My Journey To Fill A Void (Part 1 of 7)  

When I was born, my folks lived on a rural property east of Denver. A community formed there because people worked together to provide electrical service, water service, road maintenance and all the things they needed to improve the quality of their lives. It was the foundation of a social community. In 1941 their home and property and the land of others who lived in that community were taken by the government to expand Lowry Air Force Base to prepare for World War II. When that community was broken and people scattered to the winds, a longing for that loss of community was imprinted on my parents and our family.

My folks were able to move to East Denver and a well-established neighborhood where all the reasons for people to work together were provided by the city of Denver and there was little need for people to get together and help each other.

One place that might have brought people together was the local elementary school. But as often happens, a well-established clique kept a tight grip on the school and blocked other parents who were not in the ‘in’ group from being involved.

We moved several times and lived in neighborhoods that lacked positive social interactions. My folks designed and built several homes south of the city center in suburban developments where people were isolated. By 1950 we hadn’t found an interactive, vital community of neighbors.

In 1951, my folks were looking for land to build their dream home. They searched the high land south of Denver. Land that overlooked Denver and had magnificent views of the front range. Most of the verdant area had been taken years before by wealthy families who carved it into impressive ranches and private estates.

Much to the chagrin of some of the local estate owners, my folks were able to purchase the 50-acre Kistler Estate. They bought the land without examining the improvements on the property. When they explored their purchase, they learned that they owned the finest show stable east of the Mississippi, a 19-stall livery barn connected to maintenance shops and even a blacksmith shop. We explored living quarters and an unbelievably beautiful party area with a swimming pool and landscaped paradise. With a lot of work they knew that this could be turned into a community center.

Seeking community, they reached out to their new neighbors—the closest more than ¼ mile away. They were greeted by a few very vocal angry snobs who screamed at them in public meetings, “We don’t want you people here!”

Inadvertently they had purchased land in a white supremacist community. This community united around their fears of Catholics, Blacks, Jews, Mexicans, immigrants and, most of all, middleclass liberals. Our family didn’t reflect their values.

By the late 50s, we had developed the old estate into a center of a new community that formed around families and recreation. Mom and Dad named it Bellevue Park. I worked closely with my dad, collaborating and learning together. We added a swimming pool filter, pool heater, children’s pool, and later a bathhouse. We extended the lawns and the landscaped areas.

Local families began to interact, get to know others socially, and form a healthy community. At this point in my life, I understood that happiness was directly associated with healthy communities. There was something very human that happened when everybody involved dressed in the briefest of swimsuits, enjoyed dips in the pool and picnics on blankets and towels spread out on the lawns and in the shade of beautiful trees.

Church groups of most denominations found our paradise. They reserved Bellevue Park from 5:30 until midnight with its beautiful, horseshoe-shaped barbecue area as they strengthened their religious communities around food, families, faith, and recreation.

Growing up there was an amazing experience. From the age of 14, I life guarded while teaching young kids to swim. I enjoyed basking in the energy of happy people.

Bellevue Park opened on Memorial Day and closed on Labor Day. Each year it took at least 3 weeks to open the pool area and a full 2 weeks to close for the winter. The horse-centered programs operated all year long. In 1956, I was a junior in the new Cherry Creek High School. A junior who hated school and ditched at every opportunity so that I could be home where learning was accelerated by problem-solving and hands-on experiences maintaining and improving the park. I encountered a constant stream of people from all age groups that I could learn from. My failure to take advantage of the meager offerings of high school placed me in the lower quarter of my class. I didn’t care. I had no intention of going to college or doing anything but developing Bellevue Park into the Cherry Hills Saddle and Surrey Country Club.

Leonard Shillinglaw, a retired Navy officer and a remarkable principal, called me into his office for what I assumed was notice of my expulsion for ditching school. To my surprise, he advised that I should go to college and train to be a teacher. I told him that I hated school as it removed me from the community and learning by firsthand experience. He said, “I know a lot about you. That’s exactly why you should be a teacher.” My parents agreed. Somehow word got out that I was going to college. One lady I respected told me that I shouldn’t worry about college and to think of it as adding four years before you have to settle down.

Friends told me that at 18 I was already 60, and that four years of just being a kid were exactly what I needed. In September of 1957 I entered Colorado State College of Education. After a quarter, I learned how to survive in college. Don’t think! Regurgitate what you have been told, exactly as the teacher taught it or the book presented it.

Luckily, I had my summers free and the college was close enough so that I could get home to help my folks if the need arose. I could stay connected to my home and community.

In 1961, I was graduated and certified to teach K-12. I was totally unprepared for teaching. Almost nothing in the college curriculum in the first 3 ½ years applied to the world I would enter. When I complained that I wasn’t prepared, I was told, “That’s what you learn in student teaching.” Thanks to Shilly, I student-taught at Cherry Creek High School. I joined his community of really exceptional educators and I began to fall in love with education in spite of school. I was also strengthened by a community of students and their parents who assumed that we were preparing students for their futures.

(To be continued in Part 2: