often stop by the museum or the Historical Society’s office in Fuller Lodge to share precious memories. The Society works to record and share these stories so they will be available to historians and future researchers for everything from documentaries to Ph.D. dissertations and scholarly articles to books, both fiction and non-fiction.
One of the historical facts that Severo wanted to reiterate on his recent visit—and he said it over and over again to make sure we got it—was that at the Los Alamos Ranch School, Connell was “the boss.”
That’s one we already knew!
These articles are written by the Los Alamos Historical Society Staff. All articles were originally published by the Los Alamos Daily Post.