GEORGE BUBANY – THE MAN KNOWN AS “MAYOR CLEAN”
By Ernie Bulow
Photos courtesy of John Kozeliski
At the turn of the last century there was plenty of turmoil in eastern Europe leading up to World War II. Immigrants poured into the United States and many of them found their way to western mining towns. One of them was the teenage George Bubany, born in Fuzina, Croatia in 1890, who stopped over in Colorado briefly to work in the mines, then came to Gallup, where he lived in Black Diamond Canyon with Ivan and Antonia Kozeliski.
He wouldn’t have had much formal education and his accent stuck with him all his life, but by the time he was eighteen he owned his own coal operation – the Brown Coal Mine. By the mid-twenties he owned his own hotel, and would found and operate Bubany Lumber, Gallup Sand and Gravel, and Bubany Insurance – all still active today.
He was also one of the founders of both Merchants Bank and Gallup Federal Savings and Loan. He was loaning money for Gallup development long before he became a banker and his pockets were always open for folks in need.
In 1944 he was elected city councilor. It was the custom at the time for the councilors to choose one of their own as mayor. Bubany would be mayor for almost two decades, and he literally changed the face of Gallup.
At the time prostitution and gambling were carried on pretty openly, and involved many of the leading men of the town. There was also no official garbage cleanup at the time. One drug store was a major violator and after George gave the owner several warnings he fined the man five hundred dollars, a huge amount of money at the time. The local businessmen got the idea.
He initially intended to use half the whole city budget of forty thousand dollars for the cleanup, but outraged citizens made him back off of that proposal. All the same, Bubany was single-minded about cleaning up the town, morally and physically.
It is said that Bubany used his own lumber company trucks and shanghaied any city employees who didn’t keep busy enough to suit him to pick up the trash. He also instituted street washing and, according to Bill Richardson, even had the sidewalks washed down.
Cleaning up the dirt was easier than cleaning up the lawlessness. There was a fear around town that Bubany might get himself killed if he pushed too hard on the gambling and prostitution, but he stuck by his word and “civilized” the town.
An article in the Independent in 1944 tells about the new mayor receiving hate mail. Bubany took it as a sign of his effectiveness.
The secret to his business success might seem quaint today, or outright annoying, but it worked for him. George was tireless, and patrolled the town with an eagle eye. If he saw any building going on he would stop and sell the property owner raw materials. He walked around town and asked businessmen if he could do anything for them.
As a businessman he was strictly “hands on” and greeted every customer at the lumber store with a cigar and a smile. Bill Richardson remembers the days he gave out real Havanas. Later he made do with White Owls. He kept the cigars in a refrigerator next to his office.
John Kozeliski, who now owns the lumber store, worked for him as a teenager. He says Bubany’s glove box was always stuffed with stogies, and he would pass them out two or three at a time.
“He bought the cigars by the case,” John recalls, “and there were fifty boxes of cigars to the case.” Bubany himself never smoked nor drank. Kozeliski also remembers the man’s generosity. He said George would write hundreds of checks at Christmas time. Many went to Catholic charities of one sort or another. “Some of the checks were only for five or ten dollars, but there were so many of them it would amount to thousands of dollars,” John recalls.
John Rains also worked at the lumber store as a teen along with Kozeliski. “We would stock shelves, sweep the floor, that kind of thing. We always knew Mr. Bubany was coming because he had a squeaky shoe.
“One time in the heat of the summer he set us to dusting the paint cans. We were both looking at something when we got a tap on the shoulder. Because of the heat Mr. Bubany had taken off his shoes and that allowed him to sneak up on us. He said ‘Take you time, boys, but work a litta bit faster, OK?’”
Another story tells of the time George Bubany was embarrassed by some tourists. He was bald and always wore a hat. He had lost all the fingers and most of the thumb on his left hand. One story says it was a mining accident when he was very young. Most people believe it was a saw in the Lumber yard. Half the people who worked for George had lost a piece of their thumb to that saw, one man told me.
