By Stacey Hollebeek
Maryola Brlyvich, the 2013 Gallup Senior of the Year, is a giver, the quiet undercurrent, unrecognized kind of giver that cements a family and a community – even our nation – together. And she’s the longsuffering kind that gives with joy, rather than guilt or exasperation, so the recipients hardly realize the value of the gift they hold in their hands. Throughout her 67 years of giving here in Gallup, she has been a part of numerous organizations through her beloved St. Francis School and Church, worked as a nurse at three of our local hospitals and numerous schools, led the north side Girl Scouts/Brownies troop for years, directed local fundraising campaigns of national organizations, and cared unflinchingly for her own family.
“She was just the kindest lady. I just remember her patience and her kindness – and how she taught us to make the best banana boats in the world at Girl Scout camp up in McGaffey,” says Teri Fraizer, who grew up on the north side near the Brlyviches.
Born in small town Brattleboro, Vermont, Maryola Brlyvich moved to Ft. Defiance in May of 1946, the year after WWII ended, just as one brother returned from the army, a second from the navy, back to their home in the Green Mountains of southern Vermont. Then 21, she had wanted to be a nurse for as long as she could remember, but never thought it could actually happen, since training was too costly in the days of the Great Depression. But the war struggles also brought opportunity, and to Maryola, opportunity came in the form of the Cadet Nurse Corps, which she happily attended fresh out of high school at the Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing in western Massachusetts. Once finished with the three-year government-paid program, she had to choose whether to spend her 6-month internship with the army, navy, or a BIA hospital out west. She instantly chose the latter, thrilled with the romance of the idea. “I thought that would be neat, to see something of the country,” Maryola says. “I already had one brother in the navy and one brother in the army, so I thought ‘I’m going west.’ I had never seen an Indian before.”
When she arrived at the Gallup train station, she fully expected to be met by the Pony Express. “That’s how naïve I was,” she laughs. “I was so disappointed when this Oklahoma Indian met me in an old beat-up station wagon.”
But she instantly fell in love with the land. “Oh, I loved it out here, the open spaces, and red rocks, and rock formations. We’d all go hiking in the hills and canyons. I still love it. I loved the freedom. People said, ‘How can you leave the Green Mountains?’ and I said ‘I can always go back and see the Green Mountains, but this is open spaces – and freedom.’”
She and her fellow cadets were stationed at Ft. Defiance, shared campus dorms, and hitchhiked to wherever the best dances were. Soon recognized for their off-duty clothing trend of flannel shirts neatly tucked into blue jeans, and looking out of place from the rest of the population, the cadets would be picked up by ambulance drivers on their way home, logging truckers passing through from logging camps north, or anyone else friendly enough to give a cute girl a ride.
“That was the era when you didn’t get into trouble at all – none of us ever had any trouble,” Maryola recalls.
If the landscape wasn’t enough to hold her here, the boy finished the job. It was at one of those dances, the Halloween Dance in Window Rock that she met her future husband, Joe Brlyvich, a born and raised Gallup boy whose first language was Croatian from his Yugoslavian-immigrant parents, just returned, himself, from the Air Force fighting over Europe.
“All those boys had just come home from the service – it was a whole new world,” she smiles. “We used to pack ten of us into his old Chevy!”
Married three years later, she and Joe moved into a brand new one-bedroom house behind her in-laws’ north side house on Maloney, right where Med Star Ambulance is now. While Joe went off to run the family bar, the Three Star Club on Route 66, or work for the mines, Maryola labored weekends or nights for the old St. Mary’s Hospital, then McKinley General, and finally Rehoboth-McKinley Hospital. As her three lovely daughters were born, Maryola worked her nursing hours so that she could be home when her daughters were. After toiling all night at the hospital, she’d arrive home before they left for school, and still have a hot lunch waiting for them when they walked home from St. Francis School.
“I don’t know when the woman slept!” says Phyllis Casuse, the Brlyviches’ middle daughter, now assistant superintendent for Gallup McKinley County Schools. “Besides, my mother never saw color in people. We grew up on the north side, and I didn’t know I was white until I hit junior high.”
Maryola agrees that is another of her favorite things about this area. “I like it because of the mingling of people, everyone’s so friendly. You don’t stop to think if someone’s black or white . . .”
In between embroidering her daughters’ clothes, making them unrecognizable as sourced from their father’s old pants, nursing nights, and feeding her family, Maryola found time to follow her daughters’ interests into the things the citizens of Gallup have come to know and love her for. She ran the PTO for St. Francis School, was active in the St. Francis Altar Society and Christian Mothers, directed the St. Francis Girl Scouts/Brownies group for over 15 years, even guiding her troops on overnight camping trips to McGaffey, the Kiwanis Camp, the Jemez Mountains. She led funding drives for the American Heart Association after an infant son died early of heart complications, and still managed to bake some of the best povaticas, a Croatian walnut pastry she learned to make from her mother-in-law.
Once all her daughters were in school, Maryola decided “it would be neat” to follow them and become a school nurse, working between Navajo, Tohatchi, Washington, Roosevelt, and Gallup Mid Schools.
“I enjoyed working with the children, and you did all sorts of things – not routine. A lot was educating, teaching First Aid. It was very rewarding,” she says.
“She asks us [daughters], ‘How can you keep up with everything?’ and we laugh at her because we don’t do half of what she did,” Phyllis Casuse adds. “She was always understanding, led by example, and was an incredibly hard worker – an incredible role model.”
But life wasn’t all povaticas and camping parties. When, in the late 1960s, her mother-in-law reinjured her leg that had been severely wounded in a childhood wagon accident, developed gangrene despite medical care, and needed to have her leg amputated, Maryola took care of her until her death in the mid ’80s. Then in 1979, Joe fell off a ladder at Carbon Coal, crushed his leg, and was basically crippled from that day on, despite numerous corrective surgeries that did not help. So Maryola was in charge of his care as well – not exactly the life of open spaces and freedom she craved and so loved.
Then, in between all that caring for others, Maryola took her own turn as the unfortunate patient, when she was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer in 1974. After her successful surgery in Gallup, she traveled for radiation for six weeks to Albuquerque, staying with her daughter Phyllis in her college apartment, traveling back home on weekends with her daughters’ boyfriends or husbands.
“Oh, I got such wonderful help! That was a good way to get better acquainted with the boyfriends and husbands,” she smiles. “Everyone at that time was so supportive.”
Her one hobby allowed herself throughout the years was her garden, a skill she learned from her father.
“That’s kept me going,” she brightens. “With my mother-in-law sick, and my husband with disabilities, that kept me at home, and my garden has been [my solace].”
If you knock on her front door and no one answers, it’s certain she’s around back with her hands in her dirt.
Since her eyes started weakening last year, her gardening has slowed, however, and she had to quit her volunteering with the schools, giving up reading with the children at Lincoln School, no longer popping popcorn for her daughter’s classroom at Indian Hills. But she still can enjoy her beloved Boston Red Sox, her one East Coast birthright she’s never given up, as well as her adored Gallup Bengals and Miyamura Patriots on the radio – if you ever need the scores and highlights, she always knows.
And she still can enjoy her family. They all came back to her, her greatest joy of a life well lived, this Christmas Eve. Her three daughters, five grandchildren, and one energetic great grandson, all tromped back to Gallup to her humble home, no longer on the north side, but to surround her with their love. And this is all she asks – no recognition, no honors – just that they are there. That, and the marigolds that can’t be stopped from popping their golden heads in her bountiful backyard garden.