By Samantha Wright
Beloved Silverton native son Gerald Swanson died peacefully at his home in Harlingen, Texas on Tuesday morning, March 12, with a house full of family and early morning sunlight streaming through the bedroom windows. He was 88 years old. He was glad to be home.
Gerald lived life largely, with a ready smile, and a sparkle in his eyes.
Not many nearly-nonagenarians have a Facebook page or a LinkedIn profile. Gerald had both. The former provided a colorful outlet for his political opinions. The latter told the shorthand version of some of the things he accomplished over the course of his long and lively life, from serving as Silverton mayor and school board president to leading the fight to stop the abandonment of the narrow gauge railroad from Durango to Silverton.
But as impressive as it is, Gerald’s LinkedIn summary provides only a tiny sliver of his story. Here are just a few of the things that he left out: Husband, father, brother, son. Butcher, grocer, innkeeper, author. Historian, mushroom hunter, connoisseur of homemade grappa. Fourth of July parade marshal. Purveyor of candy. Erstwhile cymbal player in the Silverton Brass Band. The “best fisherman on the Western Slope”.
Gerald was also a man of deep faith, who never missed mass if he could help it. He had robust, diverse enthusiasms – from apple pie a la mode and Texas Whataburgers to the Denver Broncos and the Boulder Buffs. People who knew him well called him fair, and funny. He was a good listener, and an inherently gentle man – who could also be fierce when it mattered.
But perhaps more than anything, Gerald was one of the best storytellers you could ever hope to meet. Get him started on his favorite topic — Silverton, of course — and he could keep a table full of family, friends, or perfect strangers (who would become fast friends by the bottom of the bottle of chianti and the end of the evening) mesmerized for hours.
“The cigarette smoke was so heavy you could cut it with a knife,” he might begin. “In walks the doc and Ruth. She comes parading through in high heels and a big long fur coat and yells, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you to see the new fur coat that Dr. Holt bought me.’ Then she pirouettes, and as she turns around, the coat fell to the floor. She didn’t have one damn stitch of clothes on underneath.”
Gerald played a starring role in many of his stories. Not because he was boastful or egocentric, but because he had done so many things around Silverton that made great story fodder – like saving the train, bringing TV and speed skiing to Silverton, and helping to build Memorial Park, Kendall Mountain Ski Area and the Christ of the Mines Shrine. The stories about his boyhood in Silverton were equally epic.
Simply put, Gerald and Silverton went hand in hand.
“He was a wonderful, honest, compassionate, friendly, loving man,” said longtime friend Don Stott. “He was every good thing a man could be. He was totally honest. There was not a dishonest bone in his body. And he loved Silverton. He would do anything for Silverton.”
Gerald Richard Swanson was born on Oct. 16, 1930 to Mary and Irwin Swanson. As Gerald explained in his autobiography Swannee’s Silverton (Western Reflections, 2003), “I was a preemie, born at the hospital in Montrose, and weighed just three and three quarter pounds. My mother brought me home on a pillow and fed me with an eye dropper. I slept in the top drawer of the dresser, with a light bulb to keep me warm.”
Gerald liked to describe himself as an Italian metza-metza (half and half). His mother Mary was the eldest daughter of John and Dominica Dalla, who immigrated from the Tyrolian region of northern Italy in the late 1800s and ran a boarding house in Silverton. His father Irwin’s parents were from Oslo and Sweden, and ran boarding houses for mill workers and miners in Durango and Ironton Flats.
At first, after Gerald and his sister Jean came along, the Swanson family lived in the Dalla boarding house on Mineral Street more commonly known as the Gray Lady – a building that has since burned down. In 1938, they moved into the old stone building on Blair Street that now houses the Villa Dallavalle – which John Dalla had built as a saloon in the early 1900s – and turned it into a grocery store. Gerald’s bedroom was an upstairs corner room, overlooking Blair Street.
“The windows were busted, there was no insulation or central heating, and it had great, big old high ceilings,” Gerald recalled in Swannee’s Silverton. “It was like a barn. The windows rattled. Frost formed on the walls, and you could lie in bed and scrape it off with your fingernails.”
