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Storyteller Series: The Sopapilla Man

Updated: Mar 19

Back in 2019, I passed through the Texas Panhandle twice. The first time I was on my way to Colorado, where I staid in a Rocky Mountain cabin for two months. The second time I was on my way back and headed toward West Texas. That’s when I first visited Vega, Texas. If you’ve followed me for long, then you know that Vega is where I discovered the story of Valerie Doshier, and later wrote a book about her life. You can read about my first Vega experience HERE.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d be back to Vega one day—in fact multiple times—and would stay there through the winter of 2020/2021 finishing the book about Valerie. Now, I am grateful to have made several friends there who are special to me.

If you go back and read the post I linked to above, you’ll have heard about the Milburn-Price Culture Museum. The museum is where I met my first friends in Vega (Greg & Karen Conn) and it has become a kind of social hub for the town. People will come by, hang out together, drink coffee, and talk. This is especially true on Friday mornings, because that’s when the fresh, homemade sopapillas arrive.

Every Friday morning, Richard Sandoval gets up early and makes a large batch of delicious sopapillas and brings them to the museum. I admit that I had never had one of these delectable delights until I had one of Richard’s at the museum. Now, the bar has been set so high that I fear I’ll never find their equal!

Richard Sandoval and his Sopapillas. Photo courtesy of the Milburn-Price Museum

I could go on and on about those delicious, puffy, still-warm-and-great-with-honey-pieces-of-fry-bread, but the greatest delight has been getting to know Richard.

Honestly, there’s still a lot about Richard that I don’t know, but what I have learned is that he’s a kindhearted, compassionate, and intelligent man. I’m pretty sure he was born in New Mexico and has several children, and a passel of grandchildren. He’s about 85 years old, and though he’s retired, he stays busy.

I’ve seen Richard several times during the Friday morning sopapilla roundups, but not long ago I had the opportunity to spend more than two hours with him one-on-one. It was a typical Friday morning, and he had delivered his batch of fry bread to a grateful group of locals. On this day, there happened to be a lot of activity outside. The building that now houses the museum used to be a lumber yard for many years. Just outside of the museum, between the building and highway 385, sat two large grain bins. The bins had been there for years and they were being removed to allow for a more spacious parking lot for the museum. Typically, Richard doesn’t stay long but on this day he wanted to watch as they worked on removing the bins. You see, Richard used to work at that old lumber yard and had used those bins many times. For him, it was a time of remembering and perhaps a bit of nostalgia.

I wondered outside to watch as the cranes moved into position. I wasn’t going to stay long, because I had writing to do and needed to get back to work. But as I walked outside, there was Richard.

Crane hooking up to the old grain bins.

Karen Conn had gotten him a chair and he was seated watching the workers. I stood beside him as he began telling me about his time working at the lumber yard. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was immersed in the memories of one Mr. Richard Sandoval. He told me of his time growing up in New Mexico, and how he sold newspapers on the street during WWII. He told me about meeting his wife, and about her death. He let me know where she was buried, the local cemetery, and that his name was already on the tombstone next to hers. He looked at me, smiled and said, “My name is there, but not the date.”

We talked there for more than an hour, both watching as the men continued working on the bins. At one point, during our conversation, Richard paused and said, “Today’s a good day. I have somebody to talk to.” Well, I tell you—I almost started blubbering right there. Yeah, I had writing to do, but it was going to have to wait. In that moment, standing there listening to him was the most important thing in the world.

The more we talked the more he came alive. He was laughing, cutting up, and having a grand time. He told me about something inside the museum and he wanted to show me himself. We went inside and he actually showed me several things and shared what he knew about this and that item on display. He was so happy, and I was too. I felt both honored and so very humbled that this beautiful human being would be happy about spending time with me and share so much about his life. I asked him if I could take a picture of us together, and he agreed after warning me, “I might break the camera.” Not a chance Mr. Sandoval, though two hours with you definitely broke my heart, but in all the good ways. The time we spent together taught me more than he’ll ever know.

Me and Richard

I’d never had a sopapilla before until the day I had one of Richard’s. I don’t think I’ve had one since that wasn’t made by his hands—and I’m not sure I ever want to.

If you’re ever in the Texas Panhandle, be sure to go through Vega and visit the museum. But make sure it’s on a Friday between 9-10am, because you’re going to want to meet Richard and have one of his top shelf sopapillas.

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