Mike Moreno, a ‘docent extraordinaire,’ donates his time and talents to the Harvey House Museum

........................................................................................................................................................................................

When Mike Moreno first walked into the Harvey House Museum in 2010, his initial intentions weren’t altruistic — he just wanted to feel better.

Moreno, who has been volunteering his time and talents at the historic building for more than three years, says his reasons for doing what he does — day in and day out — are for his love of history, his love of his hometown and just wanting his community to prosper.

Clara Garcia-News-Bulletin photo: Mike Moreno, a docent at the Harvey House Museum in Belen, has volunteered his time and his talents at the historic landmark for more than three years.

Moreno grew up in Belen, but never really made his way down to the Harvey House while he was a youngster. He remembers hanging around the rail yard and walking across the viaduct that went over the rail yards on his way to his favorite fishing hole or just to simply watch the trains.

“It wasn’t a museum when I was growing up,” Moreno said. “I remember when I was young, I would catch the train with my mom to go to Albuquerque. And when I was really, really young, my dad actually worked at the railroad.”

But it wasn’t until several decades later when he returned home after 30 years of living and working in California in the health-care industry that he discovered the gem that is now the Harvey House Museum. His return home was bitter sweet, he said.

After having an operation on his ear, suffering from appendicitis and sustaining a serious leg injury, all of which occurred one right after another, he came home to recover.

“I got involved here because I was recovering from multiple operations,” said the 56-year-old Moreno. “My doctor was concerned that I was just laying there watching TV, so during my recovery, I started sending emails to city councilors about how to change the town.”

Moreno said he wasn’t complaining, but simply offering suggestions. His intention was to make Belen a better place not only to live, but for people to visit.

During his conversations with the city, he was advised to talk to former mayor Ronnie Torres, who was a volunteer at the Harvey House Museum at the time.

“I came in, and Ronnie and Maurine (McMillan) gave me a tour and told me what was going on,” Moreno remembers.

From that day on, Moreno was hooked. He fell in love with the historic building and was a bit taken aback what was happening at the museum.

“The building was amazing and, once they showed me around and what was here, it sparked a light in my mind because I had been so out of it from being sick,” Moreno said. “It helped me wake up a little bit. It was great to see that the building was intact and that they had such a good collection of artifacts.”

While in California, Moreno also became an artist and worked a lot on exhibits and with volunteer development, structure and program coordination. With a vast amount of experience and knowledge, he, at first, didn’t know what he could offer, so he started off small.

“I just wanted a place where I could bide my time,” he said. “I started by cleaning up around the museum, picking up trash and cutting weeds. After awhile, I was asked if I wanted to become a docent.”

Described by at least one volunteer as a “docent extraordinaire,” Moreno said a docent is somewhat more challenging in that they have to be able and comfortable with talking to people, giving tours and learning about not only the history of the Harvey House, but about the railroad and the city.

“I never thought I was going to be a docent, but I guess I am,” he said. “I also do odds and ends — so I try and fit in where I can versus trying to be one thing or another because there’s a lot of different needs here.”

Torres, the museum’s new technician, wrote in his nomination letter, that Moreno shows up early each morning and, in the summertime, he pulls weeks, trims trees and cleans up pigeon droppings off the walkways.

“After a couple of hours of doing that, he opens the windows in the building — we have no air conditioning — to allow fresh air to circulate,” Torres writes. “In the wintertime, many of these chores are not necessary, but Mike still comes in early, making sure everything is ready and in proper order for the museum’s many visitors, which average between 8,000 and 10,000 a year.”

Along with volunteering as a docent and doing those odds and ends, he has also become a valuable asset in that he helped with the transition of the museum from being under the control of the Valencia County Historical Society to under the umbrella of the city’s library.

While picking up trash, Moreno could look around, observe visitors and notice the true sense of what was happening at the museum. From this, he developed a survey for residents, volunteers and visitors, asking them what they thought of the museum.

“It was a good thing because for someone just cleaning and doing things, you could kind of observe and see what can and can’t work here,” he said.

Through information gathered from the survey, Moreno and others were able to develop goals and objectives, not only for the first year of the museum’s transition, but for the next three or four years. He said they have been able to achieve their goals much faster than anticipated, including hiring Torres as the museum’s first paid part-time employee.

“We’re also adding a second person, an intern from UNM, in a part-time position to work weekends,” he said. “It’s through a work-study program through UNM, which, through donations, we’re able to help pay for her salary.”

While continuing the collaborations with organizations they have worked with for years, Moreno also hopes to develop new ones as they move toward the future.

As the goal continues to enhance the museum and help bring people to the Hub City, Moreno quickly says that he hasn’t and couldn’t do what he does alone. He credits the 20 or so volunteers and eight other docents in making the museum what it is today.

“There’s many of us here who have the opportunity and know-ledge to do it, and we do have some really amazing volunteers here,” he said.

Moreno, Torres says, does his duties with humor and a level of professionalism that translates into improving the Harvey House for years to come.”

“There’s been a lot of hesitation about why the museum had to change, but we really need a structure that supported the volunteers,” Moreno said. “I’m really confident that we will be successful and our programs will be able to enhance the city and enhance tourism into the city as well as in the county. We’re one of, if not the star, attractions of the historical district of Belen.”

As an artist himself, Moreno is also interested in enhancing the exhibits at the museum, utilizing the vast amount of artifacts they have on hand. He estimates there are thousands of artifacts that include photography and documents, waiting to be displayed.

“Fortunately for us, we’ve restored a lot of them and now it’s time to bring them out and (start) changing the exhibits,” he said. “The exhibits will be primarily related to the Harvey House, the railroad and Belen. For us, it’s to attract visitors from around the world, and to incorporate the stories from the people of the area.”

As someone who was born and raised in Belen, Moreno said he knows residents are still unaware of the significance of the Harvey House. He hears the negative comments about the city and hopes to change that perception through the museum.

“Right here, in the middle of town, there is this huge rail yard that’s one of the biggest rail yards in the country,” Moreno said. “It’s a tourist attraction already there. It’s like a traveling factory, and I think people forget what they have. When you’re here everyday, you don’t always realize what you have.”

As for the building’s future, Moreno hopes to continue to make the Harvey House a focal point of the city while continuing to enhance it. He says it will always be a lot of work because it is a historic building, having been listed on the state and national historic registries.

He also hopes that one day they will be able to restore the park on the south side of the building where vendors used to sell their wares and artists used to exhibit and sell their crafts.

In the meantime, Moreno and other volunteers have been working on developing a new catalog system for the museum that includes thousands of artifacts, such as pictures, documents and more.

After dealing with a lot of health issues, Moreno says it’s a great feeling to know that he’s part of something, helping to enhance the foundation of tourism in Belen and in the historic district.

“It feels good to be able to use the skills you have and make a difference in the community,” he said. “I don’t expect to get ‘thank yous,’ I’m not expecting anything really. I’m just trying to make myself feel better. It’s good to get honored, and I wasn’t expecting this at all.

“I’m not sure, for me, in the future this is where I’ll be forever, but it’s a place where I can be proud of coming to and telling people what’s here.”

Torres says the best thing about Moreno is that he teaches with patience and compassion for the Harvey House.

“There is a new energy here and it is an exciting time to be part of it because of Mike’s knowledge, talent and commitment,” he said. “Our city and its citizens are lucky to have such a wonderful volunteer and ambassador.”


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.