LAS CRUCES – To describe the many accomplishments Garrey Carruthers has achieved in his 82 years would be a fool’s errand. His most current curriculum vitae is 12 pages. Words like Governor, Chancellor, President, Director, Chairman, CEO and Assistant U.S. Secretary lend a degree of heft and convey a sense of achievement that is rare — even among his peers.
But that only tells part of the story. It does not give one a sense of what Carruthers is like as a person, as a leader. For that, you need to talk to the people who know him best — his friends and colleagues.
As those two things begin coming into focus, we hope it becomes clear why the Las Cruces Sun-News has chosen the former New Mexico governor and New Mexico State University chancellor as our 2021 Distinguished Resident, an annual recognition of those whose work has made a significant impact in the community.
He is the seventh Las Crucen selected for the honor since its inception in 2015.
Carruthers was born in 1939 — the second son of William and Frankie Carruthers —in Alamosa, Colorado.
“It only lasted one year, and under the cover of dark, I crossed the border into New Mexico,” he said. “My father and mother bought a farm just outside of Aztec, in Cedar Hill, New Mexico. I grew up with three brothers; my mother was a nurse but didn’t practice much after we moved to New Mexico.”
Like many farmers of the time, Carruthers said the family was “dirt poor” but happy. They grew their own vegetables and produced their own meat and milk.
He attended Aztec Public Schools, where he excelled. The only “F” he ever brought home was in third-grade spelling under Mrs. Beulah Goodwin, his mother Frankie told the Farmington Daily Times in 1984. He participated in 4H, and was the state Future Farmers of America president, a trumpet player in the school band and student body president at Aztec High.
After graduating in 1957, he moved to Las Cruces to attend New Mexico State University and pursue a degree in agriculture. Over the years, it has become the place he considers “home,” he said.
Finding love with his wife of 60 years
When asked about his greatest accomplishment, it takes him less than one second to reply, “Marrying Kathy Carruthers. God blessed me with Kathy Carruthers.”
She was Kathy Thomas when they met as undergraduates at NMSU.
“I was out trolling for women one day in the sorority houses,” he said sheepishly. “And I ran into this beautiful woman (with a) big smile, very gregarious. And I said, ‘I’m going to date that woman.’”
The couple married on May 13, 1961 and celebrated their 60-year anniversary this year. They have three children — Debi, Carol and Steven — and six grandchildren. Those who know the Carrutherses best say Kathy — though often away from the public spotlight — is a great source of strength for the family.
Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin first met Garrey when he interviewed her to serve as NMSU’s student regent.
“I think Garrey is seen as the big personality — he’s seen as the one that … kind of takes over the room. But if you know Kathy, you know that she is as strong as they get. And I’m lucky to know her, as well.”
The first time López Askin met Kathy was at a dinner party at their home. She had just been named student regent, and showed up with a plate of homemade brownies. She walked in to what she described as a “huge, catered kind of affair,” and remembers telling her husband, “Go put the brownies in the truck!”
“But, when I met Kathy and they introduced me as the new student regent, she took my hand and said, ‘Honey, just so you know, Garrey loves strong women.’ And so I took that and ran with it.”
Looking back at his life, Garrey knows that he’s been blessed.
“As we look back on life, you ask, ‘How has God blessed me?’” Carruthers said. “He’s blessed me with Kathy Carruthers, these children and these grandchildren … I would say that’s my greatest achievement. I’ve married right, and God blessed us with a great life together, and God has blessed us.”
A reluctant politician
After marrying Kathy, Carruthers would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in agriculture in 1964, and a master’s degree in agricultural economics the following year — both at NMSU. He got a Ph.D in economics from Iowa State University in 1968 before returning to NMSU as an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business that same year.
He worked his way along the university’s tenure track, and eventually became a full professor in 1979 — with a few notable detours along the way.
In 1974-75, he moved to Washington, D.C. to become a White House Fellow under President Gerald Ford and served as special assistant to Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. The White House Fellow program, begun in 1963 by Lyndon Johnson, gave people a chance to spend a year working in the nation’s capital. At the end of the year, participants were encouraged to return to their home states and communities and engage in grassroots politics.
Carruthers returned to New Mexico and served as the acting director of the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute from 1976 to 1978. During that same period, he was elected state chairman of the Republican party — a post he held from 1977 to 1979.
