MEEKER I If there is an iconic figure of Meeker, it may well be Frank Cooley.
Though he grew up an easterner, being born and raised in New York, Cooley has been closely associated with Meeker and western Colorado since the mid-1950s.
He’s more Coloradan than New Yorker.
He’s also a fixture in Meeker’s annual Range Call parade — for many years he drove a fire truck in the parade, a role he jealously held on to, he said. Cooley will walk in Saturday’s parade, proudly wearing his Navy dress uniform. He wouldn’t miss it.
“It’s tremendously important to me,” Cooley said.
After spending the winter in Durango with his son and daughter-in-law, while recuperating from a broken arm and other physical ailments, Cooley returned to Meeker about two months ago.
“I am immensely happy to be home,” he said. “I feel pretty good. I wish that I was better coordinated physically. I can walk to town and back, but it takes me a long time.”
Cooley celebrated a birthday June 11.
“I am told that I’m 86 years old,” he said with a smile.
Cooley walked in last year’s Range Call parade with his friend and fellow World War II veteran Orval LaBorde, who died in December, two days after Christmas.
“Frank is a great example of what a real American should be,” said Karen LaBonte, LaBorde’s daughter. “He is strongly patriotic, a proud American that has served his country well and is not ashamed to stand up for his beliefs.
“He has been a great friend, not only to my father and us, but also to others who have served their country … Frank is a great asset to Meeker,” LaBonte said. “Frank’s heart is in the right place. We could all take lessons from him.”
Along with other veterans, Cooley recently participated in the Memorial Day ceremonies at Circle Park Bridge and Highland Cemetery.
“I’ve done that for many years,” Cooley said. “Getting the wreath in the White River right side up was a challenge I didn’t always succeed at. Jim Rynn used to stop me in the post office anytime he saw me and try to explain to me how to throw the wreath in the river so it would land right side up. I got to where I didn’t want to run into him.”
Cooley didn’t have to worry about the proper technique for throwing the wreath this year. Another WWII veteran, Dick Moyer, handled those duties, while Cooley offered a prayer in honor of U.S. military veterans.
Growing up in New York, Cooley remembers watching Civil War veterans marching in parades, which made a lasting impression. Based on those memories, as well as his own experiences, Cooley made a habit of visiting local schools to talk to students about the importance of remembering the sacrifices made by war veterans.
Cooley’s time in the Navy reserves (he served from 1941 to 1946, reaching the rank of lieutenant) paved the way for him to get a college education. Using the G.I. bill, Cooley earned a degree in geology from the University of Colorado. He then took a position with the U.S. Geological Survey, which turned out to be his introduction to northwest Colorado.
“I had an awful lot of fun, because while I was with the Geological Survey, I was up on top of the oil shale and on the Flat Tops, and I loved it,” Cooley said. “Geology on horseback. It just couldn’t be more wonderful.”
Cooley returned to Boulder a year later and went to law school. From there, he spent a year in Saskatchewan, Canada, working for an oil company and then went to Wall Street, before ending up in Denver, where he practiced oil law. That’s also where he met Carolyn, his wife-to-be, who was working in television at the time, but was certified as an English teacher.
The couple came to Meeker in 1955.
“She got a job in the clerk’s office and then later as an English teacher (at the middle school),” Cooley said. “That had a lot to do with us surviving and having enough to eat.”
Meanwhile, Cooley went to work as an attorney.
“The bar association in Denver told me about a fine old lawyer in Meeker who was named Herb Gordon, who needed someone in the office,” Cooley said.
He went to work for Gordon, whose office was located upstairs in the First National Bank of the Rockies building. Frank and Carolyn also lived in an apartment above the bank.
After Gordon’s death, Cooley became county attorney, and worked out of an office at the courthouse. He served as county attorney from 1965 to 1974, but maintained an office above the bank until 2003.
“I was county attorney for some wonderful men,” Cooley said.
One of those men who won Cooley’s respect was Hugh Caldwell, who served on the county commission for many years.
“I have to say I was a real kind of smart ass for much of my life,” Cooley said. “It took a couple of years for me to be begin to realize the quality and decency and common sense and the power of intellect in this man Hugh Caldwell. I grew to appreciate him and respect him and admire him. Along there somewhere there was an epiphany that hit me that, hey, this guy knows what he’s talking about.”
The man who hired Cooley — Herb Gordon — had been the attorney for White River Electric Association, a position Cooley later held from 1968 to 2001.
Dick Welle, who is general manager of WREA, remembers meeting Cooley for the first time in the early 1970s.
“I was first introduced to Frank when I was hired by Roger Purdy of WREA in 1973,” Welle said. “Mr. Purdy hired me because I was a recent Vietnam combat war veteran. Mr. Cooley was the attorney for WREA at the time and over the years I grew a great respect for Frank in many areas. Obviously, as an attorney, water expert and a geologist with an unprecedented knowledge of the Piceance Basin, his reputation is nationwide. If you would ask the right question and listen, an education was always afforded you from Mr. Cooley.
“Frank is a World War II veteran, serving in the U.S. Navy in the ‘Tin Can Fleet,’” Welle continued. “As a former ‘Tin Can Sailor’ myself, I can appreciate his service.”