It was Gerald’s job to rake out the ashes under the kitchen stove, haul them out and dump them in the alley. He also had to split three baskets of wood for kindling and bust up the coal into fist-sized chunks.
Running a grocery store was a hard way to make a living in Silverton, but Mary, after separation and divorce from Irwin, was tenacious and made it work. She took charge of the grocery store and put her kids through school.
Gerald absolutely loved school in Silverton – in spite of an early run-in with a racist teacher who told “all the Mexicans and the WOP kids” to sit in the back of the classroom. When he started 1st grade in 1936, there were 29 kids in his class. The mines were thriving , and Silverton had four grocery stores, two drugstores, two complete hardware stores, two or three doctors and dentists, a red light district, and way more than its fair share of characters.
Gerald wore plain overalls to school, and shirts of denim or wool that were “scratchy as hell.” By the end of the school year, both had a lot of patches.
With his buoyant personality, Gerald bounced through his school years surrounded by a gang of equally intrepid friends who invented their own fun, and made the best of what life had to offer in their beautiful San Juan Mountains and hardscrabble mining town.
In between school, and work, and chores, they’d play in the streets, or collect coal spilled from the train’s coal cars and sell it cheap to buy ice cream and candy, or hike up to the Shenandoah-Dives boardinghouse to get a free lunch and a piece of apple pie and then catch a ride down on the tram, or “borrow” donkeys from drunk Basque shepherds during Sheepherders’ Days to have donkey rodeos, or go for a swim in their favorite swimming hole down at the second bridge on the Animas River…just downstream from Silverton’s sewage outfall.
For pocket money, Gerald would occasionally run errands for “the gals from the line” like Big Billie and Blondie Peggy.
Then there were the annual Tyrolean picnics at South Mineral or Minnie Gulch — a tradition dating to the 1800s which Gerald vividly recounted in “Swannee’s Silverton.”All the Dallas and Todeschis and Antonellis and other northern Italian families would come. There would be a keg of beer, two or three small casks of homemade wine, a watermelon spiked with grappa and cooled in Mineral Creek. They’d cook up steaks and chicken in cast iron skillets, and eat platefuls of Italian polenta, brown gravy, and rabbit-and-beer stew.
“For desert, there were big, tall chocolate cakes with boiled white icing and coconut on top,” Gerald recalled. “The men played bocci ball. The women crocheted, cooked and gossiped. The kids fished, played softball and hiked up to the falls. In the late afternoon, the men would have target practice with .22 pistols.”
The fun lasted into the evening with a huge bonfire, roasted marshmallows and singalongs. “By that time, there were usually a few bloody noses, too, as kids got lost, siblings argued and husbands and wives got mad at each other,” Gerald recalled. “In other words, it was a good, typical all-American gathering, with lots of Tyrolean fire.”
Gerald was a teenager in 1949 when Hollywood came to town for the filming of “A Ticket to Tomahawk.” The movie featured Dan Daily, Anne Baxter, Walter Brennan and some little-known actress named Marilyn Monroe, with whom Gerald promptly fell in love. He was working at the grocery store that summer and got to watch a lot of the action.
Mary made sure that Gerald went to college. He started out at Regis in Denver. After getting into an argument with a Jesuit priest, he went home to Silverton to regroup, then transferred to CU Boulder, where he was roommates with his boyhood friend Clee Robison. To make ends meet, they worked as food hashers at a sorority and lived on leftovers.
Gerald loved CU. He was part of the University Hill subculture, where he drank beer at Tulagi’s and ate 40-cent burgers at The Sink next door. (The Sink is still going strong; Gerald and his grandson Kelly – now a legacy student at CU – went out for Sink-Burgers and fries there, just last fall.)
Gerald graduated from CU in the spring of ’53. On the day he graduated, he got a draft notice and deployed to Okinawa, Korea and Formosa with the U.S. Army just after the Korean War armistice.