“I never thought I’d run for governor,” he told the Sun-News. “I became active in the Republican party, and became chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party after only volunteering for 13 months … In that process, I met a lot of Republicans and so on. But I had no particular aspirations to seek the governorship.”
And then, Washington came calling again. In 1981, Carruthers was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to serve as the assistant secretary of the Interior of Land and Water Resources — serving under Interior Secretary James Watt — a role he held from 1981 to 1983.
“James Watt had a way of — he called it ‘plumbing his men.’ He didn’t appoint very many women, but he called it ‘plumbing his men,’” Carruthers said. “One day I went into his office — he was alone — and he said, ‘Garrey, have you ever thought about running for political office?’ He said, ‘I think you ought to go back and run for senator of New Mexico.’ And I said, “Oh, no, no. I wouldn’t ever want to do that. I’m not sure I like Washington, D.C. all that much.’”
Carruthers told him that the only thing he might consider is the governor of his home state. Eventually, he found himself in a room with Watt in Farmington.
“We were at a wealthy Republican’s big home with lots of Republicans around. And Watt gives his usual speech about the two rivers that come together into a river called ‘America’ — he gave the speech so many times, I think I can still remember it … But, at any rate, at the end of the speech, he said, ‘You people here in the Farmington area could do me a favor.’ … He said, ‘See that guy standing in the back? That’s Garrey Carruthers. I want you to ask him to come back to New Mexico and seek the governorship of New Mexico.’”
Afterward, the New Mexico Amigos — a large, nonpartisan ambassadorship group for the state — asked to set up a meeting with Carruthers and other dignitaries at the White House. Later, at a fancy D.C. restaurant, they encouraged him to run for governor.
“They said our purpose here is to ask you — and we’re both Republicans and Democrats, we’re Amigos — and they didn’t like (then-Governor) Toney Anaya. We have decided to choose our own candidate, and run him. And we don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, but we know you’re a Republican. We want you to come home to New Mexico at the end of your first four years here and seek the governorship.”
At the time, Carruthers said, Gov. Anaya — a Democrat — had low approval ratings. The New Mexico Constitution prevented Anaya from seeking a second term right away and the field to replace him was crowded. There were 10 Republicans expressing interest in the race. In the end, six candidates entered the GOP primary. After the first poll, Carruthers was polling sixth, with a 2% name recognition.
“From that point, we ran — and that’s how I got into the governor’s race,” he said.
By traveling the state and through old-fashioned, shoe-leather politics, he won that race — first besting his primary rivals and then going on to defeat Ray Powell in the general election.
He served as New Mexico’s governor
Carruthers served as governor from 1987 to 1991.
“It was the only time I ever ran for office … one primary and one general election,” he told the Sun-News. “And I liked it. I liked being governor of New Mexico. And, about two years (into my term), my wife and I were going out with two college friends, a man and wife, from Albuquerque. And I was driving down the road and said, ‘You know, I might want to run for governor again.’”
In 1991, New Mexico changed its law to allow governors to serve two successive terms.
Kathy, as he recalled, said, ‘You can do anything you want to after the divorce.’”
He’d only serve one term.
It was not an uneventful time in state government. The previous governor, Anaya, had effectively abolished the state’s death penalty and commuted the sentences to life terms for those sitting on death row.
But on July 4, 1987 — while Carruthers was at his annual family reunion near Aztec — seven convicted felons escaped from the New Mexico State Penitentiary south of Santa Fe. Two had been convicted of murder. Carruthers described the following days as the most challenging time of his life.
“I think the most troubling time in my life was the 30 or 35 days it took us to find them,” Carruthers told the Sun-News. “But many of these guys had committed (murder), and they were out in our population. And I was up at the farm when that happened.”
Every 4th of July weekend, the Carruthers family would hold a family reunion at the family farm near Aztec.
“I had to fly down, and I was briefed at 2 or 3 in the morning by the prison officials and police. And the one little slip-up I made was dealing with the press, who asked me, ‘What did you say to the police?’ And I said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, they can shoot to kill.’”
Carruthers considers that among the biggest mistakes he’s ever made. He says he should’ve said, “Use the maximum force necessary.”
He told the Sun-News one of his greatest accomplishments as governor was the passage of the worker’s compensation reform — which was passed during a special session.
