Guest Columns


Likable ‘Johnny Van’ was focused on Colorado

The Colorado Statesman

John Vanderhoof or “Johnny Van” was Governor of Colorado for only one legislative session — 1974 — but he brought to the table some important new ideas. The problem was that although he was to be his party’s candidate for Governor, he had little support from his Republican colleagues in the House where I served.

One of his initiatives was to break up the unwieldy Department of Institutions and create a separate Department of Corrections. Having spent years as a public defender and criminal defense attorney, I knew how important this bill was and prepared numerous amendments for the first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. I assumed, however, that the amendments would probably be quickly crushed on party line votes.

The first surprise was that the bill’s prime sponsor didn’t even show up for the hearing. The second was that almost all my amendments were adopted. How could a Republican candidate for Governor allow a freshman Democrat and Dick Lamm supporter to substantially re-write his bill? The biggest surprise was when the prime sponsor asked me to carry the bill on the floor.

Former Gov. John Vanderhoof, above, participated in a political roast of former CD 4 Congressman Jim Johnson in the early 1980s.
File photo/The Colorado Statesman

As I remember it, the bill never got to the floor so that dilemma was avoided, but it was an astonishing way for Republicans to treat their candidate, especially since Johnny Van had served in the House for 20 years and had been Speaker for three terms. (Actually, at the end of the 1973 session, Republicans in the House took great glee in overriding all of John Love’s Long Bill vetoes so Vanderhoof wasn’t alone in having little support from legislators in his party.)

Then in 1976, Sen. Tillie Bishop, R-Grand Junction, and I were appointed the co-chairmen of an interim committee on mineral taxation and, out of the blue, Vanderhoof called to ask us to go on a plane ride with him. He wanted to show us some mining issues.

As we flew west from Leadville in his small plane, he said something about a mountain lake where he used to fish. Tillie and I didn’t pay much attention until suddenly the plane nosedived. Johnny was going to give us a closer look. I can still picture that little lake looming up at us as we plunged earthward. I was too terrified to speak but Tillie knew what an extraordinary pilot Vanderhoof was. He had served in Naval Aviation in World War II, was shot down three times, received two Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals. Tillie had flown to Alaska, Mexico and all over Colorado with Johnny, so this nosedive didn’t bother him.

Then he flew us over a number of coal mining areas around Craig. What was fascinating was that he could tell from the way the mine tailings looked when they had occurred in relationship to changes in the state’s mine land reclamation laws.

“Johnny was Johnny,” Tillie said when we talked about him a few days ago. “What you saw is what you got. He loved to hunt and fish and he knew where all the deer and elk herds were. He could tell you about every mountain.”

As we left on that plane ride, I felt awkward initially because I had been the first legislator to come out in support of Dick Lamm but, as Tillie said, Vanderhoof was never bitter about that loss. He was always looking ahead and totally focused on Colorado.

“John made a statement wherever he went,” Tillie added. “Everywhere
we went, people knew him and liked him.”

John Vanderhoof was a man who knew and loved every inch of Colorado. He loved the people of Colorado. We will miss him.

Morgan Smith was in the Colorado House of Representatives during John Vanderhoof’s one year as Governor. He can be reached at