Howard Gelt, the kid who got kicked out of military school and continued a rebellious streak for years, left his mark on Colorado in a number of ways, from politics to transportation to the arts.
A pioneer for women’s rights, he helped found the Colorado NARAL chapter.
At 6-foot-5, he appeared like a giant when he crashed an IOC meeting in Japan in 1972 to let members know Colorado wasn’t that excited about hosting the Olympics.
He once faked a southern drawl to get an environmental bill through the North Carolina legislature.
Gelt died Friday after battling with esophageal cancer. Gelt was 73, although he always let out his trademark big grin when people commented he looked younger.
“He had such a will to live. He had so much grit,” his son, 35-year-old Ben Gelt, said Saturday. “He was a character and just a great guy.”
The family is holding a private funeral Wednesday, but will later announce a public memorial service for Gelt, who was chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party in the early 1990s. Before that, he was key to Dick Lamm and Roy Roy Romer’s elections for governor.
Gelt and his wife, Sandy Vanghagen Gelt, had just celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary on June 1.
His death comes the same week as Republican Bill Armstrong, a former U.S. senator from Colorado. “An era is coming to an end,” said Mary Alice Mandarich, a lobbyist who visited Gelt in the hospital last week.
The thing about Gelt, she said, is he had an enormous impact on Colorado but in a behind-the-scenes, give-someone-else-the-credit way.
That sentiment was echoed by Gelt’s former wife, Susan Barnes-Gelt, who served on the Denver City Council.
“Howard’s impact on the civic and political life of this city was as big as the great outdoors,” she said. “It was entirely unsung, but he was such a force.”
Howard Gelt was born in 1943 in Mason City, Iowa. His dad owned the Oldsmobile dealership and young Howard liked to sneak down to the shop after hours and drive the cars around on the grounds. Eventually, he started driving off the property.
“One night he was out on a joy ride and a police cruiser came behind him and switched on his lights and tried to pull Dad over,” Ben said. “Dad took off, gets back to the garage, puts the car away and goes home thinking he’s OK.”
His father and the cop were there to greet him. The vehicle had no license plate but it did have a big sign on it saying “Gelt Auto.”
That led to time in a military school in Minnesota, which eventually expelled Gelt, who wasn’t one to follow what he saw as silly rules.
The University of Colorado recruited Gelt to play football, but he was sidelined because of head and knee injuries he received during a car accident the summer before his freshman year. He spent his first year at CU smoking dope, playing bridge and bootlegging Coors beer to his friends in Phoenix, according to his family.
At CU, Gelt pledged the same fraternity as two men who would become Denver legal powerhouses, Steve Farber and Norm Brownstein. But Gelt quit the fraternity and CU, eventually getting his undergraduate degree in 1966 at the University of Arizona. He received his law degree from the University of Denver in 1969.
A friend introduced Denver native Susan Barnes to Howard Gelt in 1976. Both were tall, Jewish, in their 30s and had never been married, she said, with a laugh. And they had a Mason City connection: Barnes’ parents had lived there for a while and knew Gelt’s parents.
They married in 1977 and had two children, Ben, and Anna, now 32, before divorcing.
Barnes-Gelt said when she told her mother in 1996 they were separating, her mother said, “Oh, Sue, how can you do that to me? You know how much I love that boy.”
“Howard and I,” Barnes-Gelt said, “enjoyed a wonderful relationship for nearly 40 years.”
Gelt most recently was a partner at Ackerman LLP. According to the bio on the law firm’s website, Gelt served on Gov. Dick Lamm’s senior staff, and worked on Gov. Roy Romer’s campaign.
“I gave Howard his first job out of law school, helping run the Student Practice program at the University of Denver School of Law,” Lamm said. “I watched Howard bloom and grow and he was soon running the whole program. He loved the students and the students loved him.”
Lamm said Gelt was a key figure in Colorado’s defeat of hosting the Olympics and “a strong force in my election as governor.”
“He was always there when I needed him. I succeeded by standing on many strong shoulders and Howard’s was one of the strongest,” the former governor said. “I owe him a lot I will miss him deeply.”
Romer, who appointed Gelt to serve on the highway commission, said he will always remember Gelt’s big grin.
“Howard was a very bright man,” Romer said. “That’s not unusual. What was unusual was how committed he was. He hung in there. He worked very hard at what he did. He was a great personal friend and he was a great Democrat.”
I met Howard Gelt sometime after 2009 when I went to work for The Denver Post. One morning at Racines I saw Post Editor Greg Moore having breakfast with someone and went over to say “hi.”
“Do you know Howard Gelt?” Moore asked.
“Not personally, but I feel like I do,” I said.
I told Gelt that when I worked for the Rocky Mountain News, I wrote a story about Republican Gov. Bill Owens as he was leaving office in 2006. The story was largely complimentary but Owens wasn’t too happy that I had quoted Republican Jon Caldara as saying the governor “has a Nixonian streak of exacting revenge on his enemies.”
“That’s not true,” Owens protested.
“What about Howard Gelt?” I asked.
Owens nearly turned purple. “That’s different,” he said.
Gelt loved that story.
When Owens first ran for governor in 1998, Gelt took advantage of a loophole in campaign finance laws to run ads that didn’t advocate for or against a certain candidate, but presented unflattering pictures of Owens and criticized his stances, while the Democratic candidate, Gail Schoettler, received star treatment. Owens still won although for hours the race was too close to call.
“I’m glad we made him sweat,” Ben said, with a laugh.
Dick Wadhams, who served as Owens’ campaign manager, said he got to know Gelt over the past few years and “really enjoyed him.” Wadhams was running a U.S. Senate campaign in 1992 when Gelt was party chairman. Democrat Ben Nighthorse Campbell prevailed over Republican Terry Considine, and Bill Clinton, with the help of Ross Perot, carried Colorado.
“I always respected the aggressive way he conducted his role as state chairman and that was certainly in my mind when I took on that role,” said Wadhams, who served two terms as state chairman, from 2007 to 2011.
A 2002 story in the Rocky Mountain News described Gelt’s law office at the time and how it was a “testament to his wide range of interests and community involvement.” The story:
There’s the framed, original poster from Roy Romer’s first gubernatorial campaign, along with pictures of Gelt with President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Gelt, who was Romer’s campaign finance chairman, a member of Gov. Dick Lamm’s staff and former head of the Colorado Democratic Party, restricts his politics to land use issues.
A real estate lawyer, Gelt is a shareholder and chairman of the business and real estate practice for the Denver office of the law firm Shughart Thomson & Kilroy.
Of course, that’s when he’s not busy being a patron of the arts. Near the Romer poster is another poster advertising “She Loves Me,” a Tony-nominated Broadway play Gelt invested in years ago. Another wall features a painting by Denver artist Dan Arensmeir.
“I believe in local artists,” Gelt said, admitting he’s a frustrated artist himself.
Gelt, former chairman of the Denver International Film Society, collects paintings of clowns, and one canvas is mounted above his desk.
Clowns, he said, remind him that “people ought to have a sense of life, value.”
Sandy Gelt said she often called her husband, who loved to play basketball and drive his convertible while smoking cigars, her “teen-age boyfriend” because he was so young at heart.
“There is another side to the high energy, lover of public policy, lawyer/politician,” she said.
“Howard had a gentle grace, though he was tough minded. He had his priorities in order, honored the law, strove for perfection. He valued good friends, giving, helping, contributing whatever he could. Howard was constantly sought out for his opinions, insight and analysis. He enjoyed ideas. He was the go-to-guy.”