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Chieftain publisher Rawlings gone, not forgotten

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With the passing of longtime Pueblo Chieftain publisher Bob Rawlings on March 24, residents of Pueblo and southern Colorado have lost a fierce advocate, a man whose powerful voice and steely determination shaped, supported, sustained and helped create modern Pueblo.

Rawlings was the last of a vanishing breed — a daily newspaper owner who served as both editor and publisher.

Rawlings battled Colorado Springs, Aurora and assorted Front Range “water buffaloes” for many years, as he attempted to halt the “buy and dry” water raids on southeastern Colorado. Such raids involved the cities’ purchase of Arkansas River water rights from ranches and irrigators and then transferring the point of diversion to an upstream location.

Rawlings was profiled in the Colorado Springs Independent, the Business Journal’s sister paper, 12 years ago amid his long struggle to force Colorado Springs to tame its stormwater discharges and clean up Fountain Creek. His persistence finally paid off, when Mayor John Suthers and the Colorado Springs City Council agreed to spend $460 million during the next 20 years on stormwater and flood mitigation.

Yet Rawlings was far more than an effective gadfly, successfully prodding Colorado Springs to do the right thing. He was a builder, a philanthropist, a visionary and an utterly fascinating guy. He was a newspaperman through and through, who worked at the Chieftain for more than 70 years.

Here are some excerpts from the 2005 profile:

Pueblo Chieftain publisher Bob Rawlings is standing in the middle of a narrow bridge that spans the Arkansas River at its confluence with Fountain Creek. Tall, imposing, supremely confident, Rawlings pays no attention to the cars whose drivers, cowed by his presence, have simply stopped and waited.

Photographer John Suhay snaps a dozen pictures as Rawlings comments on the obvious: The Arkansas’ waters are a clear, limpid blue, while debris-laden Fountain Creek looks like Mark Twain’s Mississippi — “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.”

“Look at that,” Rawlings says, with an elegant calm that doesn’t seem to go with the words. “Garbage and raw sewage, used condoms and a few dead cats. The sewers of Colorado Springs, dumped straight into Fountain Creek and sent to Pueblo. We send you that clear, pure mountain water, and that’s what we get back — your sewer water!”

With that, Rawlings strides off the bridge, followed by Suhay and a reporter. The stopped traffic begins to move, and not a single person honks, yells or gives us the finger. Several give friendly waves. They know Bob.

At 81, Rawlings seems 20 years younger. Infallibly courteous and craggily handsome, he carries himself with quiet authority. Since 1963, he’s run the family newspaper, first as general manager and, since 1980, as editor and publisher. He runs it, he owns it and, unlike his counterparts in corporate media, he alone controls its editorial voice and direction.

Look at the masthead of the New York Times. Only five people have held the publisher’s job in the last 100 years, and they’re all from the same family. Now look at the Chieftain’s. Since 1905, there have been three publishers: Rawlings, Rawlings’ uncle and Rawlings’ grandfather.

So why should people in Colorado Springs be interested in Pueblo and the publisher of its daily newspaper? Well, maybe you’ve read about the Southern Delivery System (SDS), our city’s plan to pipe water from the Pueblo Reservoir north to Colorado Springs to provide for future growth.

Bob Rawlings has been fighting the project for several years now, trying to persuade voters and elected officials in Pueblo and the lower Arkansas Valley that SDS is a rip-off, a potential economic disaster, a health menace and just another example of the out-of-control arrogance of Pueblo’s neighbor 40 miles to the north.

Rawlings has had some success — so much that we in Colorado Springs may no longer control our destiny.

Tumbleweed, cardboard and outhouses

Rawlings never abandoned the fight, even after the Colorado Springs City Council bowed to the will of city voters and dissolved the fee-based Stormwater Enterprise. Given his backstory, that didn’t surprise anyone.

Rawlings was born in Las Animas, a small farming town in the lower Arkansas Valley, 125 miles southeast of Colorado Springs. His father was a farmer; his mother the daughter of Frank Hoag Sr., the Chieftain’s publisher. Rawlings grew up with stern, disciplined parents who, he says, expected the best of their son. He didn’t disappoint them. He was valedictorian, class president and a superb athlete.

He served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and graduated from Colorado College in 1947. But that’s not what Rawlings remembers most from his youth. He remembers the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s when, during the Great Depression, the region was gripped with drought.

“A dust storm was a frightening wall of dirt, 2,000 feet high and as wide as you could see,” Rawlings remembers. “‘Tumbleweeds, cardboard, pieces of dilapidated old outhouses.”