Gerald returned to Silverton after two years of service and went to work for Mary at the grocery store. Like his father before him, he became a butcher, learning his craft at Callaway Packing Plant in Olathe. Buzz Callaway broke Gerald in on the trade – where to cut, how to break carcasses down, how to grade the meat.
As Gerald settled back into life in Silverton, he immersed himself in the civic life of his hometown, joining the American Legion, the Rotary Club, and other organizations.
One day at church, he met a young teacher named Maria Stela Leitao. Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Stela came from a Macanese family of Portuguese heritage, and taught French and English at Silverton High School. She was very different from anybody in Silverton. And she captivated Gerald.
They hit it off, and were married on June 10, 1956. At Mary’s insistence, they got married on a Sunday – the only day of the week that Swanson’s Grocery was closed.
Mary helped them buy a house on Greene Street, where their family life unfolded. Their first child, Judy, was born on Oct. 31, 1957. One year later, David came along. A year after that, there was Janet. Then Claudia. And finally, Geraldine – named for her dad because she was born the day before his birthday.
Gerald was an old-school fly-fisherman who grew up on cutthroat trout. His favorite fly was the Pink Lady, and he never owned a graphite rod. He loved to hike the trail from Molas Lake down to the Animas River. “As often as not he’d take fifty or more wild fish,” recalled author Steven Meyers in Notes from the San Juans: Thoughts about Fly Fishing and Home.
Once Gerald became a father, his kids often came along with him to wet a line. Sunday afternoon picnics and fishing trips to Molas Lake were a family tradition. Gerald would put the worms on the hooks, and help the kids cast their lines.
“Dad had to take them off the hook because the fish were so slimy,” recalled daughter Claudia.
Stela’s family eventually immigrated to the US from Macau, after getting ejected from Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution. Gerald sponsored the whole family in what would today be described as chain migration, helping them settle in the San Fransisco Bay Area.
In the summers, he would drive Stela and the kids to Grand Junction to catch the California Zephyr to visit Stela’s family, while Gerald stayed behind in Silverton to run the grocery store. “Coming home was such a big deal, to get off the train and see Dad waiting for us at the train station,” Judy recalled.
In the winters, the kids would sit on the snowbanks near their house, waiting for him to come home from the grocery store – on foot, or driving his signature green Ford pickup truck. As busy as he was, he always seemed to be home for dinner.
A longtime Silverton Town Trustee, Gerald was a write-in candidate for mayor of Silverton in 1984 – and won. It took him totally by surprise; he had no idea he was even in the running. But the role turned out to suit him well. As mayor, he was a tireless town booster, problem solver, and an advocate for kids, as Silverton native Chris Lovato recalled in this remembrance:
“At one town hall meeting, a store owner was complaining about the kids selling rocks. They were cutting into his business. He had to buy a business license and pay rent. He said that the kids should have to buy a business license too. When he was finished, Mayor Gerald Swanson slammed his fist on the table and said ‘LEAVE…THE…KIDS…ALONE!’ You could have heard a pin drop.”
Gerald also served as San Juan County’s Republican county chairman for about 30 years. When his kids got older, Gerald would pull them out of school on election day to be runners – running back and forth between the polling place at the courthouse and the Republican headquarters at the American Legion to get the latest list of who had voted so far.
Occasionally, the Swanson family would get a Christmas card from the White House, which Stela would hang dead center in the place of honor in the living room among all the family Christmas cards.
Gerald was very big in the American Legion and VFW. On Memorial Day weekend, Stela would sell poppies for the Women’s Auxiliary, and Gerald would put flags on the graves of veterans at the Silverton Hillside Cemetery. There were hundreds of flags to put out, and he knew where every veteran was laid to rest in Silverton Cemetery. At 5 p.m. he would dispatch the kids to retrieve the flags.
Gerald’s civic engagement extended far beyond the Silverton Caldera. He served on the Southwest Colorado Water Board and advocated for the Animas-La Plata Water Project. He was a longtime member of Club 20, a political organization that protects the Western Slope from the “evils of Denver,” and he frequently attended Club 20 conventions in Grand Junction.
