Howard Gelt, 1943-2016: The go-to guy, the unsung force

Howard Gelt, in this family photo, circa 1988, died Friday after decades of making his mark on Denver and Colorado.
Howard Gelt, in this family photo, circa 1988, died Friday after decades of making a difference in Denver.

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.”

Sandy and Howard Gelt.
Sandy and Howard Gelt.

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.

Susan Barnes Gelt and Howard Gelt and their children, Anna and Ben. (Family photo)
Susan Barnes-Gelt and Howard Gelt and their children, Anna and Ben. (Family photo)

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.”

Howard Gelt and his wife, Susan Barnes Gelt, flank a cutout of Democrat Roy Romer at a birthday party and fundraiser for the politician. (Family photo)
Howard Gelt and his then wife, Susan Barnes Gelt, flank a cutout of Democrat Roy Romer at a birthday party and fundraiser for the politico. (Family photo)

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.

Howard Gelt at President Bill Clinton's first inauguration, in 1993. Gelt was the Colorado Democratic Party chairman at the time. (Family photo)
Howard Gelt at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, in 1993. Gelt was the Colorado Democratic Party chairman at the time. (Family photo)

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.

Howard Gelt on vacation in Mexico. (Family photo)
Howard Gelt on vacation in Mexico. (Family photo)

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.”

18 thoughts on “Howard Gelt, 1943-2016: The go-to guy, the unsung force”

  1. Real friend for life even though we’ve been separated by our work. He supported people less fortunate, I became a coach trying to help young people achieve their dreams. He did a much better job helping others I’m still trying to use his model. Good people are happy doing good things for other people. That’s my friend Howard. Let’s celebrate his life, I am Larry Brown

  2. In 1998 the RTD Board in need of some TLC. Howard and others started Transit Alliance to help in that election process. 7 of us challenged the incumbents. You cannot be elected to that non-partisan board unless you run without competition or win the secretary’s of state flip of the coin. All seven of us won and the first meeting of that board approved three projects: T-REX, FasTracks and rail into Union Station. I was one of those seven, meet and became friends with Howard. That was 18 years ago, Howard you helped to lay the foundation for what is happening in Denver and Colorado today. Thanks.

  3. I am heartbroken to hear of Howard Gelt’s passing. He was very influential in guiding me as Co-chair with Harry T Lewis for “Citizen for Denvers Future”, and later for my own city council race.
    Howard had a personality that was larger than life, with an infectious smile and unwavering dedication to whatever cause he would champion. He led with good humor and laughter… Unless you were on the other side. In that case, grit, determination and aggressively fighting for his cause we’re the tools he used.
    I am so saddened to hear of his passing, but consider myself blessed for having had Howad as an influence in my life. All the best to the Gelt family.

  4. I met Howard when he started dating Susan, but got reconnected after moving back to Denver from California as he was the head of the Morgan’s Historical neighborhood. He was always there for everyone in our neighborhood. He hosted most of of meetings and kept us all in touch until he moved a few years ago. I started missing him them, but had no idea it would be forever. He will always be fondly remembered and respected by all who knew him. My condolences go out to his family. I hope they are comforted in this time of loss with all of the wonderful memories they have of the extraordinary man he was.

  5. Wonderful profile, Lynn, thanks! It’s the Howard Gelt that I knew, greatly respected and will miss. We’ll all miss him. Prayers and good wishes for his family.

  6. I am only happy that I had a chance to say goodbye to Howard, last week, before leaving for NY. We talked about how he like to think of himself as “The Boy from Mason” who did so much, but liked to keep it quiet. Howard was most definitely that type of man. I took the gavel from Howard as Chairman of the Denver Film Festival, and Howard was always available to to me throughout my tenure and many many years after that, as a friend. This community will miss The Boy for Mason……..

  7. Sam and I are shocked. It was always so wonderful to see Howard and receive one of his big bear hugs. The world is darker today for the loss of his bright smile.
    Alison Teal and Sam Brown

  8. I good man. Befriended and supported me when I was appointed RTD CEO. Sincere condolences.

  9. A good man. Befriended and supported me when I was appointed RTD CEO. Sincere condolences.

  10. I got to know Howard in 1984 when I served on then U.S. Senate candidate Carlos Lucero’s campaign steering committee. The weekly meetings were held at Howard and Susan’s house at 7th Ave. and Franklin St. He had such a quick mind and wit. He had a temper that I’m glad that I was never on the receiving end of. He had a great smile and a hell of a bear hug. Very quickly, I learned that if you had a cogent thought and could support it, Howard would be in your corner. I miss him.

  11. A gentle man with a big heart and grand passion for a better future. It was a privilege to know him and I send my best wishes to all the Gelts, past and present.

  12. I teared up when I heard of Howard’s passing. I met Howard when I was Larry Brown’s roommate during Larry’s coaching years of the Denver Nuggets. We became good friends and he became my legal guardian. Howard was always there when I needed him! A big guy with a huge HEART, and a great smile.

  13. Howard and Sandy and my Husband Jerry and I were dear Friends
    We met Sandy in Acapolco 30 years ago
    We enjoyed many wonderful times and trips together
    We were honored to be witnesses at their wedding at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna
    We will miss him dearly
    Love Sharon and Jerry Simon

  14. I had the great fortune of meeting Howard when I was at the Denver Metro Chamber. He was a larger-than-life icon who “owned” the room he walked in to, not just because of his height and booming voice, but because he made his life count every single day. His love of life, family and law was like a magnet for people, and I’m forever grateful to have been in his orbit. Our community will feel the void for a very long time.

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