A black belt who climbed the world’s mountains on bike and foot before he ever grew algae in a lab, Luke Spangenburg earned the first associate degree in Santa Fe Community College’s sustainable technology program.
Then he spent the past decade helping other students find their own paths in green energy.
The 55-year-old father of two died over the weekend of a heart attack while camping with a friend in the Jemez Mountains.
“He died under the stars next to the aspens on the mountain,” said his wife, Sarah Ghiorse. “That’s where his heart has always been.”
When he was 13 and 14, Spangenburg spent summers in the Yukon Territory in Canada with his grandfather. The experience was formative.
“The men in our family have always been drawn to the wilderness,” said his sister, Patricia Boyle.
In his late teens, Spangenburg took up karate, earning a black belt and winning a few national competitions. In his 20s, he embarked on a professional cycling career that spanned over 30 countries. Under the nickname “Skip,” which he came up with as a child because he wanted to be the skipper of the family boat, he won the Tour de Peru. He would have competed in the Olympics, Boyle said, if a car had not run a barricade during a race and struck him. For a time, he was in a coma.
“He walked his talk beyond what most people can comprehend,” Boyle said. “He lived his life so intensely and fully.”
After retiring from cycling, Spangenburg was working as a high-altitude mountain guide in Peru when he made a fortuitous stop in Santa Fe to visit his mother in 2006.
“His mother was my neighbor and she introduced us,” said Ghiorse, executive director of the nonprofit NewMexicoWomen.org.
In Santa Fe, Spangenburg channeled his energy into the fight for a sustainable planet, earning the associate degree in 2009 and staying at the college to teach and become director of its Biofuels Center of Excellence, which in 2015 was voted the second-ranked educational program in the field by the industry. The center studies algae and its multiple uses, including fuel, medicine and fertilizer.
“There are several grants and projects where the partnership is six or seven world-renowned universities and Santa Fe Community College, and we owe a lot of that to Luke,” said Randy Grissom, former president of the college. “He was so excited about all of his work. He was so good about talking students into programs they might typically be scared off by.”
Spangenburg’s legacy continues through students studying sustainability — and in foreign newspaper clippings his mom and sisters kept from cycling races. After he died under the stars, his wife said the coroner called to tell her something she already knew.
“They called and said he had a big heart. Like his heart was physically bigger than most hearts,” Ghiorse said. “He had a big heart and he shared it with everyone.”