“I said I’m going to call a special session, and we’re going to do worker’s comp,” Carruthers said. “We got the speaker of the House, the Senate — Senate pro tem — we’ve got legislators, we’ve got lawyers, we’ve got medical people, we’ve got businesspeople. We put together a group and completely rebuilt the worker’s comp law in the state of New Mexico — collectively and collaboratively.”
It was a special session in the summertime, and to this day, it’s considered “a model piece of legislation,” Carruthers said.
“And that was done because I could get along with all legislators,” he said.
His new beginnings in health care
Following his term as governor, Carruthers fell into the health care industry, sort of by accident.
“When I left the government, Sharon Jones (who would later join Carruthers’s staff at NMSU) and I joined two entrepreneurs,” he explained. “We had a concept for a company that would find capital for others, and I was kind of the front guy. These guys were more technical — one was a lawyer and one was a CFO kind of guy. One of the first deals we did was for a young man who wanted to buy a small insurance company. They were called third-party administrators, and actually paid the claims back in those days for people who had indemnity claims.
“So we worked up that deal for the young man, he took it to his partners and they fired him,” Carruthers said. “We had a deal — we had money borrowed and everything else. So we ended up doing the deal and I got into the insurance business. Quite inadvertently; I never intended to be in that business.”
And yet he would remain involved in that business in various capacities for the next 20 years.
He quickly realized, however, that he didn’t know anything about health insurance. Shortly after the creation of Health Care Horizons, Carruthers attended an Ohio State University alumni function and ran into a guy named Jerry Landgraf, who asked what he had been up to lately.
“I said, ‘Well, we’re running this little insurance company and we’re not sure what we’re doing.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve got a noncompete with Presbyterian for another two or three months, but I’m going to get back into the business and I’m going to need to start up a business like that.’ And I said, ‘Don’t bother. I’ve got one.'”
Landgraf would serve as president and CEO of Health Care Horizons, and when the company launched its own health plan — the Cimarron Health Plan — in 1993, Carruthers served as president and CEO of the plan.
Molina Healthcare purchased the company in 2004 for around $72 million. Carruthers would go on to serve on the company’s board of directors.
In 2003, he returned to NMSU as the dean of the College of Business — which he described as “the best job I ever had.” He took the job after deciding to retire from Cimarron. At age 63, he said he figured he probably had another five years to offer.
During his time as dean, Carruthers points to a couple of successes.
“Our enrollment grew to the highest it’s ever been. All of our majors were very popular,” he said. “I think the zenith of the College of Business was during my tenure there. The second thing that I was very proud of is that, out of the College of Business we grew the Arrowhead Center — myself, Kevin Boberg and Kathy Hansen … which is now recognized as one of the best economic development apparatuses in universities in this part of the world.”
Becoming the first NMSU chancellor
Carruthers became the president of NMSU and the first chancellor of the NMSU system of community colleges in June 2013.
Dan Howard, who eventually would serve as the university’s provost, was also up for the job in 2013. Carruthers beat Howard on a 3-2 vote from the regents. Howard sent him a congratulatory note, and Carruthers was quick to respond, saying, “I think it would be great to have you come back to New Mexico State — not as president, but as provost, if you’re OK and if I can get the OK from the faculty and the regents — and that was how I ended up coming back for five years.”
It was a time fraught with economic turmoil at the state level. The university, which receives the bulk of its funding through state legislative appropriations and federal grants, saw its state funding vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez in 2017, at the height of the crisis.
It was also seeing a decline in enrollment.
Jim Peach, regents’ professor of economics emeritus, said that’s another thing with which Carruthers had to contend.
“I’d say the declining enrollment started long before he became president and chancellor,” Peach said. “And yet he took the heat for that. There were really tough decisions to be made. And I think the best way to describe it is that he got input from everybody he could — from all of the groups that he could — before recommending particular cuts that had to be done. There was just no question about that. He did everything he could to make sure we didn’t have to lay off anyone.”
Eventually, the budgetary matters were worked out during a special session — but the governor was reportedly still leaning on regents to not increase tuition rates at New Mexico universities.
Carruthers spoke out, quite openly, about that veto — a move that put him at odds against the governor of his same party.
He managed to lead the university through a perilous time, fraught with mandatory budget cuts, a slimming of administrative costs and the merging of programs.
