Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Denver Post Operas

When I was in high school and college, I worked during the summers at
The Denver Post Opera.  I worked as a carpenter and stagehand and we
actually built the whole set on the fountain in front of the Cheesman
Pavilion in the middle of Cheesman Park.  Miss Helen Bonfils, the owner
of the Denver Post invited the whole city and the suburbs too to bring
picnic dinners at enjoy the operettas.  This was a dream job for a high
schooler like me and I enjoyed every minute of it.

 From time to time Miss Helen would drop by the pavilion to see how the
stage, wiring, lights, and sets were progressing.  She would roll up in
her Rolls Royce; at least I think it was Rolls Royce, with Number 1 on
the Colorado License Plates.  This one day she arrived for inspection of
the troops with Fr. John Anderson who taught me at Holy Family High
School. So Fr. Anderson sees me in my overalls with my hammer,
screwdriver and saw, and he says, "Oh, Dennis! Come over here and meet
Miss Helen."

John Famularo, head carpenter and Al Birch, Denver Post employee and
producer of the show, gave me quizzical looks like "Who the hell is this
Gallagher who thinks he knows Miss Helen."  So sure enough, I came over
and Fr. Anderson said, "Oh, Miss Helen, I want you to meet Dennis
Gallagher, he's one of my brightest students at Holy Family and he's got
a great future and I know we are going to hear more of him."  Fr.
Anderson made praise a virtue and we all appreciated the accolades he
heaped our way. Fr. Anderson made you feel like a million dollars and
you could do anything.   I told her how pleased I was to meet her and
trying to think of something special to say I told her my family and I
always appreciated her building Holy Ghost Church, the beautiful
downtown city parish. Architects agree that Holy Ghost shines one of
Denver's architectural treasures on 18th and California in the heart of

And Miss Helen said smiling gracefully, "Oh, Dennis, I built that church
to get my father into purgatory."

Fr. Anderson reminded me that her dad, Frederick G. Bonfils, owner of
the Denver Post, converted to the Catholic Church on his deathbed. Ah,
one of those last minute sinners who slip into paradise just in the nick
of time. So kiddingly I asked Fr. Anderson, "Well, father, do you think
Mr. Bonfils is out of purgatory yet?"  And Anderson said in an
artificial judgmental tone right there in front of Miss Helen, "With his
editorial policy, Dennis, he'll be there until the end of time."

So Miss Helen turned to me frowning coyly and she said to me, "Oh,
Dennis, you and I are going to have coffee and we are going to leave Fr.
Anderson at home." Fr. Anderson laughed and flashed his gold cuff links
with dollar signs on them holding his starched and pressed French cuffs.


And I have to tell you, one of the worst mistakes of my life was, I
never made that appointment to have coffee with Miss Helen by myself.
And I wish I would have. We would have had a great talk about Holy
Ghost, her dad, and Denver's history and future.  And may Miss Helen
rest in peace.  And I bet she is out of Purgatory because she gave us
those many wonderful years of the Denver Post Operas.

The recession and St. Rocco's

Far from the luxurious corporate board rooms on Denver's 17th Street,
far from the locked and secure meeting rooms of Denver's biggest banks,
far from the sanitized air conditioned computer analysis rooms of local
economic think tanks, I noticed three important signals about how poorly
the recession is hitting our city. These examples are small signs that
people and institutions are hurting and not able to be as generous as in
previous times, but I thought you might enjoy them.

Every mid-August Our Lady of Mt Carmel Church in North Denver plays host
to an event which sets Denver apart from our suburban neighbors. I am
speaking of the annual procession of St. Rocco which starts at the
church at West 36th Avenue and Navajo. The procession, folks and
statue, parade around several tree-lined blocks around the church and
surrounding neighborhood. The march proceeds south on Navajo past the
old Coors Bar, the Arabian Bar and then turns west past where Little
Pepina's used to be. The marchers circumnavigate past the home of Ernie
and Eleanor Marranzino on 36th and Osage. Ernie served as Councilman for
that part of North Denver for years. The pilgrims then sing their way
past Cerrone's market remembered for it recipe exchange, and then past
Professional Union Printers, former home of The Colorado Leader, the
state's Italian newspaper founded by its publisher Frank Mancini. The
group then turns back to Navajo past the Bug Theatre and the art
galleries and Patsy's Inn Italian Restaurant. Then everyone drives over
to The Potenza Lodge, right across from Leprino Cheeze.