Over the course of Cooley’s long legal career, he had many accomplishments — including serving as chairman and U.S. representative for the Arkansas River Compact Administration from 1976 to 1995 (he was appointed by President Ford) and being named Planner of the Year by the American Society of Planning Officials in 1974.
He’s particularly proud of his role as chairman of the Oil Shale Regional Planning Commission, from 1971 to 1974.
“We did a great deal of work during the last oil shale boom, but the real accomplishment was we alerted the governor, who was John Vanderhoof, to the bid opening for the oil shale tracts … he got a great deal of assistance from Mike Strang, Bart’s brother, who was a senator from Carbondale, to help get $75 million from the bid money for these oil shale tracts for the four counties of western Colorado (most affected),” Cooley said. “That created a trust fund in Rio Blanco County that the commissioners have protected very well over the years. That $75 million was a helluva important event in my life, and I’m immensely proud of it.”
But Cooley is quick to share the credit for whatever accolades have come his way.
“I had the marvelous good fortune to have two ladies (work for him), each of whom was smarter than I was, Arda Harp and Carol Daugherty,” Cooley said. “They just carried me along. They corrected my mistakes.”
Trina Zagar-Brown, who became a partner of Cooley’s and took over many of his clients, said Cooley set her straight on who was the real boss in the office.
“When I started working for Frank, he said that he worked for Carol and therefore I worked for Carol,” Zagar-Brown said.
Daugherty, who “worked” for Cooley for more than 30 years, retired in 2003.
“I always said I would retire when he did, but I got tired of waiting,” said Daugherty, who still keeps close tabs on Cooley.
“We talk regularly,” Daugherty said. “I had lunch with him last week. He was doing pretty good. He said he was trying to walk to town every day, but he prefers a ride back up (the hill on Fifth Street to his house). He’s still aware of everything going on in the world, and in town.”
Daugherty said she enjoyed working with Cooley for more than three decades and being a part of his law practice.
“It was very interesting,” she said. “It was never boring. He was very easy to work for. When I would dictate something, he would speak so well, it was really easy. He’s a very smart person. He’s probably one of the few people who really knows the Piceance Basin, and knows what’s there.”
With his background and interest in geology, it seemed natural Cooley would focus his legal practice in oil, gas and water law. He became an authority on the subject of oil shale and a proponent of its development on a commercial scale. It’s a subject he’s still very passionate about.
“Oil shale is, in the long haul, a very great part, probably a majority, of the answer to the problem of the United States with the respect to petroleum and energy,” Cooley said. “The quantities are so astounding. It’s a huge amount … many times the petroleum of the whole Persian Gulf. When you compare that to what you might be able to get from a solar field … the economics of the thing just dips way in favor of oil shale.”
Cooley, who was an avid skier until he had to give it up a few years ago for health reasons, first fell in love with this area because of the richness of the geology and the beauty of the country.
“The White River Valley has so many wonderful people who have enriched my life,” he said, “and the mineral resources of the valley have kept me and my family going and have been a continual source of interest to me, all the way along.”
Cooley continues to watch with great interest as government leaders grapple over what direction the nation should take to address its energy needs.
“There is so much going on … because we’re living in a time of great crisis and world change,” said Cooley, who remains a close observer of world events, though his eyesight has weakened, preventing him from reading like he used to. He used to read three newspapers a day.
“Macular degeneration has interfered with my reading, and that’s a killer, because I had subscribed to 32 different magazines. That makes me sad,” Cooley said.
His law partner, Zagar-Brown, said, “The sad news is that his eyesight has deteriorated and he’s barely able to read. So for a man whose passion has been reading newspapers, magazines and books his entire life, it is a tragedy.”
Cooley’s wife Carolyn died six years ago.
“That was a very hard time for him,” said Cooley’s former secretary Carol Daugherty.
Carolyn was a longtime teacher at the middle school, and for many years she was narrator for the Meeker Massacre Pageant. A lover of words in her own right, she could match wits with her husband.
“My wife was a grammarian,” Cooley said. “We would have arguments about the meaning of words. She would go to her Merriam Webster Dictionary, and I would go to the Random House Unabridged. It was amazing how many times her dictionary agreed with her, and my dictionary agreed with me.”
The Cooleys had two children: son Andrew, who is an Episcopal priest in Durango, where he lives with his wife, Terri; and daughter Karen, who works for Lululemon, which manufactures yoga apparel, and lives in Canada. A granddaughter, Micaela, who is in college, is Cooley’s pride and joy.
“I have seen less of my granddaughter than I would have liked,” he said. “She hasn’t seen me in action much. I haven’t spent the time with her growing up that I wish I could have. But she’s an interesting person, and it’s fun to be with her.”
Cooley continues to be active in Meeker’s Saint James Episcopal Church and the Meeker Lions Club. And while he remains as passionate as ever about any number of issues, he misses when he was on the frontlines of many of the most important debates of the day.
“I’ve been very political,” Cooley said. “I’d go to any meeting of any kind I could. I just loved it.”
Looking back on his long career and life, Cooley is content.
“At my present age, I find every once in awhile I dwell on things that I said that I should have not said, and various acts of idiocy,” Cooley said, “but the one remarkable thing that balances that out is that I’m happy just almost all of the time.”
MEEKER I If there is an iconic figure of Meeker, it may well be Frank Cooley.