DOUGLAS - Sharon Denham fell hard for the charming little border town in Arizona where her husband had been offered a high school basketball coaching job.
She first visited Douglas, Ariz., during spring break of 1971 with her husband, Paul, and their three young boys. She loved the town's main street, G Avenue, which had old-time Americana in the form of soda fountains and butchers who asked how you wanted your meat cut, alongside Mexican tortilla factories.
"If you were within a block of those tortillerias, you were going to smell the corn tortillas cooking," Denham said. "It was enchanting to me."
She envisioned a special childhood for her children in which they could learn Spanish and experience another culture while still living in small-town USA.
"I knew that if this community could get in their blood, it would be a rich blessing for them," Denham said. "I knew this was where my children needed to be raised."
With her approval, Paul Denham took the job and the family moved from Palm Desert, Calif. They bought a new house in the northeast part of the city and dove into life in the Douglas/Agua Prieta community. As Paul Denham built the Douglas Bulldogs boys basketball team into a regional power during his 12-year stint, the four Denham kids (they had a girl after arriving) enjoyed an idyllic childhood made even more special by living on the border.
In those days, raising children in Arizona's borderlands offered safety and solitude as well as quick and easy access to a vibrant foreign country with delicious food, pulsing dance clubs and cheap pharmaceuticals.
Every Saturday morning, the Denhams would pile into their 1967 Ford station wagon and cross the border into Agua Prieta. They ate doughnuts and empanadas at a local bakery. Sharon Denham picked up sugar and flour at the market, fruit and vegetables at the fruteria and coffee from her favorite brew house. The kids would get paletas, Mexican fruit popsicles.
And then they would just hang out, practicing their Spanish with curio shop owners on main street. A trip that was supposed to be an hour always stretched well into the afternoon.
As her kids became teenagers, Agua Prieta became their playground. After high school football games, they would go to clubs in Agua Prieta. They made friends and grew to know the city's streets and sights as if it was their hometown. They went back and forth across the border without a worry.
Each of the Denham children learned Spanish - a skill that helped each of them earn their first jobs out of college.
Sharon Denham learned the language while teaching at a bilingual elementary school in Douglas. She still speaks Spanish daily with the Mexican cowboy who helps run the family's racehorse breeding ranch, the Jon Ray Ranch.
Tears well in her eyes as she thinks about how warmly the sister cities of Douglas and Agua Prieta accepted her and her husband, who died of colon cancer in 2004.
"There was something very nostalgic about Douglas, and yet there was a vitality and an energy here that was really contagious," Denham said. "People really had fun here. People really enjoyed each other's company. There was so much giving in this community."