Two former governors joined Gov. John Hickenlooper and lawmakers in the House chamber on Monday to celebrate the life of former Gov. John Vanderhoof, a man remembered for being forward thinking and able to work across the aisle to advance the interests of the state.
Vanderhoof died on Sept. 19, 2013. He was 91 years old.
Vanderhoof, a Republican, served the state in multiple capacities over the course of 25 years, including minority leader, majority leader, House speaker, lieutenant governor and finally governor from 1973 to 1975 after then-Gov. John Love left office to join then-President Richard Nixon’s administration.
As a Navy pilot during World War II, Vanderhoof truly personified the Greatest Generation, carrying out numerous fighter missions and being in the first aircraft to attack Iwo Jima.
During one mission, Vanderhoof’s plane was damaged by ground fire and he was forced to eject, breaking his leg in the process. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Navy Crosses and three Purple Hearts over the course of his impressive military career.
But it was his work for Colorado that Vanderhoof was most remembered for on Monday. Former Govs. Dick Lamm and Bill Ritter joined Hickenlooper to celebrate Vanderhoof’s life during rare remarks by the current and former governors in the House chamber.
“He pushed me with his passionate belief in public service that every citizen has a responsibility to give back in a way that they feel is appropriate,” explained Hickenlooper. “He was determined to leave this community better off than when he found it.”
Hickenlooper said he first met Vanderhoof when he was running for governor in 2010.
“He was so gracious to me as someone who was trying to understand…” recalled Hickenlooper. “He illuminated my meager understanding of water and raised it exponentially… His push was I should take a longer view but with more emphasis on the short term.”
The governor dug into the archives to find Vanderhoof’s first speech to the General Assembly in July 1973: “Let us so conduct ourselves, in the days and months ahead, that people in the aftertime will say of us all, as one people forged together in government, that we, with God’s help, built better even than we knew,” Vanderhoof said at the time.
“His words are as appropriate and timeless today as they were then,” declared Hickenlooper.
Ritter elaborated on Hickenlooper’s points, suggesting that Vanderhoof pushed to move away from rancor in order to get the work of the people done.
“It wasn’t so much about the fights or the battles he had lost… it was about the things that he viewed as part of his successes with the collective success of the state of Colorado,” explained Ritter.
“This is a time when there can be some rancor in this building…” Ritter added of the end of the legislative session, which will be over in less than two weeks.
“There wasn’t a bit about rancor in his discussion about other people involved in the political world… It was about the successes and the civility…” explained Ritter. “He felt Colorado was different and ahead of the pack in so many respects…”
Ritter also had a little fun in Vanderhoof’s memory, pointing to the great moon rock scandal of 2010. When federal officials came to the state looking for a set of moon rocks that had been presented to Colorado in 1974, only one was in the archives, remembered Ritter, who was governor at the time.
“They said, ‘Where is the other one?’” recalled Ritter. “I said, ‘I don’t know, I was in seventh grade when that happened.’”
The mystery was solved when it was discovered that Vanderhoof had taken one set with him when he left office. It was hanging in his home office in Grand Junction. Vanderhoof had tried to donate the rocks to museums and universities, but the institutions weren’t interested.
Worth about $5 million, Ritter joked that Vanderhoof’s grandson once took the rocks to show-and-tell in grade school.
“Gov. Vanderhoof got a big laugh out of this…” recalled Ritter.
Lamm remembered Vanderhoof as being an “awesome presence” and someone who worked his entire public career for civility and decorum. Lamm served in the legislature with Vanderhoof in 1967 when “Johnny Van” was speaker. He said Vanderhoof changed the tone.
“There were fistfights right here on the floor. [One lawmaker] carried a gun right in on the floor. [Another lawmaker]… crawled right onto the balcony to keep his bill safe…” recalled Lamm.
“But Johnny Van wouldn’t have any of that,” Lamm continued. “He wanted this place to work with dignity and decorum. More than once he cleared the galleries… he wouldn’t tolerate any kind of untold disruption. He was an incredible person that wanted to get things done and was fair.”
Lamm pointed out that most of the legislative Class of 1967 is now gone.
“It’s incredible,” he addressed current lawmakers. “You’ll see the same thing in your career… But you look at those pictures and you look at the service, and there was none of us who had served his country and served his state with such distinction and such honor.”
Former Gov. Bill Owens was unable to attend the memorial, but he offered remarks that were read to the House chamber.
“He contributed greatly to not only the freedom we enjoy today but also to the great state in which we still reside,” wrote Owens. “His legacy lives on in so many ways, even as he has passed away. Americans and Coloradans owe him so much as one of the best of the greatest generations.”
House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, brought the memorial in the House.
Rankin represents the district Vanderhoof lived in for many years in Glenwood Springs.
“I’m struck by talking to the family members that Gov. Vanderhoof, when he came home at night, talked about the things he was concerned about and the two at the top of his list were water conservation and alternative fuel,” said Rankin, pointing out that those are issues the state still grapples with today.
Ferrandino suggested that Vanderhoof was way ahead of the game by focusing on such things as energy independence and prison reform 40 years ago.
“He was very forward thinking…” said Ferrandino. “He will be known and remembered for his ability to work across the aisle with both parties to really move the state forward.”