Joe Harris Jr. had an interesting story to tell attendees of the Nov. 15 “topping out” ceremony at the new school being named in honor of his father.

Astrid Lovato poses with Joe Harris Sr. in 1991, when he worked as a school resource officer. Courtesy photo.

Accolades for the late deputy were plentiful from several speakers at the ceremony on the Joe Harris Elementary campus.

“He had a love for Rio Rancho, a love for the community, a love as a public servant, and so we put Joe in the schools,” lauded Mike Baker, chief operating officer for Rio Rancho Public Schools and a one-time Rio Rancho Department of Public Safety colleague and boss of Harris. “And what an impact. The kids absolutely adored Joe — even though he was a big, burly guy, they would run up to him and he worked magic with the kids and opened doors for us to expand that school resource officer program.”

Joe Harris Jr., who followed his late father into law enforcement, told the crowd how one recent day he had returned to his Rio Rancho home and found a car he didn’t recognize in his driveway. Inside the home, his son Dominic was showing off a new birthday present he’d received from a teacher at Puesta del Sol Elementary.

That teacher, Astrid Lovato, “whom I’d never met before,” was there, too, Harris Jr. said.

It turned out Dominic and Lovato share their birthday.

“I said, ‘That’s odd. … Thank you,'” Harris Jr. said, before hearing Lovato tell her story.

“I thought it was really important that I brought him a gift,” Lovato had told him, “because I wanted you to know that when I was growing up, I didn’t have good parents. But your dad was such an impact on my life that not only did I graduate high school, but I became a school teacher because of the impact your father had on my life.”

“That right there, to me … I mean, this doesn’t get any bigger,” Harris Jr. said. “Having a school named after our father in this community, that he not only gave his life for but he dedicated each day that he was alive to the schools and this community. Because of this school, his legacy will forever live on.”

Lovato told the Observer she “grew up in Argentina, in a poor family without the life opportunities that most of us in the U.S. are fortunate to have. I had a rough life when I was growing up. As a young girl in a family of six, my parents struggled to put food on the table.

“I remember having to steal chickens with my older brother, and shoot birds out of trees to survive, just to provide for my family — yes, we ate the animals that we harvested. Once my grandfather caught wind that we were living in poor conditions, he took my siblings and me to Bolivia, and placed us in different orphanages. I lived in an orphanage until the age of 12,” she recalled. “These rough life experiences have made me aware of the importance of life, family and education.”

Later, she said, arriving in the U.S. and not knowing a word of English, “I experienced racism, prejudice and bullying in our schools. Some of the reasons why I was made fun of was because I was from a minority group, and my name did not help matters either. I was called Asteroid, Ostrich, Astro, among other names,” she continued. “I came to realize that younger children were more accepting of my race than my older peers. I attended Rio Rancho Elementary, where I was placed in fourth grade, even though my age should have placed me in sixth grade. The grade placement was necessary since I didn’t know English.

“Upon promotion to fifth grade, I transferred to Enchanted Hills Elementary. This is where I first met Officer Joe Harris Sr. I remember him walking into Mr. Baca’s classroom (my class). He was a pretty big guy. … He was the only one that I listened to; probably because he was so big like the Hulk. He was like a father who I respected.”

Flash forward to 2009: “My family and I were present for his funeral. I had never been to a funeral were there were so many people grieving. This is the impact that Joe had on our community; he was much loved. He was one of the few people that changed my life, and it was evident that he did the same thing for others.”

But why the present for young Dominic?

“My greatest birthday present this year was finding out that his grandson shared the same birthday as mine,” Lovato said. “I do not see this as a coincidence, but rather as a gift from God.”