Before the procession and before the bid process, Potenza Lodge members
prepare the statue at the church of St. Rocco for the procession. A
liturgical alb like an ornate scarf is placed just below St. Rocco's
golden halo above his shoulders to which people fasten money as
offerings for illnesses or other human frailties confronted by
parishioners. In times past when many citizens of Italian extraction
lived in North Denver thousands of people, young and old, would line the
streets in front of the church eagerly anticipating the bidding ceremony
for the honor to carry St. Rocco through the streets of our city. This
year only several hundred people showed up at the church for the event,
but this is not the signal which told me the economy faces trouble. Many
parishioners have moved miles away from old North Denver, seeking less
complicated and more reticent lives in our suburbs. I know of no
processions in the suburbs.

The first signal that things were different from all other St. Rocco's
this year; there was no marching band. One of the lodge members told me
that this year the Potenza Lodge could not afford the band which
normally plays between bids and accompanies the parishioners along the
procession route. The band playing always increased tension and passion
between bidding families vying for the honor to carry the statue. So in
place of the orchestra, a car radio sound system played the national
anthem and various other melodies along the march.

The second sign that St. Rocco was in for a rough time this year; the
bids were low. Mickey Lava Clayton originally from Brooklyn, and who
never misses a procession got the bids started with a generous opening
bid of $500. After more radio music and lots of discussion other
families collaborated to bring the final bid up to what I think is
excellent given the economy, $2100. Those wishing to carry the papal
flag on this neighborhood pilgrimage bid $100, also lower than in years

The third sign that this St. Rocco's was different from other St.
Rocco's Days; no flower girls. Most of the residents near the church
now are of Hispanic origin. And these neighbors fully understand the
significance of the statue of a Saint carried past their home, blessing
the house, the family and the neighborhood. And they appreciated the
young kids handing out flowers to the mothers in the neighborhood. And
in times past young women smilingly brought flowers to other smiling
women who lived in homes along the procession route.

So I thought you might enjoy hearing about an event during which I smile
so much my face begins to hurt, and an event that celebrates the ethnic
roots of our neighborhood, and an event that makes Denver and the North
neighborhoods the truly special place it is. And I thought you might
like to hear about some of the smaller ways in which the recession has
affected our city. With St Rocco's help, let's hope the economy gets
better. On the other hand, perhaps we should contact St. Jude, the
patron of impossible cases.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Taking an Oath

Citizens born in the United States are not required to take an oath of allegiance.We are citizens and that's it. Our loyalty is unquestioned and assumed,a gift of the place of our birth on United States soil.

How different for ancient Athenians who wanted to become citizens, andcitizenship was open only to males above the age of 18. But all whowanted to be citizens had to swear the oath even though they were bornin Athens. Being born in Athens did not matter. You were not a citizenuntil you said the words of the oath. They swore the oath before all inthe theatre, and received in front of all their sacred arms for defenseof the nation. Here is the text of the oath:

"I will never bring reproach upon my hallowed arms nor will I desert thecomrade at whose side I stand, but I will defend our altars and ourhearths, single-handed or supported by many. My native land I will notleave a diminished heritage but greater and better than when I receivedit. I will obey whoever is in authority and submit to the establishedlaws and all others which the people shall harmoniously enact. If anyonetries to overthrow the constitution and disobeys it, I will not permithim, but will come to its defense single-handed or with the support ofall. I will honor the religion of my fathers. Let the gods be mywitness."

