Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Ode to a Cowboy Poet
Born in the dust bowl, 1936.
Just East of New Mexico, way off in the sticks.
Elvis Eugene of 10 kids was the last.
For Edward and Ima’s family was vast.
A boy with a talent for music and verse
He headed for Dallas, his fame there to nurse.
While earning respect for his musical skill
The career that he wanted did not fit the bill.
So along with his bride, to college, they went
Where they started careers of an educational bent.
With his two grad degrees, one in history, one in education
They settled in Roswell with modest aspirations.
They raised up two kids, a daughter, and son
And Roswell was better for all that he’d done.
Now it’s 50 years after the scholar’s arrival
He’s blessed so many in real-time and archival.
(With humble apologies to and great regard for Elvis Fleming)
Elvis and Menza Fleming moved to Roswell in 1969. He’d taken a job teaching at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell. In the 50 years he lived here Elvis touched countless lives. He educated thousands of people, and archived over a century of history.
“I met him when I started working at the college as an instructor,” Judy Armstrong, former president of ENMU-R said. “That’s back when the college was ‘the base.’ Our offices were in windowless concrete buildings. One day the lights went off. It was pitch dark. I hadn’t experienced that before, and I said ‘it’s a little dark in here.’ In his calm, easy way Elvis said ‘It’s OK. They’ll come back on soon.’ I asked him to help me get out of the building, and he did. He told me it happened all the time. I brought a flashlight the next day.
“I never saw him get upset or raise his voice. I’m sure he had plenty of reasons to at times, but he never did. He was a good man and a good teacher. He was a fine musician. He was an excellent author. He was devoted to his family. We suffered a loss when we lost him.”
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One of Elvis’ students, who became a life-long friend, enjoyed a good long argument with him from time to time.
“I took one of his courses at the junior college,” Morgan Nelson said. “Western History. We had a few arguments. He and I discussed history, pro and con, all the time. We would seek to know something that we didn’t know before. He kept his writings accurate. He was a plotter. He got his information together carefully.”
Dr. LaNelle Witt, a retired instructor from ENMU-R, enjoyed teaching with him.
“He was very open about being a man of faith,” she said. “He was a big man in his stature, his intellect, and his heart. He was the most scholarly faculty member in our division. In terms of research, and writing, he was always accurate in his presentation.
“His warmth showed in how relaxed he was in relating to students. I saw it when he taught with me in the International Elder Hostel program. He taught New Mexico history and played his guitar and sang the old western songs. He could really relate to his audience.”
When Fleming retired in 1997 he was named Professor of History Emeritus.
With Fleming’s love of history and music, it’s not surprising that he was a cowboy poet. He performed and emceed at the National Cowboy Symposium and Celebration in Lubbock for 20 years. He recorded three albums of authentic cowboy folk songs, and he always enjoyed singing and playing in church.
“It was at church where I spent most of my time with him,” his daughter, Fran, said. “He and my mom sang in the choir at First Baptist when I was young. When we went to Gateway he led the singing until they found a choir director.
“When I first got my dad back to Oregon,” she said, “he and my son Nicholas had a little jam session with my son’s guitars. It was the coolest thing ever to be able to see my dad and my son play together, and hear my dad comment on how good Nicholas is.”
Arguably his greatest gift to his adopted home was his immense body of work as chief archivist for the Museum Archives Center, Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico. Nelson remembered Fleming’s impact on the historical museum when it was first started.
“When we started up the museum we got him as the archivist,” Nelson said. “He took that job and did a wonderful job. When we were raising money for the historical museum, we offered people who donated a certain amount of money a place in a book. He wrote Pearl of the Pecos with Minor Huffman. He did a lot of work on that, which I appreciate because I made a lot of promises that he kept. We got a real good book, it had information that was not normally in those books.”
Fleming was awarded the title Official Roswell City Historian, from then-mayor Tom Jennings, in 1997. At heart, Fleming was a teacher. He wanted to see people succeed. John LeMay, the current president of the Historical Society for Southeastern New Mexico, experienced Fleming’s grace first-hand.
“Elvis was gracious when I expressed interest in following in his footsteps to write books and preserve our area history,” LeMay said. “Some authors can be territorial when someone new comes along to write about the same subjects. Elvis was nothing but generous when I started writing my Roswell book. I was privileged to work alongside him for as many years as I did. I’m also honored and thankful that we got to collaborate on Tall Tales and Half Truths of Billy the Kid together.”
The historical society has had a new chief archivist for some time now. Jan Dunnahoo misses her friend.
“Elvis was always a scholar and a gentleman,” she said. “He was my teacher, my mentor, my friend, a father figure of sorts, and a friend to my dad before he passed away. These past three or four years, when Elvis would come into the archives, I would drop everything and just sit with him, and listen to his stories. I loved every minute spent with him.
“He was a walking encyclopedia. He was always available if I had a question. I felt very flattered when he came to me from time to time, for help with his research. He would take the time, no matter how frivolous a question I might ask, to discuss and explain.
“I know in the coming months when I have a question and I want to call Elvis, the realization and emptiness will hit me. I will miss him immensely.”
Fleming spent the last three months of his life with his daughter and her family in Oregon.
“He’d just got through writing his memoirs for me,” Fran said. “When I came to get him, I gathered it all up along with the pictures he wanted to go with it. We worked on that and were able to get a couple of revisions complete while he was at my house. I was able to get it all together with the pictures in the text, and get it bound just before he died.”
Fran was grateful to have those final days with her dad.
“When he was dying,” she said. “He couldn’t talk but he could hear. I was holding his hand and told him that the time we’d spent on the beach was my favorite time with him since he’d come to live with me. He squeezed my hand super-tight.”
Fleming’s services were held at Christ’s Church, Tuesday, Feb. 19. A memorial display had been arranged by Amy Davis, Executive Director of the historical society, and the pallbearers were Stan Lair, Mike Jackson, Jim Williams, Larry Alsup, Nick Gustafson and Charlie Thompson. Honorary pallbearers were Amy Davis and John LeMay.