Beyond experience or proving grounds

by Chelle Delaney: Quay County Sun

It seems every governor has to have a book.

No, we’re not talking about Gov. Bill Richardson’s “Between Worlds.”

We’re talking about a book by Gen. Lewis “Lew” Wallace, who was appointed governor of the Territory of New Mexico by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Wallace came to New Mexico to face down the Lincoln County Wars and Billy the Kid. He served from 1878 to 1881.

And in the midst of it all and while serving as governor, he still found time, in the adobe halls of the Palace of Governors in Santa Fe, to finish writing a book that he’d started in 1873.

The book? Ben Hur.

Author Lew Wallace had a hand in New Mexico’s history long before he became governor. When he was 19, he helped raise a volunteer regiment for the Mexican War (1846-1847).

After the Mexican War, Wallace became a lawyer, married and was elected to the Indiana State Senate.

He began the Civil War as the adjutant general of Indiana and finished as commander of the VIII Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac. In 1865 he was sent on a secret mission to Mexico.

His orders? Stop the supply of arms being sent from Mexico to the Confederacy.

Wallace returned to Mexico in 1866 and 1867, this time to help in supplying arms to the Juaristas who were attempting to overthrow the man, Maximilian I, who had been brought in, by Mexico’s French conquerors, to become emperor of Mexico.

Emperor Maximilian was overthrown.

Wallace’s first novel, The Fair God, published in 1873, was a romance

about the conquest of Mexico. In that same year, he began writing what would become Ben Hur. Seven years later, in 1880, he completed it. Its first title was Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

And the book Wallace finished writing (in the Palace of Governors in Santa Fe) was published in 1881 and became a million-seller.

In 1899, Ben Hur was produced as a play (with a chariot race on the stage) and then twice as a movie — first in a 1925 production and then as MGM’s Technicolor blockbuster.

It opened 45 years ago, on Nov. 19, 1959, at Loew’s State Theater in New York City. It won 11 Oscars. Many say it launched Charlton Heston’s movie career.

Lew Wallace died in 1905. He was buried where he was born, in Indiana, where his father had been governor.

But Lew Wallace, former governor of the Territory of New Mexico, among New Mexicans may best be remembered for a line he wrote in a letter to his wife, the same year the first Ben Hur was published. He told her: “All calculations based on our experiences elsewhere fail in New Mexico.”

In other words, Wallace’s last trip to New Mexico wasn’t all that successful.

And when Murphy’s law takes over in the state, you may just hear some rendition of Wallace’s quote uttered by someone in Santa Fe, Albuquerque or locally.

In fact, Tucumcari Mayor Mary Mayfield offered her paraphrase on Wallace’s words Thursday night after the City Commission meeting in reference to the well water situation.

Chelle Delaney is associate publisher for the Quay County Sun. Contact her at 461-1952 or by e-mail: