Todd Schwartz 2013-09-10 18:28:33
In a tiny Colorado town, Don Colcord defines the spirit of Lions—even when no one is asking. Nucla, Colorado, population maybe 650 and falling, is a town where more than one dream has flowered, grown and then died on the vine, from utopia to uranium. Today, you could make the case (although Don Colcord himself never would) that one man holds the place together. The man who owns the only pharmacy for thousands of square miles around, who fixes everyone’s eyeglasses for free, who is certified to use the town's defibrillator, to use the old micrometer to care for the town's 50-year-old bowling lanes, to shoot off the town's Fourth of July fireworks show on Nucla Hill. The man who ran the local Health Fair for 27 years and is the PA announcer at Nucla High's Friday night football games. The man who people from near and far trust with their medical questions and, often, their personal lives. The man who 33 years ago became the youngest member of the local Lions club, and who still is. On the sparsely settled southwestern edge of Colorado, not far from the Utah border and halfway between the skitown glitz of Telluride and the tourist meccas of Moab and Canyonlands, Nucla began life more than a century ago as another of the hopeful utopian communities that were springing up here and there around the West. As the name suggests, its founders hoped Nucla would be the nucleus of a new community dedicated to socialism rather than capitalism, to cooperation rather than competition. The founding project was an 18-mile irrigation ditch that would bring water from the San Miguel River to the valley that held Nucla and its sister town, Naturita. By 1904, the founding project held water, but the founding dream didn't. Socialism and shared labor gave way to capitalism, such as it was. By the 1950s, uranium mining was sustaining the bulk of the local economy, even providing a bit of a boom. But after the Three-Mile Island accident in 1979, the nuclear industry melted down, taking Nucla's fortunes with it. Don Colcord was born on the Fourth of July in Nucla in 1951. He grew up in nearby Uravan, another mining town, where his mother was a clerk in the pharmacy. By the age of eight, after spending hours fascinated by watching the druggist, Colcord had a career plan. He married his high school sweetheart, Kretha, when they were 18, then went off to the University of Colorado and pharmacy school, where he became a star marksman on the rifle team. For many years he held the range record for standing shooting at the Air Force Academy. Today Colcord is a loyal NRA member and still thinks of shooting as meditation. But before you put him in a box, note the other ingredients in the prescription: he's one of the very few people in this region who vote Democratic. He sells cigarettes in his pharmacy because he believes people have a right to do unhealthy things. In a world of pickup trucks and Country- Western, Colcord listens to Andrea Bocelli and drives a Lexus. He calls himself a druggist, not a pharmacist, and he doesn't wear a white coat, because he doesn't want to separate himself from his customers. "People around here," Colcord says, "want to talk to someone who looks like them and talks like them, and is part of the community. A druggist is the guy who fills your prescriptions, answers your questions, puts you at ease—and repairs your watch and your glasses. A pharmacist is the guy who works at Wal-mart." And in a rural town like Nucla, a druggist is the person who answers a lot of questions that a doctor normally would, including calls at 3 a.m. describing symptoms and asking Colcord if an ambulance should be called for the trip to the nearest hospital—two hours away. Just about everyone in the valley knows him and trusts his judgment completely. He remembers the time a Mexican immigrant family of eight with a sick child appeared in his driveway one evening. A local clinic had diagnosed the child as dehydrated, but Colcord felt a distended belly that was hot to the touch and told the family to hurry to the emergency room 90 miles northeast in Montrose. From there the child was airlifted to Denver, where physicians later told Colcord the boy would have died if the family had waited any longer. When Colcord returned to his hometown and opened his business, The Apothecary Shoppe, in 1980, the Lions club had only been rechartered two years before. Inspired by his father, who had always made a habit of volunteer work, Colcord at 29 became the club’s youngest member. “I was immediately drawn to the mission and the work and the spirit of the Lions,” he remembers. “We had a couple dozen members and it was such a wonderful club. We didn’t ‘meeting’ ourselves to death, we just saw what needed doing and did it. My dad always taught me that if you live in a community, you give back to that community. You help people; that’s just what you do. I’ve never met a Lion who didn’t get that.” So began more than three decades as a