Stainding in Socorro’s old Finley Gym are (from left): Chuck Zimmerly , coach/educator, former city councilor, Lloyd Martinez,Public Utilities Director for the City of Socorro, City Councilor Peter Romero and Ruben Amars, Socorro City Water Dept. employee in Finley Gym which is the heart of the Recreation Center.
Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal

It’s quiet here in Finley Gym, the heart of what decades ago was SocorroHigh School.

That’s unusual.

This was on a recent weekday morning and ordinarily there would be something going on at the Finley complex, 202 McCutcheon Ave.

Owned by the city for 20 years, the complex offers summer and after school programs for kids, a space devoted to free weights and exercise equipment, a room for yoga, a community kitchen, periodic book sales, a literacy program, live theater and on and on.

All that, however, has been shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, and the Halloween haunted house and carnival, scheduled for Oct. 30 and 31 at the Finley facility, has been canceled.

“It used to be when anything happened in town, it happened here in the gym,” said Socorro City Councilor Peter Romero as he stood on the basketball court, which was refurbished two years ago. “Traveling shows, great high school theater, band and chorus productions.” And basketball, of course.

It’s quiet now, but if things work out the way the city hopes, the Finley Gym complex will be even more of a humming hub of hustle than it has been recently after the world gets past the pandemic.

The facility is earmarked for a major renovation that Mayor Ravi Bhasker said could take five years and $5 million.

“We could have (a community center) built someplace else, build it out of metal,” Bhasker said. “But we wanted to keep it in the center of town, and this is a classic old building.”

Not for Free

Ravi Bhasker

Thirty years ago, Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker was against purchasing the Finley Gym complex but now supports funding major renovations for the facility.
Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal

Thirty years ago, Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker was against purchasing the Finley Gym complex but now supports funding major renovations for the facility.
Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal

The old building, not far south of the town plaza, was Socorro High School from 1939 until the spring of 1969 when the high school shifted to its present location on Michigan Avenue, and it continued in use as the junior high school until Sarracino Middle School opened in 1986.

“This is a complex initially built in the WPA (Works Progress Administration) era,” Bhasker said. “The schools wanted to sell it to the city for $320,000. This was in 1989 or ’90. The city council wanted to buy it mainly because it had a fantastic gym. I was against buying it. I wanted it for free.”

But the city did buy it, and Bhasker said city government has been working to make the best use of it.

“At one point I wanted to move city hall there,” the mayor said. “It didn’t happen. But we have youth basketball there, the Pinon Leaque with 300 kids. We have adult volleyball. We tried men’s basketball but it got so rowdy we had to stop it.

“People use the community kitchen there to prepare enchilada dinners for fundraisers and food for farmers markets. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts use it. They have a heck of a Halloween house there.

“They have arts parties and kids show up for hand painting and for face painting.”

Piece by piece

As busy as the Finley Gym complex is during normal times, much of the old school building is unused and in shabby disrepair, some of the old classrooms and the former school library are cluttered with the detrius of lost years.

Valiantly, the city crusades to reclaim it bit by bit and room by room, using whatever money becomes available to renovate and revive another portion.

“We just nickel and dime it, try to clean it up,” Bhasker, 74, said. “We wish we had the kind of money we need. We just piecemeal it. We have to find the money in different pots.”

In 2018, a $5,800 project, paid for by fund-raising tournaments organized by city Recreation and Youth Center Director Cindy Rivera plus matching city money, resulted in the repair, sanding and refinishing of the deteriorating gym floor.

At about the same time, New Mexico Tech, which was remodeling its Macey Conference Center, donated 180 chairs which were installed on the gym’s hard and unforgiving cement bleachers.

Just this past spring $100,000 in state appropriations were used to add modern restrooms to the facility’s main floor, providing an alternative to the old restrooms located in the dungeon-like depths beneath the gym.

The mayor said the city is hoping the state will soon approve an additional $300,000 to update the building’s heating and cooling systems and make improvements to the McCutcheon Avenue entrance area.

