By Ben Moffett
Editor’s note: Oran T. Caton of Bosque Farms was born on Aug. 24, 1916. He is a lifelong educator and coach, and the last surviving member of Forrest High School’s state champion basketball team of 1933.
This is the third part of a three-part series.
Q: And what of the next generation — the ones who played basketball at the University of New Mexico. The UNM 2006-2007 basketball media guide lists four Catons who lettered — Byron Caton, who is listed in 53-54, 54-55 and 55-56. Then there’s Dale Caton, who was a contemporary of mine at UNM — he played 56-57, 57-58 and 58-59. I remember him as a starting guard. There was Jimmy Caton in 1958-59, a teammate of Dale’s who is listed as playing only one year. Then there is Johnnie, who played in 1941-42. I remember him as my health and physical ed teacher at Albuquerque High in 1955-57. The book didn’t have any statistics on him. Could you tell me where each one of them belonged in the family tree?
Caton: Johnnie Caton, who played in 41-42, was my nephew, my brother John’s son. Dale and Byron are my brother Barnie’s sons, and Jimmy is my brother, Julian’s, son. But there are more generations of basketball players now. Ben and Trace, my brother John’s grandsons, played at the University of Utah. Ben was the co-captain, along with Keith VanHorn, on Utah’s 1996-97 team that made the elite eight in the NCAA. Trace was on Utah’s 1997-98 team that lost in the NCAA national championship game (to Kentucky, 78-69). Russ, another of Johnnie’s grandsons, played at Southern Utah. They all lived near Plain for awhile when they were young and took a school bus to Melrose.
Q: And back to you, Mr. Caton. I know baseball, football, track and basketball were all played competitively in some fashion at Forrest, but you enjoyed basketball most?
Caton: Basketball was my sport, although I think I could have done well in the mile or marathon, with all the running I did. My brother, Pearl, went to the state tournament three years in a row. I only went (to state) in 1933 and 1934. The starters in 1933 were Boyce and Bill Stockton, my brother Pearl, Johnny Best and Fred Craig. Bill Stockton and my brother Pearl made all state. (According to “Ghost Town Basketball, 2006, by Mike Flores, and to New Mexico basketball historian Chuck Ferris, James (Pearl) Caton was the first player to be selected to the New Mexico High School all-state tournament team three times).
Q: The Forrest Pirates won the state title in 1933, defeating Raton, 23-18, in the title game. What do you remember about the game?
Caton: I don’t remember a whole lot about it. How long has that been, 73 years? I didn’t play much. I had tonsillitis. We played the championship game in Carlisle Gym. What I do remember is the trip coming across. We had a flat tire over at Moriarty and one of the players, Otis Yates, ripped the seat out of his pants changing it. His dad had given him 50 cents to take to the tournament, and told him to bring back the change. He bought a needle and thread in Moriarty and I stitched it back up. It probably cost him a nickel or a dime of his money.
Q: How did you get to Albuquerque from Forrest? What kind of transportation? What route?
Caton: Highway 66 didn’t exist then straight through from Santa Rosa to Albuquerque. It ran up to Romerosville, then Santa Fe, and back to Albuquerque. So we would come in straight from Santa Rosa, like the Interstate (40) goes now, but at that time, there was just two tracks (ruts), no graded road, no nothing. We passed more wagons than automobiles. I don’t think we saw another automobile over that stretch. W e came in four or five cars, Model A Fords, maybe one Chevy.
There was some debate about whether we’d have enough money to go to the tournament. That was during the Depression and the Dust Bowl and we were pretty spread out. The first thing we knew the people in the community decided that they could donate food. We brought eggs, bacon, sliced hams, canned meat and vegetables, and you know, we had plenty to eat. I can’t remember what we did for bread, maybe we bought it there. We didn’t eat in restaurants. I can’t remember what we did for bread. Two of the women teachers came along, Miss Clara Davis and Miss Clara Carpenter. Ed McKee, an old bachelor, came along and drove his own car.
Bennett Stockton, Bill and Boyce’s dad, came and brought a load of us. Coach Wilson, I think he brought his car. It was a pretty good little bunch that came over.
Q: Forrest won the state title in 1931 — you were too young to make that trip, and you were part of the 1933 team that won. But what happened in 1932, when a Forrest team you played on lost badly in a semifinal game to Albuquerque High, 29-3, and became perhaps the only team in state-tournament history not to score a field goal in a state-tournament game?
Caton: Well, we got a bad case of food poisoning the day before the game, eating in a restaurant. I can’t even remember where. We started to forfeit — we should have forfeited, but we wanted to play. I remember we were running to the bathroom during the game. One of our players was so bad he never left the room. We got whipped pretty bad, and it’s an awful feeling, playing in that condition. (Note: According to the records of basketball historian Chuck Ferris and confirmed in the book, “Ghost Town Basketball,” by Steve Flores, Forrest defeated Roswell in the first round, 27-22, and Las Cruces in the quarterfinals, 27-18, before the loss to Albuquerque High. Forrest then lost the third-place game to Albuquerque Indian School, 22-14.)
Q: What did you do for entertainment, other than sports?
Caton: I was just telling my grand niece, Johnnie’s daughter — I told her when I was 8 or 9 years old in the summertime, I’d talk my dad into letting me go over to Mr. Walker’s, the old blacksmith, and he’d let me turn the forge. He liked that. It saved him time and effort. I’d spent half a day or longer turning it and having a big time.
