Friday, May 18, 2012

Erik Ness - He Lived a Life Most Journalists Can Only Dream Of

Two Journalist's who worked with and knew Erik Leroy Ness well pay tribute to the legendary New Mexico Farm and Livestock  Bureau' spokesman who died of pancreatic cancer on May 12th at the age of 57 and was buried and memorialized  today, May 18, 2012, in his hometown of Las Cruces, NM. 

By Bill Diven

Erik Ness stomped the firmament of Aggieland in 1974 when he joined a cabal of media rebels who stormed the student union at New Mexico State University and launched Ozone Ranger Radio. 

The timing proved perfect for the collision of cowboy and hippie music flavored with rhythm and blues. 

Rock 'n' rollers needed more energy, some campus cowboys learned to roll left-handed cigarettes and a smoke-filled saloon featured the Mesilla Valley Lowboys' blues one weekend and the Desperados' two-stepping the next.

It couldn't last, of course.  

Saner heads at the cow college prevailed the next year, or maybe the hammer just dropped from above as happens in student media, so the Rangers scattered establishing outposts of creative subversion along many trails.

For his part as an Ozone Ranger Erik took the title of operations manager establishing himself early as an operator maneuvering the thickets of his beloved state until his too-early demise last weekend. 

Calling Erik an operator, though, does no justice to the media wizardry he conjured as press aide to liberal Attorney General Toney Anaya and then three decades positioning the conservative New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau as the go-to voice of agriculture and its families.

Behind the scene he advised scores of political candidates, but good luck finding his fingerprints especially on anything fun that gigged the opposition.

He sometimes went by Buck Truck with a good-ol'-boy growl and wry smile mistaken at your peril for a case of dumbass.

 All the time he was writing and speaking, sometimes to national audiences, sometimes letting other folks run with his words making them sound the better for it.

When he wasn't writing under his own name or one that covered his tracks, he wrote music and hung out at Emmett Brooks' Goldust Studios in Las Cruces or with balladeer Michael Martin Murphey. 

"Murph," as Ness introduced him to me, has a ranch in northern New Mexico and became a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation.  He came by his ranching skills early and honestly, but Erik was just offstage as Murphey became a new national hero for the farm-and-ranch folks.

Occasionally over drinks Erik sort of sang his latest lyrics revealing more than just a talent for poetry. 

His keen eye and ear made the people and places of New Mexico as special as a full moon riding over the crags of the Organ Mountains. 

T'would be nice if someone compiled his music and shared it.

Ness passed over invitations to write his own ticket to self-important places. 

Washington, D.C., was out, he famously noted, because he couldn't hunt antelope there. 

That's just another way of saying his heart and roots were here, and Las Cruces was big enough, thank you.

Not too many public-relations specialists throw produce at journalists, and I can't say Erik made a practice of it. 

But one evening while waiting for my steak at the Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos, lettuce was in the air. 

When the third piece zinged past my ear, I turned around ready for a brawl, but there in the corner were Erik and a fishing buddy convulsing from suppressed laughter.

Maybe that was just his way of promoting one of the Mesilla Valley's prominent crops. 

I won't say we closed the place down, just that the fish in the Gila were safe the next morning.

So now he's gone at 57, and we're poorer for it. 

His family saw him more after he retired from the Farm Bureau although that time proved all too short. 

New Mexico music lost out, too, as did friends accustomed to tales delivered with a wry smile and rumbling chuckle.

Not to get too preachy, but you can read Erik's life as a book on how to fight for your causes and have a good time doing it without needing to leave your opponent gut-shot by the side of the road. 

Yeah, news and politics always made rough sport here, but then you salved your sprains and repaired to the bar to discuss events in detail, with respect and off the record.

These days power brokers keep their spin specialists on short leashes, and woe be to he or she seen chatting with a reporter after hours in some dark roadhouse with Murph on the jukebox.  

If Erik were just starting out, he'd be a tough fit for the way the game is now played.

No telling where the Ozone Ranger would go, but there would be music and probably lettuce in the air.

By Karl Moffatt

I was just a wise ass, city boy, enrolled at New Mexico State University’s School of Journalism when I first met Erik Ness back in the late 1980s.

The Albuquerque Journal had a bureau then in Las Cruces manned by longtime, longhaired, southern New Mexican newsman, Bill Diven, and his hapless photographer called “Feckless.”

For some reason which is only now fully apparent, Diven had thought it might be entertaining to hire away the industrious cop reporter from the university’s student newspaper to fill his editorial intern position that summer.

Up until then the J-School had fed him a steady diet of great looking but uninspired co-eds to fill the position and he was looking for a little more news production to ease his worried mind.

Back then the Journal was a respected, statewide paper that had guys like Fritz Thompson and Richard Pipes roaming the state looking for news and photos from the back roads of New Mexico.

Now the Journal doesn’t even deliver to most of those places.

But I’d been hired then for $10 an hour at 20-hours a week to do Diven’s bidding which included writing stories for, of all things, the Farm and Ranch page that ran in the Journal’s Sunday edition.

The page was dedicated to coverage of the state’s agriculture industry and was appropriately assigned to the Las Cruces bureau as NMSU was home to the agriculture college and the state department of agriculture too.

