Obituary: Ben Ortiz Oct. 5, 1937 – July 18, 2015

BEN ORTIZ Oct. 5, 1937 July 18, 2015

Ben Ortiz, 77, of Nambe, passed away in his home following a lengthy illness on Saturday, July 18, 2015 surrounded by his loving family.

He was born in Santa Fe on October 5th, 1937 to Jose Manuel Ortiz and Josefita Sandoval Ortiz of Nambe.

Ben was preceded in death by his parents; sisters Gloria Ortiz, Maria Longacre, Loretta Ortiz; niece Carrie Lupenski; parents-in-laws Joe I. and Bernice Maestas; brother-in-law Walter Maestas; and grandson Keith Medina.

He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Patsy; his children Marco Ortiz and wife, Lynnea; Marla Gabaldon and husband, Damian; Benjamin Ortiz Jr. and wife, Nicole; Marquita Ortiz and husband, Cory Brown; granddaughters Gabriela and Dominique Gabaldon, and Ashley Hewitt; grandsons Daine Medina and Nicolas Lujan; brother John Ortiz and wife, Mary Ellen; sister Lydia Fresquez and husband, Pete; in-laws Elmer Longacre; Elmer Maestas and wife, Eliza; Lito Maestas; Marlene Maestas; uncle Merced Sandoval; and aunt Juanita Misere; and many beloved nephews, nieces, cousins, and friends.

Ben attended Santa Fe and Pojoaque high schools, remaining a loyal fan of both the Elks and Demons. He proudly served his country in the U.S. Army from 1961-1963. Ben was employed by LANL as a Mechanical Technician.

Following his 1989 retirement, Ben founded the Los Alamos Project on Worker Safety. He became a tireless advocate who helped lead a grassroots community organizing effort, which led to the establishment of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. He had a determined strength that helped to shape his tenacity in the struggle for social justice that has, and will continue to, benefit many northern New Mexicans.

Ben was deeply rooted in his Nambe/Santa Fe homeland, maintaining lifelong ties to both communities. Although he acquired technical skills that enabled him to obtain a good job to support his family, his humble beginnings of tending livestock and growing food with his family helped to cultivate his modest character. His extensive agrarian, industrial, and land-based knowledge is greatly admired by his family.

Ben was a smart man who preferred a simple life. He was a social person who would easily strike up a conversation with a friend or perfect stranger over a cup of cafecito. Ben loved the outdoors, his classic automobiles, sports, cruising through northern New Mexico communities, and eating good homemade food. He was truly a jack-of-all-trades, building anything and everything with his hands. Ben displayed a loving dedication to his family as a hardworking, humble, generous, creative, protective, and caring individual who taught his children the value of honesty and integrity. He had a quiet yet strong-willed presence with a gentle wisdom that will carry on through his memory.

Memorial services will take place at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Nambe on Thursday, July 23, 2015. Public visitation will begin at 9:45 am, Funeral Mass will take place at 11:00 am. Burial procession and meal to follow. Serving the family as pallbearers are nephews Robert, Bart, and Johnny Ortiz; Phillip and Kenneth Fresquez; Roger and Ian Longacre; and honorary pallbearers are sons-in-law Damian Gabaldon and Cory Brown.

The following tribute is by Kenneth Z. Silver:

From the time he was diagnosed with solvent encephalopathy and reactive airways disease in the late 1980’s, right up through a public reading on June 5, 2015 by author and whistleblower Chuck Montano in Espanola, which Ben attended in his wheelchair (hanging on every word), Ben devoted his adult life to holding Los Alamos and DOE accountable for injustices committed in northern New Mexico.

My friendship with Ben Ortiz has been one of the meaningful relationships of my life. “I thought university people are supposed to be honest, Ken,” Ben said, raising his voice just a little.  We sat and talked in depth for the first time in the Espanola Public Library in the spring of 1999. “It’s the University of California, que no?”

In the Espanola Public Library I read Ben’s medical paperwork through my east coast lens. The New York toxicologist who diagnosed Ben’s neurological issues ten years earlier was on the team of the late, great Irving Selikoff, “Dr. Asbestos.” The San Francisco doctor who diagnosed Ben’s respiratory issues had completed a top residency, then held a Robert Wood Johnson fellowship for clinical leaders.

It was immediately clear to me that all the naysayers around northern New Mexico, scientists and wannabees, who over the previous decade had told Ben “You’re never going to be able to prove it was caused by work,” had been wrong, dead wrong by the standards of workers’ compensation programs in industrial America. The worst was a LANL psychologist who’d asked Ben if his neuro symptoms might be due to the practice of “witchcraft” at home. In fact, he:

  • cleaned literally miles of stainless accelerator beamline in enclosed spaces with tce
  • soldered with flux in a poorly ventilated workshop
  • worked with epoxies
  • inhaled adhesive and paint spray mist, and
  • breathed hot oil mist laced with metals in the testing and repair of mechanical pumps. 

Ben’s exposure history was loaded with respiratory sensitizers, irritants, and neuro- and renal toxicants.

Now the trick was how to drag the recognition of occupational disease at Los Alamos into the late 20th century. It was 1999. Better late than never.

