When my academic position at a college in the Midwest changed, Judy and I resolved to make the move to Colorado that we had discussed for many years. In my previous life in college academia my constant companions were books and fictional characters. When we moved to the Ranch my companions became genuine people. People such as the Johnsons, the Wolffs, the Gieskes, the Sheltons, the Ferreros and many more have shared their wealth of knowledge and life experiences with me. As a consequence, I have become much more enriched than I ever imagined. Perhaps my most treasured relationship of all was with Gene Downs.
I first met Gene when Stan and Peggy Obrey kindly invited Judy and I to dinner at their home shortly after our arrival on the Ranch. That occasion was a special treat because we were then living in our fifth wheel, and after having had a falling out with our intended building contractor, we were despairing that we would never live in a real house again. The comfort of being in a real house and the Obrey's hospitality is what I remember most about that night, but there was another guest. Gene's wife, Sue, was out of town, so the Obrey's had also invited Gene to dinner. He was an easy conversationalist, and he let us ramble on about ourselves when I would later learn his life had been much more filled with activity and accomplishment.
In the following months of winter and spring we remained isolated in our uninhabited section of the Ranch. On our occasional ventures to civilization, we would frequently see Gene. He never failed to wave or greet us pleasantly when we stopped at the mailboxes.
Our relationship continued on a casual relationship level until I began to attend the Volunteer Fire Department meetings. At the meetings Lazaro Martinez, Paul Montoya, and Gene were instrumental in getting me involved. They never let me sit off in a corner. They made sure I knew everyone, and engaged me in conversation the moment I would arrive. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those three for getting me involved in such a rewarding activity.
As I began to see Gene on a more regular basis, I discovered he was heavily involved in civic activity. He served on the Board of the Fire Department. He was one of the heroes who helped save our Department from being shut down. In addition, you could count on him to get to every incident. He was heavily involved in the POA. He served actively on the Emergency Services Committee. The signs that protect us from going down dead end roads were installed by Rick Johnson, Bob Santoro, Chuck Austin and Gene. He also served on the County Planning Commission where he helped make decisions that still work to our benefit.
Possibly above all, he was a friend to his neighbor. After summer thunderstorms you would hear his quad puttering on the roads as he scanned the Ranch for signs of smoke produced by a lightning strike. He was ever vigilant to protect us from harm. As you would drive around the Ranch, you would find him helping everywhere. Sometimes it was answering questions at the gate for newly arrived property owners. Other times he was helping the Johnsons build their guest house or cutting firewood for Flora Martinez. He always knew when to help and how to do it.
The time came when I needed to go to the Wildland Fire Academy to get trained on using chainsaws. This was going to be a particular challenge because my only experience with a power tool coming out of academia had been to run a hand cranked pencil sharpener. Gene recognized the problem, and arranged preliminary training for me. I severely damaged his chainsaw, and put his life at risk on several occasions. Still, he stayed with me until I earned my certification.
Gene and I worked on several fires together. As a result, we became a team. I knew how he worked, and I could rely on him to watch my back. This was natural because he took it upon himself to ensure the safety of everyone on a scene. We fought many fires successfully, but perhaps the incident I remember best is the infamous night after a fire near Stonewall we followed Buddie Curro as he made a wrong turn. We then drove most of the night across Vermejo Ranch to come out on the other side. We got to talk about a lot of things that night, and never failed to laugh about it afterwards.
Gene came to be a model for me in this new life I decided to pursue in Colorado. I have to say at the very least I felt he was my mentor and even approached being a second father. I surely felt I was losing my father again when I received the news that he and Sue would be moving to Texas. On the one hand I was happy because I knew how much he enjoyed fishing and boating. Sue was always struggling to get him to go do something relaxing instead of worrying about the community. The move to Texas would accomplish a good purpose, but it would clearly deprive us all of a very good friend.
I remember the tearful night of the Farewell party in their home. I handed him a note in which I tried to express my thanks for all he had done for me and tell him the good that I had witnessed him bring to our community. My writing had to say it all because all I could say to him face to face was "Goodbye."
Now, I need to do it again. It is no easier this time than the first time. I am comforted knowing I am not alone in my feelings. I know he touched many lives deeply here. All I need to do is drive around the Ranch to realize that he is still with us in what he did and shared with us.