MESA, Ariz. (MCT) – When Garrison Tahmahkera was a kid growing up among Comanche families in Oklahoma, he wanted to be a farmer. He had no idea what college was. It wasn’t until after his military service, when he couldn’t afford to pay his union fees to continue his painting job, that he was offered the chance to go to college.
The suggestion and financial support was offered by Luke Toyebo, education director for the BIA in Oklahoma. Despite receiving a low score on his ACT exam, a tough first nine weeks and a counselor who said he would never make it, Tahmahkera graduated with a degree in sociology. He was the first in his family to go to college.
Tahmahkera went on to receive a master’s in social work and became a psychiatric social worker. He then taught in Haskell, Kan., where he began social work programs and started recruiting American Indians. “It was an honor to go back and teach where I graduated from high school,” said Tahmahkera, 70, now of Tempe. “I knew where they were coming from. I had been in the trenches like they were. I knew what it’s like to eat ketchup and crackers.”
His job was to recruit students to go to the local community college, and then have them move on to universities around the country. After his work in Kansas, he moved to Arizona to attend Arizona State University and work on his doctorate in counseling psychology. Then, in 1986, he developed the American Indian Center at Mesa Community College and began visiting local tribes to recruit students. “I go out and talk to tribal leaders, offer scholarships and talk about what we can do,” said Tahmahkera, adding there are now almost 1,000 Indians attending the college. “It’s a lot of fun to work with the different people and the parents.”
Tahmahkera was recognized for his work Nov. 4 as the Outstanding Native American Man of the Year at the 24th annual Native American Recognition Days celebration at the Heard Museum. Two years ago, Tahmahkera retired as the director of the American Indian Center at MCC, but remains at the school as an elder-in-residence, doing much of the same work.
One of those former students is Jerry Meins of Tolleson. Meins met Tahmahkera soon after he started attending MCC, and said Tahmahkera was always available to help him and his wife, Lisa, his girlfriend at the time. “He was there if we needed moral support and to lead us in the right path to get through school,” said Meins, 39, now an inventory analyst front-line lead at Humana mail order pharmacy in Phoenix. “He was there to help with transportation or money we needed just to get by. Whenever he was called upon to do something, he followed through and got us the help we needed at the time.”
<i>Copyright (c) 2006, The Tribune, Mesa, Ariz. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.