State Sen. John Pinto, one of the last of the famed Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, died Friday at his home in Gallup. He was 94.
Pinto, a Democrat, also was the longest-serving sitting legislator in New Mexico. He had been a senator since 1977.
Fellow lawmakers, some in their 30s, marveled at working alongside this diminutive, soft-spoken former Marine who was part of the group of Navajos that helped vanquish the Japanese Army.
Before the Code Talkers were deployed, Japanese soldiers had broken many U.S. codes on battle plans in the South Pacific. Pinto and some 400 other Navajos changed all that.
They used more than 200 words of the Navajos’ unwritten Diné language to create coded messages that frustrated Japanese interceptors and advanced the American war effort.
On the day that military veterans were honored during this year’s legislative session, Pinto stood on the Senate floor and revealed a personal detail many colleagues hadn’t known about.
“I’m a veteran of World War II. I served in the South Pacific. That’s where I lost my hearing when they started shooting at me,” Pinto said.
Most in the chamber knew Pinto was hard of hearing, but they assumed this was a product of age rather than of service in a war 75 years ago.
Code Talkers are legendary in the Southwest. Few were as storied as Pinto. He rarely talked about his service publicly, but he knew the war effort had helped define him, personally and politically.
“He was so proud of being a Code Talker. It was very significant for him,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, one of Pinto’s closest friends in the Legislature.
She helped him win one of his greatest legislative victories this year. Pinto for years had sought state funding for a Navajo Code Talkers Museum, but it failed to clear the Legislature during a decade of skinflint budgets.
New Mexico’s 42 senators — 26 Democrats and 16 Republicans — get along well, even in this era of political gridlock. At Stewart’s suggestion, senators of both parties this year contributed a total of $550,000 from their individual allocations for public works projects to help fund the Code Talkers museum.
Then Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appropriated $500,000 from her capital construction budget to complete financing for the $1.05 million project.
Pinto, always relentless in advocating for his district in the Four Corners area, had prevailed.
“He was someone you did not want to underestimate. That was true right to the last session,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.
Respect and affection for Pinto were reasons fellow senators contributed money for a project that in some cases was hundreds of miles from their own district. The other deciding factor, Wirth said, was the state this year was flush with money because of an oil boom.
As Pinto learned that funding for his proposed museum was at last falling into place, he could not contain himself.
“The sparkle in his eye — he was thrilled,” Wirth said.
Legislative sessions in New Mexico are brief, either 30 or 60 days a year, but the workload and intensity are matched by few governments anywhere. As a session reaches the frenzy of its final week, it’s typical for a workday to last 15 or even 18 hours.
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, 46, presides over the Senate. A former senator himself, Morales knows the grind.
On the last day of this year’s session, Morales told of times when fatigue made it difficult to go on.
“Then I would look over at Senator Pinto,” Morales said. “Just seeing him working made the difference. He was such an inspiration.”
Morales said even Pinto’s annual singing of “The Potato Song,” a carryover tune from his days in boot camp, had purpose.
“It was very calculated, a way he brought people together and eased tensions,” Morales said. “This is a sad day and an emotional day, but it was a blessing to serve with him and to learn from him.”
Pinto was part of the Senate majority, as Democrats usually controlled the chamber. But he identified with the underdog because that’s what he was.
Raised in Lupton, Ariz., and Gallup, he attended a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Fort Defiance, Ariz.
“My career began with sheep herding and washing dishes in the Gallup area,” Pinto once said.
But he aspired to be more. After the war, he took the advice of people who said a college education would be his ticket to success.
He moved to Albuquerque to study at the University of New Mexico. It took him four tries, but he passed the English proficiency test. Once admitted to the university, he decided to become a teacher.
He received his bachelor’s degree at age 39, an achievement that brought him to tears. Then he went on to get a master’s. Pinto taught for 28 years in the Gallup-McKinley County school system.
A husband and father, Pinto nurtured many more interests outside his immediate family.
He was president of Gallup’s Indian community center from 1950-70. Pinto saw one of his primary responsibilities in this role as helping to feed homeless people and others in Gallup who had financial troubles.
“His life was always about helping people,” Stewart said.
Politics can be a vehicle to do that, and Pinto knew it. He served two terms as a McKinley County commissioner before deciding to run for the Legislature
He won his first term in the state Senate in 1976. Reelected 10 times, he served on the Senate Education Committee and was chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Members of an immigrant advocacy group once approached Pinto, seeking his support on a bill. They knew they had it already, but hearing him talk about human rights always galvanized the organization.
“Never accept discrimination against anyone,” Pinto liked to say.
In handling legislation, Pinto dived into details. Education issues can be arcane, even mind numbing. Pinto made a point of studying all the bills, especially the most difficult ones.
As the the decades rolled by, Stewart said, Pinto’s skills as a legislator remained as solid as ever.
“Up until the end, he had beautiful handwriting and he spelled every word correctly,” she said.
He drove until he was 92. Those who crossed paths with him noticed that he rose every morning during this year’s legislative session to read the New York Times in the lobby of his hotel.
On May 17, Pinto received an honorary doctorate degree from Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint.
He had known for months the award was coming, and he enjoyed every second of the buildup.
“I’m a doctor now,” he told Stewart. Then, laughing, he said, “Come to my hospital and I’ll give you surgery.”
But the good-humored senator was tiring.
Last month, members of Pinto’s family phoned Stewart and told her his workload had to be cut. They asked that he be removed from assignments on interim legislative committees.
This brought a predictable reaction from Pinto.
“He threw a little fit,” Stewart said.
She said Pinto was absolved from work on interim committees in which he was an advisory member, but he kept all his other assignments.
Pinto’s wife, Joann, died in 2017. He is survived by their four children, sons Cecil and Galen, and daughters Flora Dennison and Karen Arviso. More than two dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren also survive him.
Pinto’s successor will be chosen by the governor after she receives nominations from the commissioners of McKinley and San Juan counties, which make up Pinto’s Senate District.
Stewart said discussions were underway on a memorial service for Pinto in the Capitol Rotunda. She said there is even a possibility of a caravan from the Four Corners area to Santa Fe traveling through towns and counties at appointed times.
This would allow people along the route to give a final salute to one of the last of the Navajo Code Talkers.