Gerald’s fellow colleagues from Club 20 wanted him to run for the state legislature, and he seriously considered doing it, but ultimately decided not to, because he would have had to leave Silverton for extended periods of time. He was close to Colorado Governor Love, but not such a big fan Gov. Lamb, who refused to spend money to expand the snowshed at the Riverside Slide on Red Mountain Pass after a huge spring storm killed Ouray snowplow driver Eddie Immel in 1992.
For years, Swanson’s Market was a second City Hall. Gerald held court at the meat counter, solving a lot of Silverton problems, and weighing a lot of Silverton babies on the butcher scales – which were very accurate.
When Gerald wasn’t arguing or problem-solving or weighing babies, he took the time to explain to his customers how to “pull the raspy part of the cow tongue off,” and “provided expert advice on cooking kidneys, liver, brains and the rest,” Durango writer Rachel Turiel recounted in Edible Southwest Colorado.
Gerald was equally happy to talk fly-fishing, or just about anything else, for that matter. When he got to visiting with the customers too much, Mary used to call up Stela and ask her to call Gerald “and get him to go back to work – he is spending all his time talking about politics around the counter.”
In those days, the whole town ran on Sunnyside Mine time. Almost every kid in school was a miner’s kid – except the Swansons. Some of them had dads who had been killed in the mine. Others had lost their fathers to snow slides. Gerald and Mary quietly extended credit at the grocery store to families that needed it. Much of it went unpaid.
Stela returned to teaching when the two youngest Swanson kids were ready to start school. She taught kindergarten at Silverton School for many years, then quit to help out at the grocery store when Mary got too old to work. A few years later, Stela got cancer, and Gerald decided to close the store for good. He helped nurse Stela through her fight. She died in 1991 from colon cancer.
Gerald was devastated. He had a tough time for a few years after Stella’s death. His kids tried to support him, but he was lost. Then one summer, a woman named Nancy Downs moved in next door, and the whole world changed again.
Feisty and tomboyish with short red hair, Nancy was nothing at all like Stela, but Gerald was enchanted. As the two shared gardening tips and quiet conversations over cold beers in the backyard, friendship blossomed.
Nancy had been a widow for 23 years, and was getting ready to go back to Texas for the winter. Gerald tried his best to convince her to stay in Silverton with him instead – or perhaps she could stay in his condo in Durango.
Nancy had always told herself that she would never remarry until she met a perfect gentleman and somebody who really cared for her, but she had never really thought of Gerald in a romantic way. Finally she realized: This is the perfect man for you, right here!
“It was the biggest awakening I had ever had,” she said. “This man is right here beside you, and you are ready to walk away.”
Instead of walking away, Nancy walked right over to Gerald’s house and said, “I have made a big decision – I am staying this winter.” Gerald asked her if she wanted to stay in the house in Silverton, or in the condo in Durango. “And I said, ‘Wherever you are,’” Nancy recalled.
Gerald started crying, and he made Nancy cry. “And that’s how we got together,” Nancy said. “We let our friendship become more than that.” Gerald — a devout Catholic — proposed to Nancy at least once every day over the next three years. Finally, she said yes, and they tied the knot on Aug. 16, 1997.
Together, they remodeled the old Swanson Grocery Store into a bed and breakfast, and christened it the Villa Dallavalle Inn.
An Italian flag fluttered above the door, and the window sported a sign that said “Parking for Italians only; all others will be towed.” Inside, guests were charmed by the homey feeling, the shared family-style breakfasts around the dining table, the narrow, burgundy-carpeted stairway leading to a narrow, burgundy-carpeted hallway upstairs, the teal walls adorned by photographs, memorabilia, and framed newspaper articles chronicling the history of the Dallavalle family. It felt like staying in a favorite relative’s home. Guests voluntarily left their dirty boots at the door.
Over plates of cheese and bottles of dago red, Gerald and Nancy made friends from around the world during their innkeeper days.
