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Have You Met?

If you are interested in learning something about the City of Denver and its past, spend some time talking with Harry Lewis. Chatting with Harry is like taking a trip to the Colorado History Museum or the Denver Public Library.

Lewis, a long-time Denver resident, exemplifies what it means to be a civic leader and a man of good character. His commitment to enhancing our community and its economy has given Mr. Lewis the reputation of being one of our most dedicated and admired Colorado citizens.

Harry grew up in the Denver Park Hill neighborhood and attended Park Hill Elementary, Smiley Junior High, and East Denver High School. Harry went on to receive his A.B. and M.B.A., and then within 28 days after receiving his M.B.A., he was on active duty with the U.S. Navy and served with them for two years. Mr. Lewis came back to Denver to start his career as a C.P.A. with Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co.

Harry was then well on his way to making his own history. Always at the “head of his class,” Harry’s knowledge of civic issues and finance led him right to becoming the recipient of the prestigious “2003 Del Hock Lifetime Achievement Award.” This award “honors an individual whose wisdom, involvement and leadership ultimately determine the destiny of a community.” This epitomizes Harry Lewis’s contribution to our city.

Harry Lewis has evolved with the changing times with his enthusiasm in tact - and with his brilliance and vision, he will continue to build new pathways for our community. As Former President of the Denver Metro Chamber Joe Blake said: “Harry is always pushing and probing and thinking about how to fashion this community into a better place for people to live, work, and raise a family.”

Harry has been involved with so many civic and community groups, we couldn’t possibly mention them all. Let’s hope for the benefit of our community, there are a few Harry Lewis’s “in training” ready to become this involved, and take on the challenges of the future.

Can you give us a snapshot of what Denver was like in the 1950’s and even before then? How can you compare it to Denver today? It was much different than today. Downtown Denver had no high-rise buildings; in fact the site where the Adams Mark Hotel is now was a park. That was where the old Arapahoe County Court House was. Denver originally was in Arapahoe County. The courthouse was then demolished in the late 1920’s or early 30’s and that whole block was just a sunken park.

When we were children, we used to ride the streetcar down Colfax from Park Hill to go to the movie theatres on East Colfax and in Downtown Denver. The tallest building in Downtown Denver was the D&F Towers, and all department stores were on 16th Street.

When I was a senior in high school, I worked for a wholesale hardware dealer on 18th & Market St. They had boxcars coming down both sides of the street. My job was to unload the boxcars - which had steel casement windows. Larimer Street was just full of cheap bars and two sporting goods stores, Gart Brothers and Dave Cook’s. It really was a different era.

Mark Murray, who was a year or so behind me at East High, and I (it was right after my senior year) joined the local hod-carriers and laborers union so we could get construction jobs on major construction projects. We wheeled cement buggies and poured cement down at Stapleton Airport. We’d work long hours, and I got so dirty, my mom would have to hose me off outside before she would let me come in for dinner.

I also remember right before my senior year at Dartmouth, my brother and I worked as laborers on the 17th Street Plaza Building at 17th & Broadway, one of the first high-rises built in Denver. Whenever I walk into that building, I think to myself, I’ve got a lot of “sweat equity” in this building.

Today, Denver is very embracing to new people. In the earlier years, it wasn’t always that way. People who have moved here from out of state tell me what an easy business environment and community it is in Denver now. You don’t have to go through a lot of social hurdles like they experienced in other cities. It’s unbelievable in many ways how much growth we have experienced.

What were some of your experiences with local civic leaders who were trying to address various Denver public and economic issues? Actually at a local level, Federico Pena started the collaborative process with other mayors in surrounding communities to Denver, and one of my first major involvements in civic activities was when he talked me into becoming the chair of “Citizens for Denver’s Future” in 1989. Tim Sandos, whose father was the first Hispanic member of the Denver City Council, was my co-chair.

It was a tough economic environment then, but Denver had a lot of infrastructure needs, and David Miller was then Federico’s chief of staff. David was the one who conceived the plan to get a grassroots organization started. I was very reluctant to do it, but knew that Downtown Denver really needed a lot of infrastructure improvements.

It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a grassroots organization. We had meetings all over the city to get the residents' input on what they thought their neighborhoods needed, and the administration had started with a list of things they thought needed to be done, but the best way to get voter approval is to get input from the residents so they also have some ownership.

I spoke and met with over 100 civic organizations, and we had four major meetings in each quadrant of the city, and we actually came up with a list of $900 million worth of infrastructure improvements - which were all legitimate. We had to get it down to no more than $240 million because of the city’s debt limit - which we did, and it was broken up into 10 separate bond issues, and every one of them passed. It was the largest bond issue passage in Denver’s history. It was a very enlightening experience for me.

