What Happened to Joe Hayes?

Joe Hayes, class of 1963.

What became of Joe Hayes (class of 1963)? Interesting, I’ve been asking myself the same question. Lately I’ve looked at my senior picture, the yearbook photo of me with my head turned a bit to the side, chin raised, eyes gazing off toward some lofty future, and I’ve mused:  What became of that optimistic young man with the faraway look in his eye?

I first ventured an hour up the highway to Tucson, as did most of the college-bound graduates of ’63, and matriculated at the University of Arizona. I realized that literature and language interested me most and I ended up getting a degree in English literature.

I did two stints of teaching English, one at Sunnyside High School in Tucson and one at Los Alamos High School in New Mexico. Between those two teaching hitches, I was divorced from the woman I’d married upon graduating from the university.  She went, along with our two children, to live in California, and I took a job with a mineral exploration company based in Tucson.

They hired me because along the way I had picked up a functional command of Spanish and they needed someone to go on a job in Mexico. The affinity for the Spanish language of course began in Benson. It was helped by rooming at the U with the my Benson pals Billy and Bobby Guerra, not to mention other friends like Eddie Trujillo and Ross Sotelo from Casa Grande and the Vásquez brothers from Phoenix. After a year of working in Mexico, improving my Spanish and soaking up the local culture, I was sent off for six months of work in Spain.

While working out of the country I missed my children terribly. I began making up stories and recording them on cassette tapes which I’d mail to them as a way to keep myself more present in their lives. By the time I returned to the States and decided to try teaching again my interest in stories and storytelling had solidified. I decided to start researching traditional folktales from the Southwest and develop them in a way I could share with my kids.

There was an elementary school right across the street from the high school I was teaching in, so I asked one of the teachers if I could visit her classroom and tell some of the stories I was stocking up for my children. I’d also tell stories to my English classes. Word spreads fast in a small town, and soon I was getting calls from other teachers, from folks who worked with the YMCA or the scouts or the Campfire Girls, all asking me to tell stories to the children. It began to appear that this might turn into a career for me.

I’d never heard of anyone being a full time storyteller, and neither had anyone else I knew, but in 1979 I declared myself to be a storyteller. I remember striking up a conversation with a Jewish woman in an airport once and she asked me what kind of work I did. I explained that I told stories. “From this you can make a living?” she said in astonishment. Yes, that’s what I’ve been doing for 37 years.

After a few years of telling stories in schools, libraries, parks, museums, etc., it occurred to me that I could share the stories with a wider audience if I would write and publish them. My first book was The Day It Snowed Tortillas, a collection of ten stories derived from the traditional Hispanic culture of Northern New Mexico. It appeared in 1982. My fate was sealed.

I settled in Santa Fe, but the books and storytelling have taken me from Alaska to Florida, from California to Connecticut, and to some 10 Latin American countries.

More than anything else, I credit my youth in Benson with providing the focus and the context for my stories. Friends like the Guerras, George Potter and Bobby Caballero opened my mind and heart to Latino culture. I’ve done many of my books in both English and Spanish. And the days spent wandering the hills and desert around Benson inspired tall tales like The Gum Chewing Rattler, The Love Sick Skunk  and My Pet Rattlesnake. You can watch me tell those stories on Youtube, by the way (www.youtube.com/users/joehayesstoryteller).
The book that is probably most influenced by Benson is Ghost Fever/Mal de fantasma, which won the Texas Bluebonnet Award. Some of the other books have gotten recognition too, and I
recieved the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts, but I learned a long time ago that the thrill of an award wears off quickly. And people soon forget you ever received it. What matters is doing what you’re meant to do, and making a contribution to the world you’re born into. As I heard said in Mexico, Si uno sirve para algo, que jale con eso; porque si no, no sirve para nada. If there’s something you can do to help out, do it, or else you’ll be of no help at all.

That starry-eyed kid in the yearbook never imagined he’d go where he’s gone and do what he’s done, but life seemed to have a path laid out for me and here I am, old and grey, but with my feet still to the road I was meant to travel.