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State Sen. John Pinto, Navajo Code Talker, dies at 94

Milan SimonichMay 24, 2019

State Sen. John Pinto, a Navajo Code Talker during World War II and a relentless advocate for his northwestern New Mexico district for the last 42 years, died Friday morning. He was 94.

A Democrat, he died at his home in Gallup, said a spokesman for the state Senate.

Pinto, the longest-serving sitting legislator, had a remarkable session this winter. His dream of establishing a museum documenting the lives and contributions of Navajo Code Talkers became a reality.

Fellow senators of both parties contributed a total of $550,000 from their individual allocations for capital projects to help fund the museum. Then Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham donated $500,000 from her budget for public works projects to complete financing to launch the $1.05 million project.

“He was someone you did not want to underestimate. That was true right to the last session,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said in an interview Friday.

As Pinto learned of the funding plan for the museum, he became excited, Wirth said.

“The sparkle in his eye — he was thrilled,” Wirth said.

After World War II, Pinto received a master’s degree in English, raised a family and taught in public schools before launching his political career.

He first won election to the Senate in 1976. Re-elected 10 times, he served on the Senate Education Committee and chaired the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Last month, members of Pinto’s family phoned Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, and told her he was tiring from the responsibilities of legislative work. Relatives asked that he be removed from assignments on interim committees.

“He threw a little fit,” said Stewart, a close friend of Pinto’s.

She said Pinto was absolved of work on interim committees in which he was an advisory member, but he kept all his other assignments. His commitment to the job of legislator never lessened, she said.

He drove until he was 92, and those paying attention to his habits noticed that he rose every morning during this year’s legislative session to read the New York Times in the lobby of his hotel in Santa Fe, Stewart said.

On occasion, she said, Pinto would ask for her recommendation on how to vote on a particular bill.

Their conversations went this way: “I’d say I was voting for the bill,” Stewart said. “He’d ask about the amendments to it. I’d say, no, I wasn’t for any amendments. So he would say, ‘Vote no on the bill and yes on all the amendments, right?’ Then he would laugh. He really didn’t need help to navigate the legislative process.”

Stewart said discussions were under way on using a caravan to move the senator’s body to the Capitol Rotunda for public viewing. This would allow people along the route from northwestern New Mexico to Santa Fe to stand and give a final salute to one of the last of the Code Talkers.

More details will follow.

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