Why do you think it was so important to Mayor Pena to have you on the “Citizens’ for Denver’s Future” committee? I had just retired from my job at Dain Bosworth, and someone Mayor Pena probably knew said, “Lewis has got plenty of time now” - that’s why.

I had been involved with the Downtown Denver Partnership just prior to that, and maybe being with the Partnership - and working on the development of the 16th Street Mall - could have raised my profile with Mayor Pena. Federico also chose Tim Sandos, as my co-chair, and Tim really knew how the inside of City Hall worked. Tim and I complemented each other well. We also learned a lot from each other and became lifelong friends.

At what point did you know you might have a knack for civic leadership? I was a young junior partner at Boettcher & Co. in the late 60’s and the Managing Partner, Warren Willard said, “The Denver Tramway Corporation” is going out of business, and the head of the Metro Denver Chamber just called, and he wants me to send someone down there because we have to figure out a way to resurrect the “Denver Tramway Corporation.” Well, I ended up on that eight member task force that created the concept of the “Regional Transportation District,” because I had a lot of public finance experience, and at that time at Boettcher, I was in the Public Finance area, so that’s where I first got involved in any major Denver civic enterprise.

What are your thoughts on the subjects of voters’ apathy and polarization in our country? Politics has become very polarized since the end of the cold war in the early 90’s. I use the word polarized advisedly because you are either a red or a blue or a conservative or a liberal depending on ones point of view. This is unfortunate, because I’ve always grown up in an environment with elected leadership from all parties on all levels. It seemed to be more collaborative, more respectful, and it was undoubtedly due to the aftermath of the depression when I grew up.

I think World War II really consolidated the need to collaborate and cooperate. Since the end of the cold war, it seems like the two major political parties have drifted further and further apart. I’m a strong believe in collaboration - in public service especially. You are always going to deal with people who have different points of view, but nothing get’s done unless you collaborate and agree to compromise – we need more willingness to do that these days.

There is a nice room at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science dedicated to you. How did the “Harry T. Lewis Community Room” come about? I’ve been a trustee at the Denver Nature & Science Museum since 1979. After serving as a trustee for the Boettcher Foundation for the designated eight-year term; when Boettcher sees an appropriate opportunity that meets their criteria, they will make a contribution in the name of that trustee, and the Boettcher Foundation made a nice contribution in my name. So, that’s how the “Harry T. Lewis Community Room” came about.

What do you consider one of your proudest achievements? I think co-chairing the Citizens’ for Denver’s Future committee. The other was being part of the re-development of Stapleton Airport. The unsung hero of that project was Sam Gary. We were at a meeting when then Mayor Pena announced that we were going to build a new airport in Adams County. After that meeting, Sam Gary got a couple of us together and said, “I wonder what they are going to do with the old one?”

Under his leadership, about ten of us started to meet, and we then formed the “Stapleton Redevelopment Foundation.” I became the chair of the Foundation in 1990. We raised over $4.5 million from the private sector, and it has become the largest infill project in North America. When you couple it with the re-development of Lowry and Fitzsimmons, it will be very remarkable and dramatic when we look back in 15 years or so. It’s also the first mixed-use zoning in Denver where you have affordable housing within three or four blocks of million dollar houses and as well as a lot of open space.

Do you believe there is “one universal truth?” If so, what do you say it is? One truth is: Be willing to listen to other peoples points of view before you become adamant in your own points of view.

If the U.S. is to maintain the respect of other countries, what needs to happen? We need to regain support from our former collaborative allies like the Atlantic Alliance and NATO. We are still the world’s dominant economy, but it won’t be long before China could become the largest economy. Collaboration on a worldwide level has never been more important than it is today. Good collaboration served us well during WW II and during the Cold War years.

Do you have a favorite social or charitable event you like to attend? There are many. I’m involved in a number of nonprofits and charities, but I’ll mention one here. I’m the Corporate Chair of the “10th Anniversary Bright Beginning” celebration. Brad Butler, the former CEO of Proctor & Gamble, founded Bright Beginnings after he retired and moved to Colorado. Their focus is on early childhood education and development. The event is on October 27th, and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a great organization.

Also, at my recent 50th reunion at Dartmouth, I was the co-chair of our major gifts campaign.

