Ben Luján, ironworker turned silver-haired, powerful speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives, often sought solace and help from La Conquistadora, Our Lady of Peace.
On Saturday morning, she watched over him one last time from within the towering Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi as an estimated 1,000 of Luján’s family, friends, colleagues and constituents gathered for a Mass of Resurrection in honor of the representative. He died Dec. 18 at age 77.
Those gathered paid final tribute to a man Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan called “an exemplary New Mexican.”
The long-time politician succumbed to lung cancer after a three-year battle he fought quietly and privately until the last several months of his life.
At the cathedral, a steady stream of people walked past an honor guard of uniformed law enforcement officers to enter. Inside, evergreens wrapped the columns in celebration of Christmas and sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows high overhead. The statue of Our Lady had been moved from her chapel into the cathedral to greet the copper-colored casket bearing Luján.
“My father was a man of faith, a man of family, a man of courage and conviction,” said Luján’s youngest child, Congressman Ben Ray Luján.
Ben Luján was born and raised in Nambé, the son of a sheepherder. He worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory as an ironworker until he retired. He married his high school sweetheart, Carmen, and together they raised four children while Luján began building a political career. First elected to the Legislature in 1974, the determined Democrat served as majority whip, majority floor leader and speaker of the house.
His son stood before those gathered at the cathedral and remembered a man known for hard work and a sense of humor. His dad never forgot his roots, Ben Ray Luján said. He bottle-fed lambs and cared for the acequia that irrigated the family’s small ranchito. “He turned the soil and shaped the acequia with his own two hands,” Ben Ray Luján said.
He treated everyone, regardless of background or station, with respect, his son added.
And in his last days, he still celebrated with his family, singing “Happy Birthday” to an older brother.
Above all, Ben Ray Luján remembers watching his parents walking together hand in hand wherever they went and his mom watching over his dad while the speaker presided over lawmakers. “My mom was his strength, his rock, his angel,” he said.
“My dad lived a good life, on his terms,” he said, his voice breaking with grief and echoing through the cathedral. “Dad, vaya con Diós. Descánse.”
Ben Luján was buried at Sagrado Corazon de Jesús in Nambé. He is survived by his wife, Carmen; his children, Shirley, Jackie, Jerome and Ben Ray; 9 grandchildren and one great-grandchild; brothers, Felix and Ernesto, and sister, Matilda.
In lieu of flowers, the Luján family has asked that memorial contributions be made to the UNM Cancer Center or to the Speaker Ben Luján Scholarship Memorial Fund at any Century Bank.
Contact reporter Staci Matlock at 505-986-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.