One of the hardest, he said, was the elimination of the school’s equestrian team.
“I think the one that hurt the most was getting rid of the equestrian team,” Carruthers said. “There were all of these student-athletes crying. It just tore my heart out.”
Jones, who has known Carruthers for more than 40 years and served as his chief of staff at NMSU, said part of his secret to success is getting disparate people with disparate views to come to a consensus.
“He’s very charismatic,” she said. “He draws people to him. He treats people well. He is sort of a transformational leader. But he has the knack to get very disparate people with disparate views into the same room, and come out with a solution to whatever is the issue.”
Janet Green, who has known Carruthers for more than 45 years, served as chief of staff to NMSU’s Board of Regents during his time as chancellor.
“He’s a natural leader,” Green said of Carruthers. “I have watched him — through both his personal life and his political jobs that I’ve been involved in. And he doesn’t seek out to be the head of something. But when he speaks and is well-researched on a topic, people tend to listen to him. And then they want him to be the ‘take-charge’ kind of person.”
Howard described Carruthers as a leader with integrity.
“That was one of the things that has always shone through in all of my interactions with Garrey,” Howard said. “The question was always, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ And then do it, and do it regardless of the political consequences. But if it’s the right thing for the university, then do it. During that period of time, a lot of what we were trying to do was simply preserve the core mission of the university during a period in which resources were limited.”
During that time, Carruthers recalls getting on an elevator in the Fulton Center. Another university faculty member was on the elevator, too.
“He said, ‘chancellor, how are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Well, under the circumstances in which I find myself, I guess I’m doing OK.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘We’ll sail this ship together, through this stormy sea.’ And that I consider one of the highlights of my life.”
In 2017 — about 10 months before the end of his contract — he was notified by the NMSU Board of Regents that it would not be considered for renewal.
Read more:NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers responds to regents’ decision
Leaving a legacy at NMSU
Despite financial hardships, Carruthers was able to leave a legacy at NMSU. Perhaps most notably, he brought public-private partnerships to the university. He is credited with the partnerships and founding of the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine, the Arrowhead Park development, Arrowhead Park Early College High School and Medical Academy, the Domenici Institute, the Lou and Pat Sisbarro Park and the on-campus chapel, a nondenominational spiritual center on campus, located just west of the Pan American Center.
The chapel’s patio was made possible by Carruthers and included an additional $25,000 donation he made to the project in Kathy’s name. The patio was dedicated in honor of her 72nd birthday and “in celebration of a lifelong commitment to her family and faith,” the university stated at the time of the chapel’s completion in 2015.
“Kathy’s own spirituality and love for family has inspired so many throughout her lifetime,” Carruthers said at the time. “Through this gift, it is intended that Kathy’s legacy would continue to inspire others who visit the New Mexico State University Spiritual Center.”
In 2019, he was appointed to serve on the State Ethics Commission — a cause he long championed and a position he continues to hold.
Some around him were not sure how a man as busy as Garrey Carruthers would settle into retirement.
“He is quite comfortable in his retirement skin, I think,” Jones said. “I didn’t think, early on, that it would come easily. I retired two years before him … and I know how long it took me to turn off the little clock in the back of your head.”
Jones said Carruthers seems to be enjoying his time. He has several hobbies — including a collection of classic cars that features three 1967 Ford Mustangs.
“He still reads (a lot), sits and watches old Western movies, and sits and visits with Kathy,” she said.
He also makes time to get out to the golf course as often as he can, Green noted.
“At one time, he was a very good golfer — he carried about a 7 handicap,” she said. “But he still hits a really good drive. I played with him a couple months ago, and I think he shot something in the high 80s. He’s still got a pretty good game.”
Looking back on his tenure as chancellor of the NMSU system, Carruthers acknowledged the challenges he faced.
“It wasn’t always easy, but it was rewarding,” Carruthers said. “I always wanted to move the university forward. It’s my alma mater, and I think NMSU is the capstone of distinction when it comes to higher education in our state.”
Carruthers looks back with pride on his tenure as chancellor.
“I think the attitude at New Mexico State and my team’s leadership was as good as you could expect under the circumstances with which we were working,” he said. “I take a sense of pride in being able to pull people together, even in challenging times.”
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Damien Willis is a Lead Reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News. He can be reached at 575-541-5443, [email protected] or @DamienWillis on Twitter.