They also reveled in a growing brood of grandchildren to whom they were Popi and Nana, making no distinction between whose kids were whose. Gerald and Nancy loved them all. And the grandkids all grew up together as one big, happy, blended family. A lot of them spent their summers in Silverton. They helped Gerald run Swannee’s Sluice (a tourist attraction Gerald built in the yard adjacent to the Inn) — where they were paid $5 per day plus all the free ice cream they could eat — or they sold rocks to the train tourists, just like Gerald’s kids had done when they were growing up.
Perhaps Gerald’s health issues can be traced back to his origins as a preemie baby. Although he was a tough little bugger, Gerald was never a robustly healthy kid. He and his sister both got scarlet fever, which affected his heart. Then, in the army, he got hooked on cigarettes which were part of the US ration kit back then, and he smoked for 30 years, giving rise to the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) that plagued him in his later years, even thought he quit smoking cold turkey in 1991.
In 2006, Nancy and Gerald moved to Harlingen, Texas, near South Padre Island and the US-Mexican border, where the lower altitude was kinder to Gerald’s lungs. But thanks to Nancy’s diligent care and the help of supplemental oxygen, Gerald was able to return to Silverton every summer, even as his COPD progressed.
Meanwhile, during their time together in Texas, Nancy and Gerald developed a beautiful new group of friends. They built a home in a golf course community, right on the 9th hole. “Behind those gated walls, it was a little Silverton,” Nancy said. “Gerald would sit on the back porch, and people would come by on their golf carts and tell him, ‘We will come over and have a beer when we finish.’”
And they did. Just as in Silverton, there was always someone dropping by.
Gerald and Nancy hosted karaoke parties — a modern-day rendition of the old Silverton singalongs — where Gerald and his next-door-neighbor Owyn would belt out “King of the Road” by Roger Miller or “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin — “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that’s amore!”
“And it made you want to hug him,” Nancy said. “They loved him here. I can’t tell you how many people have stopped by. They can’t even explain it, what he meant to them. He was such a different kind of guy.”
Granddaughter Taylor recounted Gerald’s final few weeks in Texas: “His last days were hard, but he was still fighting — whether out of his own will or out of his healthy fear of Nana (cue her yelling ‘GERALD RICHARD’ as he would roll his eyes at her and then look at me and wink),” she wrote in an Instagram remembrance.
While visiting Gerald in the hospital, Taylor found him to be “weak and tired but still sweet as can be,” she said. “He shook every doctor’s hand, flirted with the cute nurses as he kissed their hands (remember, very, very Italian), and was yelling at us to bring him a ‘cerveza.’ There’s so much more that can be said about Gerald Swanson. We’ll be telling his stories for years — which is exactly what he would have wanted.”
Gerald is survived by his wife Nancy Swanson, Silverton, Colo. and Harlingen, Texas; children Judy (Ken) Noon, Centennial, Colo., David Swanson, Silverton, Colo., Janet Swanson, Converse, Texas, Claudia Swanson, Highlands Ranch, Colo., and Geri Swanson, Durango, Colo.; stepchildren Lisa (Bill) Whittington, Chandler, Texas; Wendy Polly, Austin, Texas, and Michael Polly, Allen, Texas; grandchildren Kelly and Shayla Noon, Natalie Swanson-Kelsey, Eric Whittington (Stacy), Justin Snyder (Lindsay), Ashley Snyder Ochoa, April Snyder, Alex and Michaela Polly, Taylor Thomas Shingledecker (Ryan), Bryson and Preston Thomas; eight great-grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews and cousins. He was also “Nono” to Morgan and Molly Wright of Silverton.
Several events have been planned over Silverton’s Fourth of July holiday to honor and celebrate Gerald’s life.
There will be a rosary at St. Patrick’s Church at 7 p.m. on June 30; a memorial service at 4 p.m. on Monday, July 1 at St. Patrick’s Church, with burial at Hillside Cemetery to follow.
The 4th of July parade and fireworks this year will be dedicated to Gerald.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions be made in his name to “anything Silverton.”