Lion. Colcord and the club were a big part of the San Miguel Basin Rodeo and the Nucla’s Water Days celebration every July 4th, where he became the town’s certified fireworks expert. On Nucla Hill, he could see the distant fireworks of Telluride and Moab—but usually more so the eerie glow of his own show. “I always had my head down, lighting the fuses and setting them off,” he says. “But it was always a great feeling. We had terrific crew of Lions. We did the barbecue ourselves, raised all the money for the fireworks, and enjoyed a beer at the end, looking out over our little town. We were proud to be a part of it. We were a bunch of guys who just liked to help and get things done, and at the core of it all, for 32 years was our amazing club secretary. Probably the best Lions club officer ever.” Colcord is talking about the local dentist, John Nelson. Colcord, Nelson and the Nucla Lions took on several projects each year, from hosting street dances to raising money to help people buy the eyeglasses they needed. He was president of the club a couple times over the years, and always devoted many hours a month to Lions’ efforts in the same spirit that motivates him to front the prescriptions that some of his customers need but can’t fully afford. He writes off several thousand dollars in losses each year, and his profit margin is so small that more than once he has had to put in his savings to keep the Apothecary Shoppe afloat. Colcord was befriended by a reclusive elderly newcomer to town a few years ago, who he helped with everything from his blood pressure meds to his frequent moves from modest house to modest house. When the time came, Colcord helped him find a hospice nurse. When the man died at age 91, it was discovered that he was a long lost scion of a wealthy East Coast family. In his will he had left Colcord $300,000—just about the amount that Colcord had “loaned” to the people of Nucla over the years. Some might see that as payback, but not Colcord. For one thing, he had never asked to be paid. For another, as a druggist, a Lion and a human being, it’s all just part of the fabric of a true community. But now that fabric is wearing thin as the upholstery on the stools in the Apothecary Shoppe’s Pepsi fountain. More people move away each year, the local schools are down to four days a week, and there is just one restaurant, one bar and one druggist left. And the Nucla Lions Club, after three decades and more, has disbanded for lack of members. The few who remain are growing old. Even Colcord can’t give the time and effort he used to, as his wife’s longstanding health problems are worsening. But the spirit of the Lions is still strong in his heart. “I always relished the joy of doing a good job,” Colcord says. “The satisfaction of helping out in your community— lots of young people don’t seem to get that these days. So no one is taking up the slack right now. Lions everywhere all serve for the same reasons I did, understanding that there’s no greater reward than helping, and that getting will never match giving. I still do what I can, but with the Lions club disbanded, a big part of my life feels gone. It was one of the hardest days of my life when the club closed.” The nearest Lions club is now 100 miles away, but what it means to be a Lion is working behind the counter at Nucla’s Apothecary Shoppe and announcing the parade on Main Street and still doing the fireworks show with the last of the town’s once-and-always Lions. They still care; they still give. As for Colcord, if his wife’s health and his business allow, he’s considering joining the Junction City Lions Club. What’s a hundred miles between friends? “I still consider myself a Lion,” he says, “and so do the rest of the guys who were in the club. And I see an upswing in retired people joining service organizations, so maybe someday the Nucla Lions will be officially back.” Unofficially, Colcord still pulls out his box that contains parts from 300 eyeglass frames to offer free repairs. He still lives for strengthening the connections between people. He and his longtime friends still live the mission of the Lions, official or otherwise. Their final act as a club was to donate what was left in the coffers to a person in town who needed eyeglasses but couldn’t afford them. A year-and-a-half back, Nucla and Colcord were the subjects of a stirring profile by Peter Hessler in The New Yorker. The article ended with Colcord on top of Nucla Hill on the Fourth of July. The fireworks done—for now—the last of Nucla’s Lions share a beer as the headlights of the community recede down Main Street. The numberless stars of western Colorado arc overhead. But this article will end simply with Don Colcord, a Lion with much more remaining to give, a Lion for the moment in winter—but still in heart and soul planning the service of spring. For a true Lion, the fireworks are never really done.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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