The oath then goes on to list several gods as witnesses to the words ofthe oath, in particular the father of the gods, Zeus himself.To the ancient Athenian this oath was a civil and military oath. Theoath-taker promises to fight for home and country. I particularly likethe part about leaving the country better off than you found it. Perhapswe should require an economic oath for US citizens in trying to balanceour overwhelming debt. The Athenian oath binds the citizen to supportthe national institutions of the country and take up military duties ifnecessary. The gods witnessed the oath taking along with the citizen'spromise to honor the gods.

I like the part about fighting anyone who tries to overthrow theconstitution. And in my humble view, this oath is not too different forthose who signed our Declaration of Independence, might we say, the oathof Thomas Jefferson:"We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and oursacred honor." I thought you might enjoy this reflection on oaths andcitizenship.

I have made of copy of the classical Greek version of the Athenian oath.If anyone would like a copy, just let me know.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bailey, Billups, Basketball and kids

Some say Denver is a great city because we have the Broncos and the Rockies. Others boast that Denver is great because we have the Stock Show, Coors Field or the Pepsi Center and the Democratic Convention. Still others opine that Denver’s greatness comes from our banks and great corporations - economic engines which drive the financial machinery of our city.

Friday, August 8th, 2009, I saw the greatness of our city up close and in your face.

John Bailey invited me to his Basketball Camp with Chauncey Billups at Denver’s Hiawatha Davis Recreation Center in Northeast Denver.

I got there just in time to hear John and the other coaches lining up the hundreds of kids to do their warm-ups prior to basketball practices. Most of the kids are from Northeast Denver, but many are from other parts of the city. He was not there Friday, but Simon Peter O’Hanlon who grew up playing city basketball in Northeast Park Hill, said John Bailey’s program gets petitions from parents from the suburbs so their kids can learn the ‘in your face, rough and tumble’ inner city Northeast Denver style that only Bailey and company can evoke from fledgling ball players. John barks out orders like an army drill sergeant, and the kids quickly, dutifully and obediently get in line and follow his orders because underneath the gruff exterior, the kids know John really cares about them. The kids know he cares about how well they are going to improve their game, but down deeper he challenges the kids to “know themselves” and stretch their limitations in challenging their own limits. The lessons learned on the court at Hiawatha Davis Recreation Center last Friday will help each of them with all of life’s challenges down the line. That’s what the ancient Greeks said the purpose of education itself was: “Know thyself.”

Denver’s own, Chauncey Billups, Most Valuable Player in the 2004 National Basketball Association playoffs, and Denver Nugget champion, easily and gracefully led the students in their stretching exercises and they all eagerly followed this great rolemodel. Then John introduced the younger assistant coach and knew every one by name. The participants enthusiastically applauded the good work of the coaches. The coaches knew John cared about them as much as the kids involved in the program. Then the players and coaches divided up into working units and marched out to the ball courts with temporary basketball hoops distributed evenly on the ten courts.

I was standing in the doorway trying to see everything, and Coach Frank Merritt waved me to come and stand next to him in the shade closer to the courts so I could see better. He is a big bear of a man with a serious exterior but a welcoming and jovial heart. So I stood next to him, as I did last year, and we watched the morning’s excitement. Every time a kid passed by, “Hi, Coach Frank,” they would say. He knew every one of those kids by name. He could tell you all about them. Talk about building confidence in a student. I met Chauncey briefly and mentioned I taught with Lonnie Porter, legendary basketball coach for Regis, for many years at Regis University. I told Chauncey that whenever I had a basketball player in my class, Lonnie would call from time to time to see if he was attending class, and how was he doing. It’s that same caring and attention to individual players that I saw from Chauncey, John Bailey and Coach Frank which generates an over 95% graduation rate among Regis ball players. And the players in my classes knew Coach Porter cared about them and their performance now, in my class, and in the future.

That day, John Bailey, Chauncey Billups and Coach Frank Merritt shared their love of competition and zest for life with their students at the Hiawatha Davis Recreation Center. Simon Peter O’Hanlon, who wasn’t there Friday, told me long ago that John Bailey has saved kid’s lives with the program he runs at Davis Recreation Center. And all things considered, that’s why Denver is a great city.