Even President Barack Obama remembers a story about Paul Sandoval, the former state senator and North Denver kingmaker who was laid to rest on Saturday.
“I recall that when Paul visited the White House, he asked to be identified as a tamale maker,” wrote Obama in a letter to Sandoval’s widow, former Denver Councilwoman and state Sen. Paula Sandoval, read aloud during his funeral by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Nearly 1,000 mourners, including family members and dignitaries — many launched into public life by Sandoval — packed the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Capitol Hill to say goodbye to the man Salazar, one of his most prominent protégées, remembered as “a warrior for a better world.”
In addition to Salazar — whose political career Sandoval plotted out on a napkin in the back room at his bustling restaurant, Tamales by La Casita — the pews and aisles of the massive cathedral included current and former governors, senators, congressmen and mayors, along with row after row of neighbors and friends who cherished Sandoval’s life.
Sandoval died at his north Denver home on April 24 after a 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 67.
In his eulogy, Salazar recounted numerous ways that Sandoval worked tirelessly to “bring the Lord’s Prayer here to this earth,” beginning as one of Colorado’s youngest state senators on record when he began his first of two terms in the early 1970s.
His passion continued, Salazar said, in his work on the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, “where he showed he had this ability of bringing people together, Democrats and Republicans, on behalf of making sure that there was no financial barrier to keep someone from higher education if their wish was to go to higher education.”
Sandoval, he said, “was about the person and the people and the community and the city and the state and the nation, not about party.”
Reading from Obama’s tribute, Salazar told Sandoval’s family: “You know better than anyone that Paul was colorful, passionate and a savvy civic leader with a big heart and a big love for his family and the Rocky Mountain West. Paul’s incredible legacy lives on in the people he loved and the lives he touched.”
Recounting how he spoke with Sandoval every day during his last months and visited him every time he was in Denver, Salazar recalled one of the last times he saw his mentor.
“I held him, kissed him, tussled his hair,” Salazar said. “I said to him, ‘Paul you know how much we love you. God be with you.’ And I gave him a blessing. He looked up and said, ‘God bless you all. I love you all.’”
After the Mass, hundreds of Sandoval’s admirers filled the first floor of the Capitol for a reception that featured remembrances both tearful and filled with laughter, along with an abundance of tamales and great steaming bowls of green chile.
At the Capitol, Paula Sandoval stood alongside Dr. Colin Weekes, the oncologist who treated her husband at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, and read from a letter the doctor wrote.
“‘The beautiful thing about Paul,’” Weekes had written, “‘is he planted many seeds that will continue to bear fruit for decades to come, to hopefully make this world a better place for all.’”
Harkening back to words spoken earlier by the priest who conducted Sandoval’s funeral Mass, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia said the crowd gathered to honor Sandoval’s life was among the clearest embodiments of his vision.
“As we move forward, as we pass through this life and into the next world, our good deeds accompany us,” Garcia said. “Paul’s good deeds do accompany him, but they also remain right here in this room. The good deeds in Paul’s life are evidenced by the leadership that he helped forge, the opportunities he helped create.”
His youngest daughter, Amanda, fought back tears as she recalled her father bringing donuts for her children every Saturday morning up until the time he entered hospice.
Though she worked closely with him at La Casita, she said that a few years back he pulled her aside to discuss what she was going to do with her life — a plan, she soon discovered, that included finishing her college degree.
“He mapped out what I was going to do for the next three years,” she said. “And I graduate on Mother’s Day, May 13th.”
But then, after his cancer diagnosis early last year, she said he told her, “I’m not going to be there when you graduate.” She left “so angry” and went to her advisor at Metropolitan State College, who urged her to skip class and return to her father.
“‘I have something to say, dad,’” she said she told him. “I said, ‘You’re not going anywhere. You’ll be there on that day, Mother’s Day, May 13, when I graduate, and they say my name, and I’ll look for you in the crowd, because you’re here in my heart and you’ll go everywhere with me from now on.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Those are wise words, Hijita, those are wise words.’”
Sandoval was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge. His family suggests donations in memory of Paul Sandoval be sent to the Mount Saint Vincent Home, 4159 Lowell, Denver, Colorado 80211.