I wanted to invite you and Julie to his 80th birthday party. There will be lots of people there you know… It will be a SURPRISE,” wrote Sharon, Wally Stealey’s wife of 57 years.
Well, it was a surprise, a wonderful one. For me, as well as for Wally, the legendary lobbyist from Pueblo who has made his mark on the Colorado political scene for so many years.
First it was nice seeing so many old friends. Legislators I served with like Wellington Webb, Nancy Dick, Bob Shoemaker, Ray Kogovsek and Dennis Gallagher; other legislators like Paul Schauer who jokingly said he was probably the only Republican in the room, Wilma Webb, Abel Tapia who is now running for Congress against Scott Tipton, and Mike Feeley. Former Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, Jean Dubofsky (the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court) was there with her husband, Frank. During my first term in the Colorado House of Representatives (1973-74), Jean lobbied for the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver and was the author of much progressive legislation. She then went to work in the Attorney General’s office for JD MacFarlane who was also present with his wife, Janet. Alan Salazar was there from the Governor’s office as well as political powers Kathy Farley, Steve Wechert, Faye and Greg Diamond and Frances Koncilja. Also Alan Charnes who was the staff director of the Joint Budget Committee when I first became a member and then executive director of the Revenue Department with his wife, Barbara, who was on Nancy Dick’s staff when she was Lieutenant Governor.
Many of the others I didn’t know but the feeling in the air was of this great affection for Wally who has been such a good friend and great leader for so many years.
There were a number of moving speeches, funny stories and some very good ideas like Wellington’s suggestion that a plaque be installed in the State Capitol like the one for Dave Rice, an idea that was first proposed by Peter Blake of the now defunct Rocky Mountain News. I’d like to relate two that I heard from Wally when I visited with him at his home in Granada, Nicaragua in February of this year.
The first relates to his year on the faculty of Arkansas Polytechnic College (now Arkansas Tech University) in Russellville, Ark., in 1963-64. Although race remains an obsessive issue in American life, those years were very different because then race was a life or death issue, not just one of words. For example, when Julie and I worked for Floyd McKissick and the Congress of Racial Equality in Durham, N.C., in the summer of 1965, the KKK held regular Friday night rallies and cross burnings in places like Oxford, N. C.
When Wally was at Arkansas Poly, the black students ate in the kitchen and the whites in the dining room; they also sat separately in the classrooms. This was something he couldn’t tolerate so he recruited the black women students to go sit in the dining room. (He picked the women students instead of men, fearing that the men would get beaten up.)
Then he created a seating chart for his classroom so that everyone had to sit in alphabetical order rather than by race. Almost immediately he was called to the president’s office where he tried to pretend that he was only doing this as a way to take roll and to learn the names of his students.
Finally, in frustration, the president asked him what church he went to. Hardly a churchgoer, Wally fumbled around until the President finally invited him to his church for the following Sunday. Wally accepted with a smile and then asked if he could bring a black student with him. That immediately ended the conversation. Needless to say, Wally was not invited back the following year.
The second story concerns his 40-acre farm in Nicaragua where he now has a bull and eight cows. When he bought the farm, he discovered that it had an old water well that had been dug by hand in the 1800s but had been abandoned about one hundred years ago. Believing that he could pasture 100 cows with better water, he decided to re-excavate the well and rigged up a system that is hard to believe. It features a bucket that would be lowered into the well by a cable that was attached to his tractor. A man gets in the bucket, is lowered into the well, begins digging out the old debris and then is hauled up when the bucket is full. Two weeks of this and Wally had his water. It’s hard to imagine the courage of the man who allowed himself to be lowered in the bucket. Fortunately, for Wally, there’s no OSHA in Nicaragua.
There are millions of Wally Stealey stories and I’m encouraging people to “clean them up” and send them to me. Wally and Sharon are a unique couple and a major part of Colorado’s political history. Happy Birthday, Wally, and best wishes!
Morgan Smith is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and Commissioner of Agriculture. He writes frequently about legislators, elected officials and public figures who he served with in the 1970s. He can be reached at Morganfirstname.lastname@example.org.