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Prodded to Volunteer

While I was still struggling to get Enjoy Colorado - the Information Store - off the ground in 1973 and 4, several incidents happened that motivated me into volunteering to head up Colorado Springs 1976 National Bicentennial and Colorado's Centennial.

One incident occurred when I attended a business breakfast in the Antler's Hotel when the national gas shortage of 1973 was discussed. That was continuing to impact Colorado Tourism. Somebody mentioned the Bicentennial and Bill Smart, a very successful land developer stood up and said "We can't afford to celebrate the Bicentennial."

Something about that pessimistic crack got to me. I stood up and said words to the effect "We cannot afford NOT to celebrate both celebrations. When everybody in Colorado Springs - rich and poor, newcomer and old timer - can celebrate the Good Old Days - that never were - celebrations could help unify rather than continue the division between people who live here. Besides, Centennials can be the beginning of things, and not their dead end"

I was acutely aware of the divisions in the country over the Vietnam War that still rankled. And the inability of the 'over 30's' generation to deal with the 60's Hippies and Smart's comments which reflected the general pessimism around the town.

Nothing more was said then.

But unbeknownst to me, the City had asked - in mid 1974 - prominent businessman Tom Pelican, President of Continental Interstate Gas (CIG), to head up the 1976 Celebration.

But the city also told him there were no City Funds available.

Pelican tried to interest fellow businessmen but by the end of the year he had failed. So he resigned.

So Bea Vradenburg, who headed up the Cultural heart of Colorado Springs - the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra, which always performed an all day summer event in Memorial Park on the 4th of July - agreed to try. She too could not generate any interest beyond what it would normally do, so she too quit the effort.

The Mayor, getting worried by this time - less than a year before the Bicentennial Year kick off January 1st, 1976 - asked ex-mayor Bill Henderson, and Retired Brig Gen Ken Curtis - both of whom were who were on the Board of the City owned Pioneer's Museum to put something together, obviously centered on History. At the time the Pioneer's Museum was still in a small leased space off Kiowa Street - where the street Clock stood - but was interested in moving to the old County Courthouse which El Paso County was going to vacate, sell it to the City for a song, while the County built a new Court House.

Curtis and Henderson approached the City Council for $50,000 for a proper Celebration. It refused. So they too resigned.

It was the summer of 1975 - six months from 1976.

I was unaware of these happenings until Mayor Andy Marshal , in comments he made to the Sun Newspaper wrote "The City  cannot find anyone willing to head up the Bicentennial next year. I think we will just have to pass on this one."

That irritated me.

I met Mayor Marshal in his office, closed the door,  and said "No way will I let you get away without Celebrating this Nation's 200th Birthday and this State's 100th Birthday, in the second largest city in Colorado, my home town."

I continued "I can do more with one arm tied behind my back than all your VIPs in this city. I volunteer to run the both of them, pro bono."

He, and most councilmen knew me from my days as high profile Chief of Staff at Fort Carson, with many contacts with city government. And Andy Marshal who lived on Wood Avenue, was fully aware of my having grown up on that same Wood Avenue he lived on, with Arleen Hughes a very well known person in town.

So he swiftly accepted and brought my offer to the Council, which, much relieved, accepted, and further, knowing I did not head a large anything, put up only $6,000 so I could pay for 'clerical' support.'

Radical Different Strategy

As is my style when faced with an unprecedented challenge, I began to hink of radically different ways to get it done. In this case, I was fully aware that Colorado Springs was very much a 'top down' city - where the richest or more business or politically powerful are solicited first to get things done. Then trickle it down from there. (And in the end take the public  credit.)

I was also aware that there was such unease in the post Vietnam war country that there were Bicentennial put-downs by the radical 60's groups who attacked everything that took substantial funds, was promoted by large organizations, or had slick Madison Avenue marketing. One national event disparaged was the Freedom Train, privately backed, which was to visit every state during 1976 carrying displays that portrayed 200 years of US history. Visitors, paying for a ticket could file through the train wherever it stopped and learn that American history. I was dimly aware of that controversy, but since that train was scheduled to be in Denver, the  state Capitol, it was far from my mind at that time.

