Editor’s note: There are many special Memorial Day memories of brave men and women who served their country. Billy and Robert “Bobby” Vigil are two small town brothers from Costilla, New Mex. who served honorably, and took advantage of the G.I. Bill that funded their education and ultimately determined their success. Now gone, the Vigil brothers are a shining example of family, courage and honor.
The conversation would have been amazing this year between former Colorado State legislator, Val Vigil, and brothers Billy and Robert. The Thornton accountant and resident would have told them all about the coronavirus while sprinkling in the latest family chisme---friendly gossip. But there was no visit, no flowers laid on his brothers’ graves at Santa Fe’s National Cemetery. The visit will have to wait.
Despite a gulf of years separating Vigil and his siblings---eighteen and twelve, respectively---their bond was strong. In fact, Billy, said Vigil, was “a father figure.” He took on the role because their father, Manuel, was often gone for long stretches of time.
“My dad was a sheepherder,” he said, doing a job that could keep him away from home, sometimes as long as eighteen months. “He would send home money every month.” It wasn’t much, but it helped the family hang on to its tiny patch of land near Costilla, New Mexico. Still, despite his father’s extended absences, Vigil remembers a tight knit family unit overseen by a strong and loving mother, Felicia.They were qualities that came in handy raising five sons and a daughter.
The older children, including Donald, Manuel and Betty Jane, all worked helping the family out. But when the Korean War broke out, the country came calling. Billy was drafted into the Army. He did his time---even earning a Purple Heart---and two years later, was discharged. But the Army changed him in a way that Vigil can’t explain.
This one-time high school drop-out, now a mature young man with a wife and child, decided farm work and odd jobs weren’t for him. He earned a GED---high school equivalency diploma---and enrolled at Alamosa’s Adams State College, now Adams State University graduating four years later. Within months, said Vigil, “He became a teacher,” “I still don’t know what drove him into education,” said Vigil, with a chuckle.
His first job, at Ojo Caliente, was teaching high school business, said Vigil. A few years later, he moved on, first to Costilla schools then Questa, said Vigil. Eventually, this one-time high school drop-out rose to superintendent of schools in the Questa Independent School District. It was a position he held until retirement. He died in 2017 at 88.
Robert, also a drop-out, took a similar path. He joined the Navy and, afterward, earned his GED. He also enrolled at Adams State College where he also graduated with a teaching degree. The brothers---and veterans---spent one year together at ASC. The younger sibling spent only a few years in the classroom, finding the administrative side of education more enjoyable. He became a principal and, later was named the Director of Head Start. He died in 1994 at the age of 52.
The man Vigil called a ‘father figure,’ also played another role in his life. “Billy was actually my high school teacher,” he said. The pair would drive to school together but when they arrived, it was all business. “He was always picking on me,” remembered Vigil. “I can’t play favorites,” his brother explained. “He pushed me. He was one of my best teachers.”
When the young Vigil graduated high school, his brother and ‘tough love’ teacher, made it clear “that I was going to college.” Like his brothers before him, Vigil attended and graduated from Adams State and soon would find himself in the classroom but not without first a little drama. A position opened up a Questa High School. “I applied but didn’t get the job.” Why? He wasn’t sure.
But a week later, the phone rang. It was from the man who’d interviewed him. In between the interview and the serendipitous phone call, the hiring official had also gotten a phone call. “Is that your brother,” he asked, referring to Robert, then the District’s Director of Title I, a federal agency that administers aid to schools. “Yes,” replied Vigil. The school got its money. Vigil landed the job.
He joined the faculty at Questa High School. The Vigil legacy, which began with a couple of school dropout brothers turned soldiers serving their country, then college graduates, continued.