When we met again at a diner with Patsy, Ben’s devoted wife, joining in, both of us had brought news clippings about Energy Secretary Bill Richardson’s initiative to develop a compensation program. Quoted in the articles was Richard Miller, policy analyst for the union, who I’d met once at a conference. 

“Get Udall on board,” was Richard’s first suggestion. At a constituents’ chat with the congressman in August 1999 Ben’s forceful sincerity was very much on display, as he cited the injustices that he and many other Lab workers had experienced with uncompensated job injuries and illnesses. Congressman Udall and his staff did much more than get on board. After a few more meetings, in February 2000 they gave unbridled staff support to our efforts, “Whatever you need,” to turn people out for Dr. David Michaels’ field hearing in March 2000. Over 400 people came.

Congressman Udall’s family background and prior service as state AG made him the quickest study among Dr. Michaels’ numerous congressional contacts that year. I also believe Ben’s sincerity inspired the congressman and his staff to study up and make EEOICPA a priority. Indeed, through all the ups and downs, uncertainties, logistical hurdles, and periods of apparent futility, it was Ben’s unerringly pleasant, respectful demeanor that kept opening doors for us, along with his ability to speak simple truths and ask just the right question. “Que no?” pretty much settled it.

To appreciate how a person mashed in the gears of industrial disease could rise above bitterness, take a drive through Nambe, New Mexico, where Ben raised his family. The land is achingly beautiful, especially in twilight, when I imagine Ben reflected on his ordeal. Nambe in the morning light must have been a daily source of hope for him, in the house whose vigas he carried down from the forests, debarked, and set into place when he and Patsy were starting out.

We also had help from officials in Rio Arriba County, which is one of the lowest income places in America, adjoining Los Alamos, the #1 richest. Ben’s presence was enough to allay officials’ fears that this was some city slicker’s campaign to trick the acequia (irrigation ditch) associations into campaigning against environmental radiation. We grabbed hold extra tight to all of our allies after a May 2000 conference call when a Senate aide suggested that the legislation might take a back seat to funds for Cerro Grande fire victims. Jake Salazar, who died a few months later of radiation-related cancer, was at the phone conference. On more than one hospital visit, Ben promised he’d keep fighting to ensure that Jake’s family would have financial security.

We were discouraged when a split panel of three doctors denied Ben’s claim under Part D. But with the state’s congressional delegation in the lead, and Richard Miler sending money for postage (and lending immense savvy), and now hundreds of New Mexican families on a mailing list, Part E did get passed, which ultimately paid out for Ben. In early 2001 we adopted the name “Los Alamos Project on Worker Safety.”

Ben’s political instincts dictated that a “project” of existing organizations (CLER, UPTE, El RAEHA) was preferable to yet another underfunded non-profit on the northern New Mexico landscape. Even so, people’s wallets flew open with unsolicited donations. So we had to manage a bank account, a rare public endeavor in Espanola untainted by whispers of graft or self-dealing. Ben’s long friendship with state Senator Ray Ruiz was instrumental in getting a Roundhouse resolution passed in 2002, building support for the federal Part E amendments. 

His grammar school days with House Speaker Ben Lujan also helped. Most importantly, Ben traveled with extra copies of our latest “Action Alerts” on the seat of his truck. When he saw a friend or neighbor who had a stake in the issue, he’d make a personal pitch for them to call the government officials. He easily persuaded people to take action with his obvious sincerity, the integrity of the cause, and a simple “Que no?”

“Success has a thousand fathers. But defeat is an orphan,” said JFK, who Ben served under in the Army before returning home to work at Los Alamos. “He was the guy,” was how Ben described the 35th president. It was rare praise for an elected official, so many of whom had disappointed him in the years since he’d been “medically terminated” by Los Alamos.

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena .. who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again … … who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  – Teddy Roosevelt

The rough ride that Los Alamos gave Ben – and how he rose with his community and co-workers to overcome it – is best understood through the words of Teddy Roosevelt (quoted above), who exhorted that for average citizens to be good citizens, a country’s leaders need to be people of high standards. 

The successful work we did together with Ben as a regional leader is something we average citizens need to do much more of. Terrible injustices can be overcome, powerful institutions can be made more truthful and transparent, and best of all great and enduring relationships can be forged among new friends. 

Last week when a new graduate student, citing his faith in God, shared his apprehensions with me about starting a five year program with no guaranteed outcomes, I thought back to when I first met Ben. I told the student that when it was darkest for me in my public health career, things turned around when I sort of stumbled into helping others. A man with a simple cry for justice in need of a little technical gloss wound up joined at the hip with a sometimes brash northeast guy in need of better New Mexico manners, becoming fellow campaigners and lasting friends.

I’m going to miss Ben. But memories of his integrity, tenacity, and soulful sincerity will forever stay with everyone who knew him, respected him, loved him, and appreciated all the work he did for others.

In lieu of flowers, Ben’s family suggests donations can be made to the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups (ANWAG) and the Energy Employees Claimant Assistance Project (EECAP), both through the website www.eecap.org.

Tributes can be posted online at http://www.devargasfuneral.com/obituaries/Benjamin-Ortiz/

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