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Giving thanks to visionaries

This column is due on my editor's desk on Friday, six days before publication. From time to time, I beg and plead for a later deadline -- Monday, even Tuesday. And so it was on a Tuesday morning in the summer of '99 that I found myself staring cluelessly at a blank monitor, out of excuses, no idea what to write, and an hour to write it.

And that's when inspiration struck, if we can use such a fancy word about something as ephemeral as a newspaper column. Historic preservation! We didn't have a local nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation! And we needed one!

So most of the column was dedicated to that idea, ending with an invitation to any and all interested parties to meet at my house a few days hence and begin the process of forming just such a group. A dozen or so folks showed up, including my next-door neighbor, Joyce Stivers.

Careful, precise, tenacious and a superb organizer, Joyce took over the idea and ran with it. The newly formed Historic Preservation Alliance grew and flourished, attracted donors, and increased its membership every year. Today, it's an active, vibrant organization with over 500 paying members.

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of presenting an award to Joyce from the HPA board at the annual dinner, thanking her for her years of dedicated service. Joyce has taken a new job, and she's scaling back her involvement in the HPA. It was pretty amazing to stand at the podium in Bemis Hall and watch as 250 attendees rose to give her a standing ovation. It was a tribute to the difference that a single person can make to a community, and I was proud to have played a small part in it.

The purpose of the HPA is, of course, to honor the past by preserving the parks, buildings and neighborhoods that we have inherited from those who have gone before us. And that doesn't mean just the General Palmers and the W.S. Strattons; that also means people of our own era, such as former Mayor Leon Young, who was laid to rest last Friday.

The arc of Leon's life is well known -- how he grew up in the segregated South, joined the Navy, came to Colorado Springs, worked as a bartender at the El Paso Club, started a business, ran for City Council and served on that body for 20 years, ending his service as the first African-American mayor of our community. And he didn't just keep his seat warm; Leon was either heavily involved in or directly responsible for some of the city's finest achievements during that time, most notably the creation of Shooks Run Park and the revitalization of the then-decaying neighborhoods of the near East Side.

It was my good fortune to serve on Council with Leon between 1991 and 1997. In this group of tough, smart, headstrong people (think Bob Isaac, Mary Lou Makepeace, Larry Small and Cheryl Gillaspie), Leon thrived.

It took me a while to figure out why Leon was so effective. He never raised his voice, never appeared to be angry, and never questioned the motives or intelligence of his colleagues. Just as a professional poker player playing with amateurs can read his opponents' "tells" -- the gestures and expressions that give away what they're trying to hide -- so, too, could Leon predict the outcome of every Council vote.

And despite his diffident, gentlemanly exterior, Leon was one tough, calculating and goal-directed politician. On most issues, he'd vote with the Council majority, thereby building up chits that he could use in the future. So when he needed your vote -- no more than a few times a year -- he'd just quietly ask, with no need to threaten, cajole or promise. He always succeeded; in six years, I never saw Leon lose a vote that was important to him.

Leon never lost sight of his goals: to represent his district and to represent our city's African-American minority. He was a joyful and courteous man, and a man utterly without illusions. He knew, from firsthand experience, just how vicious and evil men could be. But he didn't allow that knowledge to cloud his vision, which was simple and direct: to make Colorado Springs a better city. He was a greathearted man, a natural aristocrat, and a brilliantly Machiavellian politician. Goodbye, Leon -- I'll miss you.

And may we be fortunate enough to find men (and women) like Leon to build the city of the future ... and women (and men) like Joyce Stivers to preserve and protect what we have.

-- johnhazlehurst@earthlink.net

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