The day was unusually hot for Gallup. He took off his hat with the stub of thumb, and was holding it as he mopped his head with a bandana. Some people passing on the sidewalk in front of the Manhattan Café, where he always ate lunch, thought he was panhandling and dropped some change in the hat.
He hurriedly explained that he was a rich man and didn’t need their charity. Though the Manhattan wasn’t far from the lumber store he drove to lunch every day. In those days Third Street heading south was the only railroad crossing in town, and Route 66 funneled its traffic onto that street. When Bubany got ready to eat he would just pull his Chrysler Imperial out into the flow. “The traffic parted for him like the Red Sea,” one friend recalls. “Everyone in town knew that car.”
Bubany’s Chrysler is a topic of wide discussion when George’s name comes up. Bill Richardson said George had a flat tire on Railroad Avenue in front of the Yucca and Liberty cafés. Instantly, a dozen or so men ran to his aid. “They almost picked that car up to put the jack under it. He was on his way in five minutes.”
As he got older his eyesight, and maybe his power of concentration, got weaker and eventually they took away his drivers license on the grounds of his vision. People say he always drove five or ten miles an hour, even on Route 66. When traffic came to a standstill on the highway people would say, “It’s either a drunk, or George Bubany.” He would run three stop signs in a row, and then stop at a green light to study the Merchants Bank building.
His wife Phillipina died in 1955. His son Rudy, who was as well-liked as his father, died young in 1957. Rudy was running the insurance company at the time and a member of several civic organizations.
Phillipina had a street named for her but whoever put up the signs misspelled her name as Phillipin, so it was also mis-pronounced. That error of signage was only corrected a few years ago.
They also had a daughter, Sophie, who married John Guest, who ran Merchants Bank for George for many years. John and Sophie currently live in Albuquerque.
George was also active in civic organizations around Gallup, not a surprise. He was involved with the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial for a long time and supplied paint for the performers. Sally Noe, in her book Gallup, New Mexico, USA, reprints a letter from a woman who recalled that George Bubany would stock up on powdered paint – rather like tempera today – for the Indians. He gave them every color and plenty of it, knowing half of it would go back home with them.
An example of the things George Bubany would take in stride was the great fire of 1951. Shortly after the store closed, smoke started billowing up. Details about the fire come from John Kozeliski, who was working there. The original store had a bay door large enough for trucks that led into a huge, dirt floored room. “They had saturated the dirt floor with old motor oil to keep down the dusk. Most people believed it started there.” However the blaze began, it took three days to put out.
Some people say it was the worst fire in Gallup history, but Gallup has had some dandy fires on Front Street, and the old high school, and the original Fred Harvey hotel. Local merchants stood on their rooftops putting out burning tarpaper and other fiery debris from the blaze. Bill Richardson said he thought they would lose the downtown, and his store with it.
Late in life Bubany married a Czech (or German) nurse named Helen and built the showplace house that Pat Gurley lives in today. “Mayor Clean” had apparently met his match. Helen ran the home with an iron fist and cleanliness was next to godliness. Visitors had to take off their shoes to enter, and Pat says he remembers sheets over some of the furniture, and sheets on the floor of the garage. According to one visitor, she made people wipe their feet on several of those stiff jute mats and THEN take off their shoes.
On one occasion the Bubanys invited some folks over for Christmas. They were only allowed to look at the Christmas tree through the living room window – from outdoors.
“They had a dog,” Gurley said, “and Helen had a bowl of water by the back door. She washed that dog’s feet whenever he came into the house.” She also made George shower whenever he came home.
The house had three bedrooms, and the smaller, center room was done up like a little chapel. Bubany had always been a rather religious man. George Bubany died November 16, 1966 and was buried next to his wife and two sons.
Toward the end of Bubany’s life, when he shouldn’t have been driving anyway, there is a story about him going down Route 66 about five miles an hour, and not paying much attention to which lane he was in. Motorists passing by honked at him, shook their fists, and waved him off the road. When he got to the lumber store he told his passenger, “See, everyone in Gallup knows me. And they all love me.” He wasn’t wrong about that.