“It was impossible to hide … we children had dust masks to protect our lungs, but the dust seeped right through.”

In 1947, newly wed and just graduated from college, Rawlings went to work for the Chieftain and his grandfather. Hoag Sr., who had been publisher since 1905, told his managers not to cut the boy any slack. According to Rawlings, the managers interpreted this to mean, “Kick his butt!” Rawlings’ apprenticeship lasted for a full 15 years, until Hoag Sr. died in 1962 after 55 years as publisher. Frank Hoag Jr. became publisher and named his nephew general manager.

Eighteen years later, following his uncle’s death, Rawlings became editor and publisher, positions he holds to this day.

Rawlings is close-mouthed about the newspaper’s profitability.

“We’re fine, but that’s not important,” says Rawlings, who would clearly prefer to talk about his city and his family. Father of four, grandfather of five, he would seem to have an heir to the Chieftain’s throne in his daughter Jane, a slender, poised woman who has worked with him for the past nine years.

Jane Rawlings now holds the title of assistant to the publisher. After 30 years living elsewhere, she returned to Pueblo and went to work for her father, originally to create a Web presence for the Chieftain.

“He leads by example,” she says of her dad. “He’s a very hard worker, very passionate about his work and very compassionate.”

By his daughter’s account, Rawlings also is a fine father. “He worked all the time, Sundays, holidays, but we always had dinner together,” she says. “Dinner table conversations were intellectual and vibrant — and fun.”

Asked whether she’ll succeed her father as publisher, Jane Rawlings pauses.

“No,” she says. “There’s just no way that he can pass on the paper to me, or to any of his heirs. We couldn’t afford the taxes, and we’d have to sell the paper to pay them. That’s why, years ago, my father transferred ownership of the paper to the family trust. When he’s gone, the trust will have to sell the paper anyway — nonprofits can’t own profit-making businesses.”

At lunch, Rawlings talks about his beloved city. Pueblo, first settled by Europeans in 1842, predates Colorado Springs by 30 years, and, until 1960, was larger than its northern neighbor. But as the Springs grew, Pueblo stagnated. Its steel mills, which once anchored the economy, declined.

The last 15 years have seen dramatic changes in this city — a renovated downtown, a convention center, a riverwalk along the Arkansas and a new library, a soaring contemporary structure designed by world-renowned architect Antoine Predock, who subsequently designed Colorado College’s Cornerstone Arts Center

The Robert Hoag-Rawlings Public Library never would have been built had it not been for Rawlings and the Chieftain.

As he describes it: “Well, they passed a bond issue, which we supported once they had a good plan in place. But when the bids came in, there wasn’t enough money [to build it]. The architect said, ‘Well, you can just take off the top floor, or take away some other space,’ but I thought, ‘No, the people in this city deserve this,’ and so we agreed to make up the difference.

“About $5 million altogether,” he says. “I wanted it to be magnificent. The people of Pueblo were deserving. Also, we think that learning to read, loving to read, is good for our newspaper.”

On a broiling July afternoon, the publisher, unruffled by the glare and heat of the Chieftain’s parking lot, responds to a final question.

Despite Pueblo’s recent revitalization, isn’t much of the lower Arkansas Valley dying — no matter what happens to the water — as the old folks pass on and the kids move away? Isn’t the depopulation of southeastern Colorado inevitable?

For the first time, Rawlings seems tired and uncertain, an aging titan fighting changes that he cannot control. But then he brightens.

He tells me to read a 1992 history of the Chieftain.

“Look at the part about my old basketball coach, Frosty Cox,” he says.

On page 77, author Erin Warner tells a story that, whether entirely true or not, defines Bob Rawlings.

Forrest (Frosty) Cox was the coach at [the University of Colorado]. … As he lined the team up for their first practice, he warned, “You’ve all heard the old saying, ‘It isn’t who wins or loses, it’s how you play the game.’ Pausing, he looked each of them squarely in the eye.

“That’s bullshit,” he bellowed.

They won the conference championship. Rawlings was first-team all-conference.

EPILOGUE

Rawlings’ spouse Sandy died in 2013. Four children, three of whom live elsewhere and are not involved in the newspaper, survive him.

Jane Rawlings became the Chieftain’s publisher earlier this year, as her father’s health deteriorated. According to the Chieftain, “Like her father, she is a strong advocate for the community, with special interests in water, education and nonprofits.”

Can the Chieftain remain in family ownership? That’s apparently up to the Rawlings heirs and the Internal Revenue Service. But given that daily newspapers no longer command the kind of prices that they brought a dozen years ago, it may be possible for the Rawlings tradition to continue.

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