Friday, March 1, 2013

An Obituary

     Obituaries are one of a newspaper’s last, best services in these unhappy times. The obituary page is a record of the sung and the unsung, the rich and the poor, old and young, the remembered and the forgotten. Some are long. some painfully short, the kind that make you wonder..., and those who get no obituary at all. It’s all good reading.
     The notices of Boulder’s newly dead are particularly compelling, a record of the many remarkable people who have come to Boulder, to do their extraordinary work and to live the fullness of life that, in its strange way, Boulder affords. Boulder is an excellent place to live, in spite of the envy and spleen in which some outsiders hold it.
     Some of us were actually born here; some have lived out long lives here in Boulder. Some of us can give testimony to the history of the town and how it became the strange and distinguished place that it is.

   A couple years back the Daily Camera  carried a startlingly brief obituary for a man I knew, Richard A. Rogers, a Boulder native, who lived and died here, well into his eighties. His life was generous, warm, and humanely smart.-- sure signs of a life well-lived. He seemed to me the best of Boulder, a model.
   So much was left unsaid in that sketch of an obituary! I needed to see in the printed record a sort of memoir of his remarkable family! And so, here it is, more of what I think needs to be said about Dick.
    Richard “Dick” Rogers” was scion to the pioneer Peter and Emma Johnson family who had that fine old white frame house, still to be seen, at 1438 Balsam. When I was a kid that house was still well out in the country, well beyond the magical Goose Creek wetland that hugged the north side of our Lovers’ Hill.
    Pete Johnson had come out of the mountains from Blackhawk to Boulder in 1895, followed hard upon in 1903, by his good old friend, my grandfather. Both men were bakers, both Swedish immigrants with young Swedish wives and fast increasing families. Pete set up the Temple Bakery on Pearl Street across from the courthouse and gave my broke grandfather a job in the Temple Bakery. My grandfather had lost his socks grubstaking the wrong miners around Blackhawk while Dick’s grandfather was going great guns in young and growing Boulder.
    Once on his feet, my grandfather, Olaf P.Wickstrom, opened The Boulder City Bakery on Twelfth Street, now Broadway, a few steps north of the main intersection of our famous mall.
   Pete Johnson-- many knew him as “Baker Johnson”-- had retired well before my grandpa and had the leisure to come into the Wickstrom bake shop and harass grandpa with his bright ideas and examples of his crafts. It was here that I came under the spell of this charismatic old Swede. He was kind and indulged the little kid that I was.
    It’s those bright ideas of Johnson’s that need to be on the record as central to Richard Rogers’ legacy. Pete Johnson somehow had a civic and regional consciousness, a “cultural awareness” that we might think surprising in an immigrant Swede with a rudimentary education. In any case Johnson became deeply interested in American Indian life and lore and the Old West in general.
    Johnson got the idea that Boulder ought to see some real Indians and so arranged for a band of bona fide Utes to come to Boulder and show their stuff. It was a proto Boulder PowWow with its rodeo-like attractions.
   This accomplished, he set about to bring Buffalo Bill to Boulder, twice, I think, to put on the grand parade of his Wild West. My father said he had never seen anything as beautiful as Cody riding through Boulder at the head of that parade on that white stallion.
    This was not enough for Pete. He got the Indians to teach him their crafts with leather, flint, steel, and wood. And he got good at it, long before that sort of thing became fashionable. He was especially proud of his ability to tan hides into leathers using the brains of the several kinds of animals he had hunted.
     Pete would bring pieces of his Indian craft-work to the bakery to show them off and irritate grandpa. He gave me several of them -- to my delighted awe and Grandpa’s annoyance. Old Baker Johnson even made me a real cross-bow, a dangerous weapon, that was the terror of all who saw it brandished in my little kid’s hands.
    Pete’s son, Ray, found and operated a pioneering trout hatchery at what is now Folsom and Edgewood Drive. Another son, Arthur, would become an internationally known scientist and consulting man of ideas. Dick’s mother, Elsa, was our distinguished Latin teacher, Mrs. Elsa Rogers, at Boulder High, back in the days when kids like us thought we needed at least three if not four years of Latin. Our Latin began in the ninth grade in junior high, at Northside (now Casey) where we, from the wrong, north side of the tracks in Boulder, were consigned. But we got good Latin nevertheless. From Northside, we went as tenth graders or “onies” down to  Boulder High on Arapahoe. That excellent school was a cultural melting-pot where we found ourselves mixed up with the “better sort” of kids from University Hill and their professorial and professional homes. Suddenly we kids were a social democracy of sorts.
   And Mrs. Rogers was waiting there to teach us our second year Latin, and didn’t care a whit which side of town we came from-- perhaps because she was herself native to our déclassé north side.
     I think I am free to tell this story of: Mrs. Rogers. She had been briefly married to Raymond L. Rogers. Many thought them a particularly romantic couple. They had three children in short order, when in 1937, an horrific accident in a Nebraska railroad yard killed Rogers, Elsa’s husband, and Dick’s father. A train car rolled back down over him.
    A ruined family! Mrs. Rogers was left with nothing but the expenses of her husband’s death-- and the three children. Only with the support of her parents and her prospering brother, Arthur, was she able to raise those kids and get the education for herself that she needed to teach Latin in a first-class high school like ours. I remember thinking so highly of her and feeling secretly bonded to her as I staggered to translate Caesar and Cicero.
   As I sat in Mrs. Rogers’ Latin class, I often thought of my early association with her father and how our Swedish families were magically connected. I felt privileged. Her father was, as they say, larger than life.
   And Mrs. Rogers was Dick’s mother, and he was Pete Johnson’s grandson. And we seemed, all of us, back then, in it together. In that little world of early Boulder, Dick had every advantage, except a father, with which to grow into the exemplary man he was. 

     (This is the sort of thing that obituaries ought to reveal-- something about those old ones who went before and showed us the way to our own deaths. Don’t you think?)

   I close now by reminding my readers that 105 years ago Dick’s grandfather “Baker” Peter Johnson founded The Boulder Fish and Game Club, an organization with an environmental mission unique in the nation at that time. So distinguished was this club that Boulder citizens, whether they fished and hunted or not, sought membership. The club continues to this day. And it was born in the imagination of a pioneer, visionary, immigrant Swede, a citizen, first-class, of Boulder, Colorado.
    This was the heritage that defined and supported my friend Dick Rogers as he lay dying.

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