In the spring of 1984, fresh from working on yet another peace project, calligrapher and teacher Mary Lou Cook and a few of her friends realized they were tired of protest and longed to find a more positive outlet for their energies.
One day they spread some quilts on the bank of the Santa Fe River, sat down and began talking about the need to recognize the accomplished older people living in the community.
And so the Living Treasures project was born. Each spring and fall, the loose-knit group--they call themselves the Network for the Common Good--honors three older New Mexicans, selecting them from a list of nominees for personal qualities of grace and commitment.
"The reason that they were named is they live from their hearts, and their age doesn't stop them," says Cook, now 79, herself a Living Treasure. "It's a thank-you to the person while they're still alive, and you can't beat that."
The more than 100 people honored over the last 14 years (including some couples who count as one award) have included writers, artists, doctors and teachers, as well as local merchants, a boxing coach and a motorcycle-riding priest. They represent a sampling of northern New Mexico's diverse ethnicities.
Although the rule has always been that honorees must be at least 70, a few younger people have been honored, including a 29-year-old man living with severe multiple sclerosis. "We made the rule and we break it any time we feel like it," Cook says.
The honorees' stories are captured in words and pictures in a book, "Living Treasures: Celebration of the Human Spirit," published in the fall.
Meanwhile, the Living Treasures concept has been adopted in other New Mexico communities, including Rio Arriba County and Taos, while versions of the program are also being tried in Denville, N.J., Ogden, Utah, and Sedona, Ariz.
"We've been fortunate to stumble upon this idea," Cook says. "It has worked so well that we wish we could help every community in the United States to start a Living Treasures program."
The project's success is due in no small measure to the enthusiasm of Cook herself, a lively woman with bright blue eyes who wears her hair in a gray bob.
Born in Chicago, she grew up in El Paso and Kansas City. She majored in art and design at the University of Kansas before marrying Sam Cook, a salesman for an electrical supply company.
While raising their three children in Milwaukee and later Des Moines, she led an uneventful life.
"I didn't make a single wave for the first third of my life," she says. "I didn't have a thought."
But Cook eventually began teaching arts and crafts and became active in social causes. She was one of the first recruiters for the Peace Corps in the 1960s.
Thirty years ago, she persuaded her husband that it was time for a change.
"I got him to retire very early to move to Santa Fe," she says. "He had 12 of the best years of his life here. . . . He died one night of a heart attack in 1981. I have been alone ever since."
She lives in a roomy, eclectically decorated adobe townhome on Santa Fe's north side. A window above her work table offers a view of the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo mountains, which she says provide her with inspiration.
One of Cook's closest collaborators has been Shirley Minett, who says they were inspired by a Japanese practice of honoring venerable craftspeople as "living national treasures." There was also a sense of doing something for the community.
"One of the first things we talked about was Gandhi's wonderful quote, 'You must be the change you wish to see in the world,' " Minett says.
When the Santa Fe group was looking for its first nominees, members put the word out.
"It was amazing the flood of nominations that came in," Minett says. "It was really neat that everybody knew someone they thought was a treasure."
Whenever someone is honored, he or she is photographed and interviewed for an ongoing oral history. Honorees are invited to a ceremony, where dozens of friends tell stories--what Minett calls "purposeful reminiscence." Sometimes the affairs take on a magical flavor, as when the celebrated Chiricahua Apache sculptor Allan Houser opted to play his flute instead of making a speech.
Minett says the group operates with a minimum of structure. "We have no rules, we have no bylaws, we have no money--we have no anything," she says. "It seems like it is kind of self-regulating."
But Cook is the glue that keeps things together, Minett says.
"Mary Lou has great vision and a great organizational capacity. She can see exactly who is the best person to call. She is so well-respected that people fall all over themselves to help her."
Long involved with local chapters of groups including Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Habitat for Humanity and the Community Peace Forum, Cook also was a founding director (and the only woman) to serve on the board of the United Southwest Bank, one of the first minority-owned banks in the country.
In 1975 she was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. Although the illness often leaves her fatigued, she keeps it at bay with alternative health care and a commitment to cultivating a positive outlook. She counsels others on living with serious illness.
Diana Stetson, who with Cook belongs to a group of calligraphers who go on twice-yearly retreats, sees in Cook "a real role model."
"As she gets older she gets more and more inspiring," Stetson says. "She's a very happy, centered, self-confident person who's getting happier every day."
Cook voices awe for her fellow Living Treasures, like the late Father Miguel Baca, a motorcycle-riding Franciscan who enlisted fellow bikers to provide gifts to underprivileged children and to provide labor for the restoration of the mission church at Picuris Pueblo.
Recently the group honored Maria Chabot, Georgia O'Keeffe's personal assistant after the artist moved to New Mexico in the 1930s. "She's absolutely one of the most brilliant women I've ever known," Cook says of Chabot, now in her 90s.
Other well-known honorees include art historian Beaumont Newhall, a friend of Ansel Adams who was among the first to write about photography as an art form, and Hazel Parcells, a guru of alternative nutrition who lived to be over 100.
Other Living Treasures dwell largely out of the public eye, like Ross Martinez of Espanola, N.M. "He helps people do their income tax without charge," Cook says.
One thing honorees share is surprise at being honored.
"When I call them, usually they've never heard of me or Living Treasures," Cook says. "Inevitably, they say the same thing: 'I don't know why you chose me. There are so many people who've done more than me.' "
Virginia Mackie, 97, says she is "properly humble" for the recognition. Mackie, a former music professor at Yale, knew Cook decades ago in Kansas City. After moving to Santa Fe 22 years ago, she taught music appreciation to local residents. "I think it's a marvelous encouragement in a community," Mackie says of the Living Treasures program.
French-born Robert Boissiere, 84, author of five books, including several based on his experiences living among the Hopi in the 1940s, says being named a Living Treasure "felt great," adding: "In our day, it's a recognized fact that elders are not accorded the respect they were before."
Several years ago, Cook decided to compile the stories and portraits of the Living Treasures in book form. After a lengthy fund-raising effort, the book was released in the fall by Western Edge Press in Santa Fe. When people page through it, "very often they will start weeping, because the simplicity of our values comes through, and they're reminded of a grandparent," Cook says. "It's touching hearts."
Cook, who visits local schools and asks kids to interview their grandparents, thinks of elders as the "nobility of a community."
"I think that the Living Treasures are models," she says. "I think they're a remedy for the values that our kids grow up with. These people are models and we need to honor our models."