Swatting mosquitoes, watching CNN for the latest terror updates and planning the next great shopping adventure to the Colorado Mills mall is a far …
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Swatting mosquitoes, watching CNN for the latest terror updates and planning the next great shopping adventure to the Colorado Mills mall is a far cry from what life used to be like around these parts more than 30 years ago.
In the late 1960s, the city now known as Lakewood wasn’t formed. Yet, the area did have a growing population that was increasingly swelling with pride and the need for a distinct identity — one free from Jefferson County and the city of Denver. James Richey, Lakewood’s first mayor, was 43 years old in 1969. He was mayor from 1969 to 1977. He and other old-timers remember those days with a smile and many a whimsical tale.
June 16, 1969: Happy birthday Lakewood. After four failed attempts, the voters finally approved transforming Lakewood from a community into a city. “I think the pride residents of Jefferson County took in their school system had something to do with it,” Richey said.
Richey spoke about the city’s history at the Belmar Library on July 22.
Many residents of Jefferson County had moved here from Denver to escape forced busing. Former Sentinel reporter and current Lakewood City Councilwoman Jean Saum remembers those days.
“People were very scared of that, they didn’t want their kids bused off to Montbello or nothing,” Saum said.
Crime also was an issue that gave credence to incorporation. “The garage gorilla” is what people used to call the one-man crime wave sweeping the county, Saum said.
“He would unscrew light bulbs in garages and wait for women to drive in and attack them.”
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department requisitioned only a pair of police cars to patrol the eastern half of the county, Richey said. The two factors, fear of crime and fear of Denver, combined to push the issue of incorporation forward.
“There was a group that was actually pushing to annex to Denver and I think that might have gone if there wasn’t the threat of busing,” said Betty Miller, one of Lakewood’s original City Council members. “I think the people from Jefferson County didn’t want to be party to that.”
But creating something people in Jeffco did want to be part of, drawing the map of the new city, proved troublesome. Two weeks prior to the vote, Wheat Ridge became a city and there was an outcry from some pockets in Lakewood, particularly folks from the Alameda area of Jeffco, that wanted to be left out of the new city.
“It was almost 35 years ago, we were starting something absolutely unknown. We were the largest incorporation to ever happen at one time in the country, as I understand it,” Miller said. “It was just very exciting to be part of something like that and to know we were making history”
The future mayor was making history in his basement, with each stroke of his pen. “The original boundaries of Lakewood were drawn by me on a pingpong table,” Richey said. The new mayor of Wheat Ridge even called Richey while he was working on the map in his basement one night asking him to rework the boundary so his mother would be in Wheat Ridge instead of Lakewood. Richey obliged him.
When it finally came down to a vote, residents overwhelmingly approved the formation of the new Jefferson City.
“Everybody hated that name,” said former Jefferson (and Lakewood) Sentinel reporter Pat Wilcox. A few weeks after the new city was born, a local attorney by the name of Elias J. Candall set the wheels in motion for another election to change the name from Jefferson City to Lakewood.
“He was kind of a rabble-rouser and he put out a petition to drop the name of Jefferson City and name it Lakewood,” Wilcox said. “As I recall, you wrote in the name you wanted. Some of the names suggested (such as Clyde and Taxpayers’ Junction) were very, very funny.”
Funny, but in a different sort of a way, was how Richey came to be mayor and head the incorporation effort. “Dick Hilker (current Sentinel columnist and former editor) was the one that made Jim Richey the mayor,” Wilcox said. “He (Richey) was out in Arizona playing golf and Dick Hilker called him off the green and asked him if he would run.”
Richey said Hilker only urged him to lead the growing incorporation frenzy, which, no doubt, gave Richey a leg up on the mayoral competition at the ballot box. Actually, Hilker writes in an e-mail, he was only being logical about the whole thing. “Max Sauder, who was president of the East Jefferson Chamber of Commerce, and I discussed the best person to head the Lakewood incorporation drive and we settled on Richey. He worked for Procter and Gamble then and was in Phoenix on a business trip and I called him and talked him into the job.
“After the incorporation movement was successful, I guess he (Richey) was the logical guy to go for that, although I had no part in that decision. Actually, there were eight mayoral candidates the first year, including ... John Heckman.”
One hundred and thirteen candidates were on the ballot for the first election to fill 13 city offices. Richey came out on top in the mayoral election. Since the election was in August, a new election had to be held three months later to satisfy state law.
“I was the first mayor in the history of the world that announced for re-election about two weeks after being elected,” Richey said.
Again, he won office and he and the initial members of City Council pushed hard to create the underpinnings of the new city. “We had no money, but we did have some headaches,” Richey said.
A major “headache” was a freakishly wet and heavy snowstorm that September, which left the new city streets cluttered with snapped branches. Richey and City Councilman Bill Stepp (who was in the waste management business) managed to finagle the free use of several trash trucks from local companies. In return members of council did the work, lifting pile upon pile of branches into the trucks.
“The City Council was very anxious to prove our worth,” Richey said. “We agreed if we would furnish the labor they would furnish the trucks.”
Funding the new city was another problem. The new council levied a 1.5 percent sales tax and franchise and utility fees in order to pay for operating expenses. Meetings were held wherever possible — usually in school cafeterias.
“We had a need for a city hall, we wanted to graduate from those high school cafeterias,” Richey said. Eventually, he was able to secure the former Jefferson County R-1 School District administration building at 1580 Yarrow St. Today, it is the Clements Community Center.
Richey recalled with fondness how the city’s first clerk, Jean Rogers, would set up a card table in the new city hall with no air conditioning and only one phone line. “Jeanie would always bake brownies or cookies or something and bring them to the meeting,” Richey said.
Another challenge was creating a new police force. In May of 1970, when the Jeffco sheriff’s deputies stopped patrolling in Lakewood, the Lakewood Police Department took to the streets, for the better and the worse.
“Right from the start there were never enough people here to handle the department for the size Lakewood was,” said Division Chief Gary Barbour. He joined the force a few years after incorporation, but remembers those early years well.
Lakewood had a population of around 95,000 people and the new police department had 30 agents in May of 1970. “Those guys were working 12 (hours) on and 12 off,” Barbour said.
In hindsight, Richey said he made a mistake hiring Lakewood’s first chief of police, Ronald B. Lynch, before hiring a city manager. Lynch managed to ostracize Lakewood from the surrounding communities and irked the Colorado State Patrol by banning it from entering the new city. Though Lynch was perhaps not right for the job, many of his ideas remain in effect today. Officers are called agents and they are required to hold a college degree.
On the other hand, some of his ideas have been happily discarded. The business like uniform, gray slacks, light blue shirt, wing tip shoes and a blazer remained the official uniform until the early 1980s. “Most of us left the blazer hanging in the patrol car,” Barbour said. “If you got into a tussle with somebody out on the street, that sport coat did not handle very well.”
Chief Lynch lasted only a year. He was replaced by Pierce R. Brooks, a hard-nosed, 21-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department. Ever since, Richey has been proud to say: “the police department is one of the true prizes of Lakewood.”
There were other battles Lakewood’s founders faced in those early years. Among them were choosing an appropriate corridor for the yet-to-be-built Kipling Street, getting furnishings for the new city hall, hiring a city manager (Walt Kane was Lakewood’s first, hired Jan. 1970), and the merging or dissolution of many districts like water and park and recreation districts.
And the garage gorilla? He was never captured. One of the few things Mayor Richey and that first Lakewood City Council left undone.
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