In the summertime we’d play baseball and ride calves. In the wintertime, we’d probably go jackrabbit hunting. We’d drive toward the Caprock and start walking and push the jackrabbits toward a sheer bluff. When they’d break and run, we’d try to pick them off.
We hunted cottontails, too. There would be a lot of them around prairie dog holes, along with prairie (burrowing) owls and rattlesnakes. Some of us (chuckling) thought those little buggers (owls), if you walked around them in a circle, they’d follow you with their eyes until they twisted their heads off.
We’d eat the cottontails, and the jackrabbits, too, if they were young. Those big old jacks were not good eating. We’d cut the cottontails up like you would chicken and eat them with gravy. We never worried about rodent diseases in those days. Milk gravy was on our table three times a day, I think, and frijole beans twice a day.
I remember I happened to ride a few miles out north of our homestead one time and came upon an archeological dig, where they were digging out a mammoth tusk. They’d let you dig a little bit, then they’d dust it off and shellack it. It’s on display at the Albuquerque Natural History Museum now. (A composite of several ice age mammoth bones found at the Mesa Redonda site initially went to the Denver Museum and were returned to Albuquerque when the natural history museum was built and are currently on display according to museum curator of paleontology Gary Morgan).
Another thing we did, way back in the early days when I was a kid, Lon and Barnie and them got an old organ in there, and my sister learned how to play and on Sunday evenings, there’d be a gang of people coming to our house, and we’d just sing all evening.
Q: Gospel songs?
Caton: No, every kind of song. But we went to church on Sunday in Plain. It was Methodist one Sunday and Baptist the next. After Plain folded up and Forrest got started, it ended up basically a Methodist Church.
Q: Was basketball entertainment for parents and teachers or just parents?
Caton: Oh, yeah. That little old gym at Forrest, they stacked around the sides of the stage and there was nearly always spectators around the court and on the court. That was true at House and other places we played, too.
Q: Back to the 1933 season, and the championship, how did Forrest do during the season? Were you figuring on winning the state tournament?
Caton: We only lost one game that season – to Tucumcari in the district tournament. We had beaten them in the county tournament and they slipped up on us in district. We went in to state as district runner-up. Farwell (Texas) and Texico always had a tournament and invited teams from Texas and New Mexico. There was a slough of teams we played from Texas and New Mexico and we won those. And we won the Quay County tournament — teams like Nara Visa, Quay, McAlister, House.”
Q: What years did you go to Highlands? I am interviewing another player from Colmor, Woodrow Hutchison, who I know you still fondly keep in contact with, and he was apparently a great player. He told me he played from 1936-40. Were those your years, or Pearl’s years there? And if Pearl and Woodrow were on the same team, along with you, that must have been a great combination.
Caton: I played with Woodrow for two years and my brother Pearl for three. We had some pretty good teams. We went to the AAU tournament in Denver at the end of every season and did pretty well. I can’t recall when I graduated. I dropped out of school when I had another bout with tonsillitis, and went back to Clovis and had them taken out by Dr. Lancaster, who had two or three kids that wound up being doctors. I was just married and I got a job teaching at Cliff from 1938 to December, 1940. You didn’t need a degree to teach then. I taught eighth grade and was overseer of the playground. Coach Dale Shock was the high school coach there then. During the summers, I went over into the Gila chasing smokes (forest fires). Finally I went back and got my degree.
Q: And then you were off to see the world for a spell?
Caton: We went to El Segundo, Calif., after that and I worked for Douglas Aircraft — it’s McDonald-Douglas now I guess, but it was just Douglas then. The war came up, and I went down and took an examination for a commission in the Navy. I had 10 days to get ready and two days later I got a telegram from the commission rescinding it at the request of my employer, Douglas. I had one of the best jobs in the aircraft industry, an experimental planner. But I got a call from Stu Clark (athletic director) at Highlands and he said there were two jobs open for me, Aztec and Santa Rosa. I guess I just got homesick for Plain and Forrest, so I took the closest one. I came back in 1945 and was at Santa Rosa for two years, coached varsity football, basketball, and track, the first year by myself, the second year I had an assistant.
Next was Albuquerque. I was the physical ed and arts and crafts teacher at Monte Vista School, mostly phys ed, because there was no room for crafts. My desk was in the boiler room. I spent 20 years at Monte Vista. I left as principal there in 1972, and then I was a roaming principal, more or less, at two or three places for a few years.
Q: Did your wife have a career outside the home?
Caton: I met Mary Virginia Miller of Clayton, or “Ginger” at New Mexico Normal. We were married in Las Vegas (N.M.) in 1938. She was secretary for Col. Poe in the National Guard. She worked until our daughter, Sharon, was born, and then she quit. Sharon and her husband, Sheldon Wright live in Albuquerque.
Q: Well, it seems you’ve left quite a basketball legacy in New Mexico and are still leaving it as the result of new generations of Catons that are sprouting up from your parents.
Caton: Well, we were counting up the other day, and I think there have been more than two dozen of us that were college players, coaches, coaches or educators over the generations, and there will probably be many more.
Ben Moffett began following basketball on the radio and in the Albuquerque Journal in the mid-1940s while playing for San Antonio in a Socorro County grade school league. He began writing sports in 1956, while a student at Albuquerque High.