You had such a wonderful relationship with your late wife Tanya, in your opinion, what is the key to a happy marriage? Learn to listen. I married my soul mate. I learned a lot about learning to listen from Tanya. The joint experience of learning and living and raising children together and focusing on the partnership aspects of marriage is really important. Never put your ego ahead of your spouse.

If you could go back in time, with the knowledge you have today, what advice would you give yourself? Don’t always follow the largest crowd, stick to your own instincts and well-conceived, well thought out courses of action. – And, learn to say no once in a while.

What are your hobbies, or favorite leisure time activities? Fly fishing in the summer time. Until I had to get two new knees, I was an avid mountaineer/climber, but I can’t do any more technical climbing, but I love just walking and hiking in the mountains and still ski in the winter. My parents were skiers and started me skiing at age five. My brother was the developer of Copper Mountain in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.

I love to listen to classical music. My mother was born and raised in NY and always listened to the Metropolitan Opera, and my brother and sister and I all took piano lessons. As a devoted supporter of the arts and culture, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House is going to be a fabulous addition to Denver, and the DCPA is the second largest performing arts complex in the U.S. Both of these venues are great places to spend leisure time in.

I also have a large vegetable garden, and I love gardening in the summer. My two sons and four grandchildren live within a ten-minute drive of my house, and my daughter and her family live in Steamboat Springs, so my other favorite activity is keeping in close touch with them.

As you look back at your illustrious career, what has been the key to your success? I’ve always tried to exceed my own expectations, do the right thing, and not be primarily motivated by making a lot of money. I try to do the best job I can in environments I can respect and learn from.

How can we help our young people be better informed about the issues of today? I’m very proactive in the field of education. I’m convinced if we are going to solve a lot of issues and challenges we face, we should be focused on early childhood education from K through 12. In order for young people to get a balanced perspective on news and current events, we have to encourage kids, by at least the junior high level, to get involved and become aware of how important public service is, and why it’s important to be knowledgeable and involved. It’s good to start at a local level by knowing what’s going on in your own state and what the needs are, but young people should be totally aware of the issues when they are of voting age.

How did you learn so much about world issues, and what do you do today to keep up with current events? Where I really learned a lot about staying in touch with current events was in my senior year in college. Everyone had to be enrolled in a course called “Great Issues.” I believe the only way to be aware of what is going on in the world is to be an avid reader of many different types of news publications. You can get totally different perspectives from news accounts and various different editorials all the way from the New York Times to The Atlanta Constitution. I get about five different weekly magazines today. The Economist is a great one to read.

Do you have a favorite motto, quote, or words to live by? Several. “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” A Hiata Indian saying; “One person can make a difference, and every person should try.” John F. Kennedy; “Giving up is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Unknown.

Who is your mentor? Warren Willard, the Managing Partner at Boettcher and Co. I can’t say enough good things about Warren and his sense of values. If he’d lived another ten years or so, there would still be a Boettcher & Company. When I became a partner, I usually met with him every morning at 7:30 a.m. He was the best business mentor I ever had.

You’ve done quite a bit of traveling in the last several years, what’s been your greatest adventure so far? Tanya and I used to go Japan, particularly rural Japan. She found an American couple who lived in rural Japan for 22 years that had just moved back to California, and they would take two or three trips a year with no more than six people, and we went with them to rural Japan twice, which we found just fascinating.

It was the most enlightening foreign experience either one of us had in our lives. I’ve been to urban Japan several times on business, but rural Japan is a totally different world. I’ve never seen more beautiful forests anywhere in the world including New England and Canada, than in rural Japan. We went there one Fall, and the colors excelled anything I’ve ever seen. I also have loved to go on some of the “Outward Bound” expeditions.

Is there something you would still like to learn how to do? What I always wish I’d done is - maybe in my next life, or maybe I should try it now – be a sculptor.

When I was at Dartmouth, I majored in Art History, because I thought I’d wanted to become an architect, and then I realized I didn’t have that kind of talent, but I’d learned so much about fine art that sculpture was my favorite art form. I always envied people that had that unique ability. My father-in-law started sculpting when he was about 70, so I guess there’s still hope.

What else does the future hold for Harry Lewis? I just hope that I am able to slow down a bit, so I can enjoy more time with my children and grandchildren - and more time for reading and studying. Also to continue doing what I’m doing. I like being involved in a lot of the community activities, and I’ve been fortunate that I’ve hooked up with some people who are very talented and dedicated to serving the community. Being a collaborative member of my community is still one of my passions. There are so many wonderful things going on in our community.

What do you most want to be remembered for? Well, I hope it is just for being an active, collaborative and constructive member of my community. That sums it up.