So Diven promptly dispatched me to the Farm and Livestock Bureau’s nearby, downtown, office to touch bases with the state agricultural industry’s chief spokesman, Erik Ness.

I walked over under the glaring summer sun and blistering heat and found the town’s most passionate and highly vocal animal rights activist carrying a protest sign and parading up and down the sidewalk in front of the Farm Bureau’s office.

As I stood talking to him and scribbling in my new reporters’ notebook, Ness emerged from the building carrying a couple of cans of cold Coke.

He came up and jovially introduced himself while offering a can to each of us.

Naturally it wouldn’t have been polite to turn down such a generous and refreshing offer so we both grabbed a Coke and knocked them back as Ness stood and grinned.

Ness then draped an arm across my shoulder and steered me towards his air conditioned office while the protester yelled in my wake to “beware” of the Farm Bureau’s “Minister of Propaganda.”

And with that I was introduced to one of the most interesting, influential and memorable characters of my journalism career.

Ness offered me all the background I needed to effectively cover the industry, made introductions to all the best sources and rarely asked to go off the record when speaking to me.

Ness was a pro at explaining the ag industry’s position and then telling you what the opposition’s was and who to talk to get it.

And then he always made sure to suggest a crucial question to ask them.

The media is always being manipulated in this way as they search for the truth but what I respected about Ness was that while he might have steered me in the right direction he never tried to take over the wheel.

Many times it was Ness who provided me the lead that led to an unflattering story about the industry.

Ness was a news man who put out his own highly informative newspaper under the Farm Bureau banner.

It was chock full of good stuff and frequently featured cover illustrations by his father, Carl, who was a wonderful artist whose work truly captured the spirit of the state.

Ness was also an avid radio and film man who cranked out one piece after another from his basement studio at the Farm Bureau.

And his stuff earned him one ward after another from his peers.

Here's an example of his work that shows why he earned so much respect from other journalists. Click on the play button in the video box to hear  Ness's smooth delivery of the facts of this court case

But it seemed one of his favorites of all time was the tongue in cheek short film he did called the “Adventures of Broke Truck Mountain” that was shown at the 2007 White Sands Film Festival in Alamogordo.

It was hilarious according to him and I’m sad to say I never got to see it.

Hopefully someone will resurrect it and post it to YouTube for all of us to enjoy.

Ness was an all around pro who could do it all and the state and national agricultural industry lost an incredibly talented, tireless advocate for their cause with his retirement and premature passing.

I was told Ness wrote his own obit. It highlights many of the accomplishments he was most proud of having achieved in his career and can be seen at

But what it doesn’t mention is what only those who knew him can, that he was a wickedly funny man with a deep, dark talent for political shenanigans.

When I graduated from NMSU and had moved up to Santa Fe to further my journalism career I looked forward to each year’s legislative session because I knew Ness would be in town for the annual Ag Fest.

I would slip into the crowded event and there among throngs of legislators and agricultural industry members I’d find Ness and we’d get together after the show to spend some time getting caught up.

There was always talk about this political campaign he’d worked on or that political issue he taken an interest in and I remember how he proud he was at helping deliver the state to Republican President George W. Bush for his second term in 2004.

It was mud in the face of Democratic Governor Bill Richardson face and Ness particularly relished that.

But it was back in Las Cruces when I first got to know Ness that I gained some real sense of his political cunning.

We both lived in the same neighborhood and I would stop by his apartment every now and then to share a few beers and talk shop.

I recall how during one visit he tossed me a copy of the Las Cruces Sun News and pointed out a particular letter to the editor signed by Ramirez Sanchez.

Then he’d laughed slyly and make fun of the newspaper for not catching on that those letters were penned by him using the real name of the infamous terrorist “Carlos the Jackal.”

He even once told me during one of our happy hours that he had just turned down a job with the CIA.

They had way too many rules and regulations for his style.

I couldn’t get a confirmation or denial on that story but many times I would leave his apartment thinking he had been blowing smoke up my pantalones about one thing or another.

Only later I would discover on my own that he wasn’t.

Ness turned me on to rural New Mexico, always suggesting the best back roads to take and the better places to eat in various towns across the state.

And it was from Ness that I developed an ear for country music and my bizarre knack for making up my own lyrics to sing along to while tooling down some lonely, country road.

Now I know why they listen to so much country music in rural New Mexico.

It’s because that’s all you can find on the radio.

And it was Ness who gave me the insight about how a good flack operates. And that has served me well in my career and as a citizen of this great state.

So when I learned of his illness, I was shocked, he never let on.

I searched my memory for details from the last time we met.

It must have been at the 2010 AG Fest where he sadly lamented how the good old days where gone under the bureau’s new leadership and perhaps it was time for him to go.

He retired a short time later and we talked off and on after that.

Ness always made sure I got his latest press release that he’d done for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

You could tell he was figuring out what to do next and you just knew whatever it was that it would be great.

But he was taken from us way too soon and by the time I learned of his illness it was too late to personally say goodbye.

But on a windswept plain recently, under threatening clouds with a herd of cows milling about, I found myself talking to a rancher by the side of a rural dirt road.

And when Ness’ name came up I pulled a couple of cans of Coors from my cooler and we toasted and spoke fondly of him.

And in the end I figure that’s exactly what he would have wanted from me.


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