Kathy Verlo didn't wake up last Saturday morning. Simple as that, which many would agree is the best way to go.
No hospital, no crisis or machines, no nightmare diagnosis, no huge medical bills. Most of all, no slow decline from a life filled with vigor.
And no emotional goodbyes, which definitely wouldn't have been Kathy's style.
Instead, the woman who had made her determined, indelible mark on Manitou Springs and the Pikes Peak region left her family and all of us with something even more meaningful memories.
She was 69, sharp and vibrant as ever, still full of energy, enthusiasm, spunk and, of course, opinions. Even on the last day of her life, Kathy was making phone calls, out running errands, even helping a newcomer to the area.
So many times, when special people go before we expect, it's typical to wish the timing had been different. She certainly would have enjoyed one more Carnivale parade in downtown Manitou this weekend, having been part of it many times. Just last year, she took photos of her son, Eric, in the festivities.
Then you talk to her 46-year-old son, and you understand that Kathy Verlo was even more special than we knew.
"Actually, she made it easier on us," Eric says, his voice filled with serenity, "because she lived such a fulfilled life. There are no things left wanting that we wish she could have done. She's left us in such a positive state, my sisters and I. It's not like there are things we wanted or needed to say to her. We're just feeling so fortunate."
That's right, fortunate.
Around Manitou, the news spread like a shock wave over the weekend. People who barely knew Kathy Verlo even felt the loss. Many moving tributes have been posted online at kathy.verlo.net/memoriam.
Her life story included many fascinating chapters before she and husband Chris moved here in 1987. They spent years in Michigan, where Chris worked for General Motors. Kathy was an involved activist there as well, leading the battle for public access on cable television, then hosting her own local show on health to take advantage of the opportunity.
When Chris retired, they were living in Venezuela but wanted to move somewhere that also had mountains. They just had to pick the destination, and GM would ship their belongings. So they toured the country until they came upon Manitou Springs.
"They saw it from Highway 24, and they knew they had to be there," Eric recalls. "So they went to a real estate office, looked up the houses for sale and picked one."
They moved into Crystal Hills and never left that house. Eric, after graduate school at UCLA, also moved to the area.
Soon, Kathy began making a difference here. When the movement arose in the early 1990s to bring gambling to Manitou Springs, she led the opposition. While fighting that battle, she took an interest in the Manitou City Council and served 12 years, from 1992 to 2004. Along the way, she took up many causes such as saving Section 16 and Red Rock Canyon.
"Her idea was just about maintaining the beauty of this place, and not destroying it," Eric says. "A lot of things, people think they can't seem to make a difference. But she made her voice heard. Like with gambling she was getting death threats from, you know, mob-connected people. Businesses had an awful lot invested, and she was up against some big players."
There was a downside to Kathy being so involved. Her husband wanted to travel, and that was fine, Eric remembers, "but they always had to return for the next Tuesday meeting [of City Council]. That was a big deal to her; she didn't want to miss a single meeting. And she would talk to anybody who had a concern, which meant a lot of endless, really long phone calls, prayer circles, things like that. People needed her constantly. But that was her forte."
Her methods sometimes were unusual, such as occasionally writing her speeches as songs and singing them to City Council or others. But that was her way, as ornery as the town she loved. In Eric's words, "she fit quite well into the eccentric part of Manitou."
Some also might have wondered if Kathy the mother was constantly allied with Eric, himself a dedicated activist, on every issue. Not so, he says firmly.
"There were a lot of things we didn't agree on," Eric says. "Like on development, I tried to say, "Stand firm, go to Boulder, bring what they're doing here,' but she didn't. She had her own ideas. Many times I was out on the extreme, and she wasn't having any of that, either."
Even after she left public office, Kathy stayed close to Manitou's pulse. Two months ago, she joined in the celebrations after the city elections, applauding Eric Drummond as the new mayor and others as new or returning councilmembers. That was part of her idea of making Manitou a better place, supporting those who wanted to become leaders.
The last time we talked, she was apologizing for not writing more letters to the editor and promising to send more, like what turned out to be her final one last September, railing against the Army for wanting to expand more into Pion Canyon.
"She really took responsibility for helping people and bringing them into the fold," Eric says. "She knew that's what it took, the energy of having different people involved, and the more diverse, the better. That was more important to her than the final decision or outcome just the fact that people had worked together. And to the end, she was always taking on new things.
"Mom didn't speak ill of anybody."
She did have a final wish for her ashes to be spread on the hills of Mount Marty College, her alma mater, in Yankton, S.D. But her family and friends already are talking about a special kind of memorial in Manitou, perhaps a bench in Red Rock Canyon, where she and Chris walked countless times after she helped save it.
First, though, the Verlo family had to decide how to handle her memorial service Friday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2021 W. Pikes Peak Ave. They knew she would not want people making a fuss.
"She was the last person to call attention to herself about anything," Eric says. "We just wanted this last service to show her as the example of people dedicating their energies to the community, and celebrate it. That's the call we're feeling now."
And they'll be feeling it, inspired by the spirit and accomplishments of Kathy Verlo, for many years to come.
Kathy Verlos last letter to the Indy
It was a disappointment to read about a potential betrayal of the rural folk who cherish their family farms and ranches and dont wish to sell to the Army at Fort Carson, and again last week in Colorado Springs when only pro-military leaders and the Chamber of Commerce expounded on the need for expansion. What a terrible hoax to think anything connected with war business could be considered a crown jewel and national security keystone.
It is ironic that an area in Colorado, one of the most scenic and naturally beautiful states in the U.S., is being taken over by the military-industrial complex. Even though there was no chance to be heard last week, there are many folks, including former military, who question why a Fort Carson expansion should be considered necessary at all, much less for the health of our local and state economy.
What happened to tourism, health, fitness and agribusiness for which Colorado is a natural, and the great potential for jobs in the needed alternative-energy fields?
A moratorium on military expansion makes sense because of the growing sentiment that U.S. involvement in the Iraq war needs to end. With more taxpayers and legislators agreeing that we need to pull out of Iraq, isnt there a possibility Fort Carson could be reduced in size, rather than enlarged? Instead of more battleground experience, we need to have people trained in renovation, rehabilitation of infrastructure and individuals, health and human services and educational endeavors.
If fear of terrorism is predominate, have you thought of telling the war-machine lobbyists in Washington that you dont want your state to become a terrorist target by having so many of our strategic war components in such close proximity?
(Published Sept. 6, 2007)