Nathan A. Ferguson

writer | adventurer

Part II: One man's courage helped transform 'Drunk City'

Originally appeared in The Ranger newspaper.

 

BY NATHAN A. FERGUSON

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Ed Munoz walked into one of his favorite restaurants and said to the waitress, "I'll have a whiskey."

alcohol billboardThe bubbly waitress knew he was only joking. Then he ordered a cup of decaffeinated coffee, having quit drinking after he got married.

Munoz is popular in Gallup and has established a national reputation as the former mayor who stood up to his town and said: Stop drinking so much. He is known simply as "Eddy" or as a waitress put it, "Mr. Eddy."

No one in town can deny that something has happened to Gallup. City Manager David Ruiz said alcoholism is no longer the city's top priority, replaced by infrastructure.

Although the young might not have been around long enough to see the changes, they have heard stories about the "walking dead" coming out of the old drunk tank. It was just two cement cells, one for men and the other for women. An item high on Munoz's agenda was to create a more humane detoxification center.

"Some of us who went down to try to do assessment and counseling just ended up getting urinated, defecated and barfed on," said Herb Mosher, director of development for Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services.

Munoz is a small man but he wields a lot of common sense. He barely has a high school education, yet was able to dissect the complex social fabric and find what was plaguing the community. But he's not happy. Far from it.

Alcohol consumption remains at high levels and people are drinking at younger and younger ages.

Still, the legacy of Munoz remains. And everybody in town is willing to stand up and take credit for it. Elected officials use the pronoun "we" when talking about the effort, even the ones who weren't in office at the time changes occurred, or who opposed the measures. Not that it matters.

Who cares who takes credit, said retired pathologist Dr. Tom Carmany, a key player in the reform movement who rallied health care professionals. "It doesn't pay to remind them that, well, remember five years ago, you weren't supportive then. The point is they're with you now. The idea is to get it done," he said, from his home in Pennsylvania.

The seeds for change, perhaps, may have been already planted with failed attempts by other groups to address the situation. All they needed was someone to do the nurturing.

In 1983 Gallup's two hospitals merged. Carmany called it a "pivotal event" as one building was turned into an acute care facility and the other became a rehabilitation center for alcohol and drug abuse treatment.

Carmany saw the merger as an opportunity for Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital to take on new roles. After spending a year doing forensic autopsies he grew tired of all the needless death caused by substance abuse.

"I became aware one day that I was spending more time serving the dead than I was serving the living," Carmany said.

Gallup itself was suffering the same symptoms alcoholics do. It was in denial. Carmany grew up in a town of 30,000 in Pennsylvania. "I knew the town drunk. As far as I was concerned Gallup had a monumental problem," he said.

As the chief of staff, the merger gave Carmany a more powerful pulpit to speak from — all of a sudden he had a larger constituency. Dave Conejo was hired as the chief executive officer to make the merger happen. Egos clashed. When things calmed down, though, health care professionals were united under one mission statement.

A few years later in 1988 there was excitement at the hospital because Carmany and others decided to lay down the scalpel and take action, while some questioned why the hospital was getting involved in alcoholism, a "non-health" issue. Skeptics included the president of the state senate and the speaker of the house. Why change it? It's always been this way, many thought.

Under the direction of Carmany and Conejo, a small committee was created with two goals: To build a better treatment center and beautify the town.

"Cleaning up meant more than just painting murals and planting flowers and trees. We really had to stop stepping over the bodies. The way in which we needed to begin was change the attitude," Mosher said.

In 1986 the political reform began when Munoz decided to run again — he had previously been mayor of Gallup for 11 years beginning in 1956.

Some who try to figure out Munoz wonder what drives him and it's easy to blame it on religion. Munoz was moved by a meeting with Mother Teresa, so intense he said he felt the Holy Spirit, but he said his Pentecostal faith has nothing to do with it. Instead, it was simpler than that.

Munoz's parents migrated from Mexico and couldn't speak English when he started school, not that it kept him from succeeding in almost every type of business. After operating an auto towing company for 10 years, like Carmany, he grew tired of death. Alcoholism struck Munoz personally when he lost his father to a drunk driver in 1947 while he was overseas in the military.

"It doesn't matter who you are, you're always touched in some way," he said.

Munoz's second time in the ring was the roughest with sparring partners in the liquor industry who trashed his yard, slashed his tires, and there was talk about "rubbing him out."

"I got bloodied pretty good, politically," he said.

Ruiz described him as a "bulldog" who kept the issue "on the front page every day." Munoz is also widely known as a hard-liner who would not waiver.

"Some people said I would not bend. You can't just say it's all right to drink a little bit," he said.

Munoz and his wife didn't know much about sparking a revolution, but what they did know for sure was they had to make people more aware. They started with "Alcohol Awareness Week" highlighted by a parade, and during their public information sessions they brought in people like Chuck Yeager and Billy Mills.

"You can't put it in the closet. You have to get it out in the open, and let the chips fall where they may," Munoz said. "Sometimes you step on some pretty influential toes."

Munoz approached the hospital and told them he would do anything he could to help, but soon they realized it was beyond the hospital's capacity. One of the problems in the county was not the recruiting of good people to take on complex social issues, but keeping them, Conejo said. They became frustrated with failure and left.

When Munoz was about halfway through his reincarnated political career, the hospital held a meeting in the fall of 1988 to iron out a strategy, a few months before the upcoming legislative session. Change was tough. As Conejo put it, there were plenty of good people, but they didn't want to alienate their friends who had DUIs or operated liquor businesses.

"It creeps up and you don't do anything about it for a while. Then the next phase is that you hope it doesn't affect you. Pretty soon you hope it doesn't affect your family or your children. Then before you know it, one day the problem has taken over your community. It's because you failed to do anything about it when it was small," Conejo said.

Part III

Parts I | IV | V

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Originally appeared in The Ranger, Riverton, Wyoming. Photo by Nathan A. Ferguson.