A few months into the pandemic, I found myself thinking about the Trades and Advanced Technology Center on the Santa Fe Community College campus. As I wrote in this column at the start of 2019:
"If/when the apocalypse hits, my advice would be: Head to Santa Fe Community College. There, as best I can tell, the lights will stay on, clean drinking water will still flow and fresh food will continue to grow long after the rest of dehydrated Santa Fe has given up clubbing one another in the darkened streets while wrestling over the final chimichangas at Allsups."
I'd written those words after interviewing Luke Spangenburg, director of Santa Fe Community College's Biofuels Center of Excellence, as well as its Training Center Corporation, about resilience, sustainability and his vision for the future. Luke was my favorite type of person to interview: smart, generous with his time despite being busy and highly tolerant of my interviewing style, which is haphazard at best. I interview people as much for conversation as information. Luke was game, and his combination of deep knowledge and passion for sustainable food, energy and society was contagious. He was also a great source and advocate for his program and his colleagues, pointing me toward more stories about people working in the college's Trades and Advanced Technology Center who are engaged in groundbreaking and forward-looking projects.
Later that year, when SFR's nonprofit partner, the New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism, received a grant for our next cohort of interns, I called Luke to see if he would partner with us. He said yes, and that year's cohort produced a cover story, "Roadmap to Resilience," exploring the center's courses and programs on biofuels, controlled environment agriculture and green building, to name a few.
Recently, I learned that story is a finalist in the national Association of Alternative Newsmedia's annual journalism competition.* I had planned, after the holiday, to send Luke a note thanking him again for working with us.
I wish I had done so sooner. Luke died over Labor Day weekend from a heart attack while camping. "His death under the stars in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico was very quick and, to those of us who knew him well, a perfect place from which to leave a world he loved so well and worked so hard to repair," writes Ondine Frauenglass, a lab technician in the Trades and Advanced Technologies Center.
"Luke's left a large void," Frauenglass told me by phone, "and at the same time, he was so connected by friendship, by community ties to so many people that there's a tremendous amount of support in trying to figure out how to proceed. We feel like he provided us with a legacy that needs to be honored."
That legacy, as Luke described it, was demonstrating what resilience and sustainability looks like through energy and food autonomy. He was also deeply committed to educating and training the students in the program. He himself began as a student in the biofuels and algae program in 2009 and later took it over, becoming a nationally recognized expert in the field.
"Luke was a man with vision," writes Charles Bensinger, who created the curriculum for the first biofuels and algae program and taught Luke in his first class. "When we moved into the new Sustainable Technology building, Luke took the initiative to acquire a state-of-the-art bioreactor for the lab, and he engaged algae experts from the National Labs and algae industry professionals, greatly expanding the reach of our SFCC algae program. Luke's tireless assistance registering students for the Biofuels Center of Excellence Grant Program proved essential and critical to the program's success."
"He was such a supporter of making good stuff happen," Boisvert says. "It was really refreshing to deal with someone like him who wasn't embedded in the old but really valued looking at the future and looking at what the future would hold."
Charlie Shultz, lead faculty for the controlled environment agriculture program, describes Luke as "instrumental" in bringing him to SFCC four years ago. "He saw the value in what I would bring to SFCC and he pulled the strings to get me here," Shultz says. "He brought people to witness what we do. Luke connected with everybody…for four years, all of my students have raved about my connection with Luke. I'm a little crushed [my students] don't get to know him. But I'm carrying the torch for what we have planned for the rest of my life."
"He saw the good in everyone," Petrović says, "and pulled it out of them and made them better people, but he also gave students opportunities to excel and be given a chance. He was a doer. He brought in so many connections from industry…from everywhere. The vision he had, he put forth and he did it, and now it's on all of us to pick up that torch and keep on going."
Were it not for word count and deadlines, I could likely keep interviewing people who Luke taught, inspired and helped indefinitely. Instead, I'll end with his own words from an interview I had with him last year:
“We’re trying to demonstrate what a sustainable and resilient college looks like,” he said. When the center was built, he noted, it was with the Field of Dreams “If You Build It, They Will Come” attitude. “Well, they did,” he says, “and they continue to come, and one of the things we find so rewarding is people are coming into these programs to change the world.”
* Coda: On Sept. 18, "Roadmap for Resilience" won first place in the Association of Alternative Newsmedia's annual competition in the nonprofit collaboration category.