Confession time: Steve Terrell has scared the hell out of me for the vast majority of my career. It's not anything he ever actively did to me, more like he was this intimidating phantom of experience looming over me doing everything I was doing (and way more) but so much better and seemingly so much more easily. He'd probably disagree because he's nice, but for any Santa Fe culture writers who came or come after, Terrell should feel like the gold standard.
We finally met in real life last week—my fault, not his—to look back over his career following his retirement from the Santa Fe New Mexican, his home paper since 1987. For someone like Terrell, though, who covered pretty much anything that wasn't sports, a retrospective is a tall order. For that reason, we'll skim past how he moved to Santa Fe from Oklahoma in 1968 and attended high school where City Hall now stands, how he says his mom convinced him a Methodist teen hang would be a good way to make friends, how there were two drive-in theaters back then and how he tried to become a high school English teacher but only ever made it as far as a sub.
We'll start instead with Terrell's journalism, which kicked off in 1980 after a Time Magazine article about the best records of 1979 pissed him off so badly that he submitted his own list to the Santa Fe Reporter's then-editor Richard McCord. Turns out SFR liked the piece so much that McCord ran it without bothering to tell Terrell beforehand, and it wasn't long before arts and culture editor Anna Dooling (like a proto-me, but y'all probably liked her better) came calling with a freelance offer to cover folk singer Dave Van Ronk. Terrell describes the subsequent show and meeting as boozy.
"Every one of Dave's rounds was a Guinness, a Jameson Irish whiskey and a shot of tequila," Terrell says. "I wrote it up. It went well."
And the freelance SFR jobs kept coming, including an ill-fated drunken journey to cover blues legend Taj Mahal during which Terrell argued with his wife and wrestled with a broken-down tape recorder.
"I had to hitchhike home," Terrell recalls. "My notes were raw gibberish, my tape was messed up, I only remembered a few things, didn't memorize it good enough—but I turned it in with a straight face and it was the lead story that week."
Features came later, as did a full-time position with SFR. By then, Terrell had had a kid or two, and the Albuquerque Journal lured him away in 1984 with promises of fame and fortune.
"I felt invincible," he says of the transition.
He worked there for three years before moving over to the New Mexican—and the rest, as they say, is history. While there, Terrell worked crime, police and courts, culture, the city beat and so on. He started a radio show, he started a podcast. If there was a story to tell, he probably told it. By 2000, he began covering the state Legislature, a beat he worked so well that his retirement last week found politicians swinging by Marcy Street to say their emotional goodbyes and Twitter abuzz with journalists from around the state touting his influential coverage and presence; the Roundhouse, it seems, will never be the same.
Still, Terrell says, he's seen Santa Fe evolve since the '60s, and pretty much everything goes back to the old axiom about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
"Physically, there are a lot of different buildings. Restaurants have come and gone. The city has grown in size. But the same issues pop up," he says. "Some things have fallen in or out of favor, but they'll be back or they'll go away again. The basic essence of Santa Fe? It's the same."
Which brings us to today.
"Today, except for running errands, this is my obligation," Terrell says during our interview. "Right now it just feels like a day off."
But why now? Sure, Terrell is 66 and had a bit of a health scare last year that almost killed him (necrotizing fasciitis, aka flesh-eating bacteria), but these are dark times and capable journalists with deep insight into the city and the years under their belt to prove it—who also understand wit and levity—are needed now more than ever, I say.
"I've seen colleagues wait too long," Terell explains. "I survived I don't know how many layoffs, had to do more with less, I said … 'life is too short.'"
He's got grandchildren now. He's got a big fat pile of books to read. He's got plans to take his tablet to the park on nice days and while away the hours. He'll still host Terrell's Sound World on KSFR, and his Big Enchilada podcast will go on.
"I had a recurring mantra in my music column," Terrell says. "Santa Fe has more good musicians than we deserve, and it's true."
We probably didn't deserve Steve, either, but then, hindsight is 20-20. We'll miss you, buddy.