Populist Celebration

Rather than spending my time knocking on the doors of community 'leaders' to get things going, or contacting selected aquaintances to organize efforts, or quarrelling with hippies about what America stood for,  I went to the other extreme. I announced - which both city newspapers  covered -that there would be an open Bicentennial-Centennial Public meeting in a hotel's conference room at 7PM on a Thursday as I remember. That everyone is welcome. I invited no VIP's, just "The People."

While many observers were surprised - I was not - over 125 people showed up to crowd into a small hotel conference room designed for 100. Members of the Colorado Springs public besides me were getting nervous that the coming celebrations were going to by-pass conservative, patriotic Colorado Springs.

Then all I did was ask "The People" of the crowd to pipe up what THEY thought should be done in celebration, and what were they willing to become involved in? The ideas tumbled out - and as often as not the person who had a specific idea or suggestion said they were willing also to get involved with it, even undertake to do it.  I didn't even try to take notes - I just said "You are on for that project - meet at the head of the room at the end of this meeting."  From striking a Coin, to Parades, to doing something for the 'environment,' to climbing Pikes Peak on July 4th.

Within an hour at least 30-40 good suggestions - and more importantly, people to support them - emerged. There was an atmosphere of excitement. Everybody wanted a celebration. When those who volunteered to help met in front after the meeting broke up around 8, the ideas grouped around several themes - Heritage, Festivals, Horizons. On the spot I said that each of those would become a 'Committee' and the advocate would head it. When one tall black man who appeared to work with the City administration mentioned minorities - Race - needed to be included, I add a Committee named just "People" - and put him in charge of it.

Next day both newspapers, especially the dominant Gazette Telegraph, brought out an upbeat story whose theme was that the Bicentennial-Centennial Celebration was launched at last - and 'ordinary people' were launching it. The papers didn't spell it out, but other than me, who called the meeting, there was not a recognizable household name at the meeting. I think my point was made - that if the City was not going to lead it from the top down, ordinary people could and would do so up from the bottom up. VIPs were welcome, but not necessary.

Two days later Thom Foulks, Chairman of the El Paso County Commissioners invited me to breakfast at the Antlers Hotel. When I got there and we got past the eggs, he sprung it on me - would I and my Committee represent ALSO El Paso County for the Celebrations? Not just the City. That the County had no money either to put into it. I shrugged - "Why not?" So we became the City AND County Bicentennial-Centennial organization.

One of the first items of business when we first met was to name the committee. I suggested - and the same stuck the "Pikes Peak or Bust by '76" Committee. That gave the hurry up gold rush atmosphere to the entire year that started out far behind almost all other Colorado cities and towns but ended far ahead of most.   

 I had already judged that the VIPs in town would join in before the 4th of July. That the spirit of national festivities would move move a lot of people out to join and get involved.

And I was right - before the year long commemoration was over - the local Committee had sponsored - from dollar grants to just recognition - over 202 Public Events and  199 separate Projects. The State Centennial Commission awarded $110,000 for projects. But there were several large events with their own budgets undertaken. Included here as a PDF file is the State of Colorado's Official Centennial-Bicentennial Final Report by County. You can read all that we did in El Paso County

El Paso County Bicentennial

While there is not room here to discuss many of the Centennial-Bicentennial events that were a success, six deserve a fuller description.

They were (1) The Freedom Train - Our committee snatched Colorado's shame out of the fire when Denver refused at the last minute not to host the train in Denver - which would have meant that Colorado would be the ONLY state the train did not visit.

(2) The Pikes Peak or Bust by '76 Medal

(3) The July 3-5th Great Air Show with the largest crowd ever in Colorado Springs History

(4) The Great Centennial 14er Climb on Colorado's 100th Birthday - August 1st.

(5) The Redeclaration of Independence

(6) The Revitalization of Historic Old Colorado City



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