Lloyd Martinez, city utilities director, said $85,000 of that would be needed for replacing heating and cooling units and the rest would go toward new lightning, new tile and a complete office makeover in the entry area and lobby.

“We are now working with an architect to get the most bang for our buck,” the mayor said.

Even more ambitious plans for renovations down the line have advanced to the design phase and might be paid for, Bhasker said, by Community Development Block Grant money.

Actually, three separate design concepts have been developed, each of which involves demolition of parts of the Finley complex to provide anywhere from 20 to 80 additional parking spaces.

Memories

“My other memories from when I was a kid was during polio (infectious and crippling virus of the early 1950s) and coming here to the gym to get the sugar cubes with vaccine on it,” said City Councilor Romero.

Romero, 67, was a student at Socorro High during the transition years, starting in the old building but finishing at the present high school. He remembers taking shop classes from Socorro High teacher and coach Jim Hollinger in the Finley complex space now used for weight training.

Another of Romero’s high school teachers was Charles L. “Chuck” Finley (1907-1972), who was also a basketball and baseball coach and the man for whom Finley Gym is named.
Finley Gym trophy case

The trophy case in the lobby of Finley Gym in the old Socorro High School built by the WPA in 1939.
JIm Thompson/Albuquerque Journal

“When Chuck Finley was teaching me, he was very cranky,” Romero said. “But maybe that had more to do with me than with him.”

The ‘Greatest’ day

Romero was one of several persons showing visitors through the Finley complex last week.

The others were Utilities Director Martinez; Chuck Zimmerly, who served for 30 years on the Socorro City Council and is a retired Socorro educator and a still-active coach; and Ruben Amaro, a veteran Socorro Water Department employee. Like Romero, each of these men have memories connecting them to the Finley complex.

Zimmerly, 72, was born in Hobbs, the son of a petroleum engineer who had deep family history in Socorro. His father retired in Socorro in 1962, and although Chuck Zimmerly attended St. EdwardsHigh School in Austin, Texas, he would spend holidays and school breaks in Socorro.

“The first basketball game I saw in (Finley) gym was in 1962 when I was in Socorro on Christmas break from St. Ed’s,” he said. “Socorro was playing Grants. Socorro won.”

Zimmerly, who taught math and science in the Socorro schools, did his student teaching at Socorro Junior High when it was in the old building. He was principal at Sarracino Middle School when he retired in 2008.

As he walked through the Finley complex, Zimberly paused at the trophy case just outside the gym and pointed to an old-style leather football helmet displayed there.

“They found that in the dressing room that’s under the stage in the gym,” he said.

Also on exhibit in the trophy case is a basketball signed by the members of the Socorro team that won the boys state Class AAA championship in 1998, 30 years after this building ceased serving as a high school. But roots are roots. Martinez’s son Josh was a forward on that state title team.

Martinez, 57, attended junior high in the old building in the mid ’70s. He remembers attending school dances in what is now the Finley complex and also the day in May 1976 that heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad “I Am the Greatest” Ali stopped by the junior high to visit with students.

Ali was taking part in comedian and activist Dick Gregory’s coast-to-coast “Run for Food” promotion and stopped in Socorro for a four-day layover, during which he kept running because he was training for an upcoming fight with Richard Dunn in Munich, Germany.

One day, however, Ali took a break to visit the junior high. Amaro, now 66, was a young man working in maintenance at the school that day.

“I shook his hand,” Amaro said. “He was quite a nice guy.”

Finding the future

It’s not difficult to find Finley Gym’s past. It’s everywhere in the complex, from the polished floor of the basketball court to the dark and jumbled rooms awaiting resurrection.

The challenge is finding the money to fund the facility’s future. But Mayor Bhasker thinks the building is important enough to this town of 9,900 to make that happen.

“Parents, kids, the whole town uses it,” he said. “It’s a good facility. I’m sorry I was against buying it.”

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