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Progress -- ain't it wonderful! Only yesterday, there was nothing in the middle of Pikes Peak Avenue but cars and asphalt.

We still have the cars and asphalt, but we've managed to add a little vegetation, an expanded metal buffalo, a grizzly bear fetchingly constructed out of flat steel rebar, and an aluminum pole with stuff dangling from it, like an earring display at a cheap boutique.

And as if that weren't enough, we now have the three bronze geezers: Hank the Cowboy, Winfield Scott Stratton, and Spencer Penrose, whose statue was unveiled a few days ago.

It was especially gratifying to your columnist to see Spec Penrose so honored, since so many of his actions, public and private, are largely unknown to the citizens of our fair city.

The facts of his life are well known, and adequately described on the statue's plinth. Of gentle birth, the Harvard-educated Penrose came to Colorado in 1892, made money in Cripple Creek, made a lot more in Utah Copper, built The Broadmoor hotel and the Will Rogers Shrine, and, in his will, directed that the bulk of his estate be used to create the El Pomar Foundation. A commendable life indeed!

And so it was, but the real Penrose has disappeared into a fog of disinformation, replaced by a Chamber-of-Commerce image better suited for public consumption.

And how do I know this? Not from careful perusal of fading records, but from having been born into a family long resident in Colorado, whose encounters with Penrose and his pals were frequent, various, and endlessly interesting.

In the interest, then, of furthering our understanding of this rich and genial scoundrel, here are a couple of stories...

In the early 1920s, my mother, Edith Farnsworth, ran a bookstore on the ground floor of The Broadmoor hotel. Contemporary photographs show her to be a breathtakingly beautiful young woman. Spec, then about Bill Clinton's age, often found an excuse to hang out at the bookstore, although, as she later recalled, "Spec never opened a book in his entire life!"

One day Penrose came into the shop, and showed Edith a letter. The sender, the pastor of a local church, had asked Spec to fund a new roof for the church, which had been severely damaged in a recent hailstorm. It'd only cost a thousand bucks or so, and Penrose would have the satisfaction, the pastor wrote, of having done a good deed, and the church's congregants would pray for his immortal soul.

"What do you think I ought to do, Edith?" asked Penrose with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

"Well, Mr. Penrose, I'm sure that they'd be grateful for any help you could give them."

"I get these goddamn letters all the time." Spec replied, "Usually I just send 'em a check, but this time I did something different. This is what I sent 'em."

And here, in its entirety, is the text of Spec's letter:

"Dear Reverend _____: Thank you for your letter of the 11th inst. I have researched the matter, and I find that in Colorado Springs there are seventy-three churches and no racetracks. In my opinion, the community would be better served if there were seventy-three racetracks and no churches. I am sorry that I cannot accede to your request, Sincerely, Spencer Penrose."

Astonished, my mother asked Penrose if he had actually sent the letter. "Went out this morning," he replied cheerfully, as he left the bookstore.

One wonders what Spec might have thought of El Pomar's multi-million dollar gift to Focus on the Family a few years ago!

Penrose was a builder and a doer, about as far from modern environmentalism as it's possible to be. He financed Utah Copper, a company which, at Bingham Canyon, created the largest open pit mine in the world. His automobile race up Pikes Peak continues to create environmental havoc, and Spec can take credit for the region's first mountain scar, the road up Cheyenne Mountain.

But it's Spec's final legacy that is most piquant. As visitors to the magnificent Will Rogers Shrine soon realize, the so-called shrine has little to do with Will Rogers, a now-obscure comedian from the '30s. The shrine is, very simply, the tomb of Spencer Penrose, his wife Julie, and Spec's secretary, Horace Devereaux. Visitors can peer at their splendid resting place at the base of the shrine, protected from the casual visitor by elaborate wrought iron gates.

What a guy: preferred racetracks to churches, got rich despoiling the environment, and turned his grave into a tourist attraction. How about another statue in his honor? And this time, make it a racehorse ...

  • Progress aint it wonderful! Pikes Peak Avenue is no longer just cars and asphalt.

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