“I like to think that a historical society’s mission is the preservation of our stories, and that through those stories we find our commonalities,” Lois Morris told her fellow members of the Pimeria Alta Historical Society during the organization’s annual membership luncheon last Saturday.
The event was held in the former courtroom of the 1904 Santa Cruz County Courthouse in Nogales, and the often-humorous stories told that day came courtesy of 96-year-old Dehlia Holler Baffert, a lifelong Nogales resident who shared her experiences living in the city and working at the courthouse in the 1940s.
Seated at the judge’s bench in the packed courtroom, family members filling the former jury box, Baffert recounted how she began working as a clerk for the county in 1941, taking over for her older sister who resigned to get married.
“So she trained me – beat me up a couple of times – but anyway, all I learned was from her,” Baffert said of her sister, to great laughter from the audience.
One of her jobs at the courthouse was to issue vehicle license plates, which in those days started with the number one.
“Everybody wanted number one,” she recalled. But her boss was too much of a politician to choose who would get it. So he gave it to her.
Her mother hated having such an identifiable number on her license plate, she said. “Everybody knew where she was at all times.”
The jail was located in the courthouse in those days, and one day when Baffert opened the window and stuck her head out, she saw two young male prisoners in a courtyard below. They asked her to get them some gum or candy bars, which she did by passing the goodies through the sheriff.
Her office was close to the courtroom, and she and a coworker used to eavesdrop on the proceedings.
“We’d sit on the steps and we’d hear everything that was going on,” she said.
Baffert also worked next door to a justice of the peace named Hardy who performed weddings. “He’d say, ‘I now pronounce you man and wife, fee $5, and you may kiss the bride,’” she said.
People would often come to be married, but neglect to bring a friend to serve as a witness. So Baffert would step in.
“I must have witnessed thousands of marriages of people I had never laid eyes on,” she said.
When her boss suffered a heart attack and was put on bed rest, the county hired Pierre Baffert, who was returning from military service in World War II, to fill in. One day when her mother failed to pick her up after work, Mr. Baffert gave her a ride home.
“That was the end,” she said, to which a voice from jury box answered: “I don’t think that was the end.”
The two began dating and were ultimately married. Because of the county’s nepotism rules, it meant the end of her employment at the courthouse.
She went on to other employment in Nogales, such as working for the draft board during the Korean War era – a job she hated due to the sadness it brought people – and processing participants in the Bracero program, which brought Mexican farm workers to the United States.
She also spoke about her experiences as a drum major for the Nogales High School drum and bugle corps from 1935 to 1940.
“She was an all-American, and evidently, the first female drum major in the United States,” her daughter Renee Guevara told the attendees.
Jose Ramon Garcia, president of the historical society, said the organization began planning its membership luncheon with the idea of honoring Dehlia Baffert. Since she would talk about her experiences working at the historic courthouse, it was a logical setting for the annual event, which in recent years has been held at locations including the renovated Foxworth-Galbraith building and Historic City Hall, both in downtown Nogales.