The Happy Shrewdness of John W. Hickenlooper
Colorado’s popular governor wants to restore people’s faith in government with his unique brand of politics. It’s turning out to be a whole lot tougher than he ever imagined. An exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at Hick’s first year in office.
One afternoon I asked Hickenlooper why he wanted to be governor. He told me that when he was in high school, or rather his second high school, the Haverford School, which is a private academy outside Philadelphia, he was a pitcher on the varsity baseball team. “What I loved about pitching is not being the center of attention,” he told me, “but that I was involved in each play. I was integrally involved in each play, each pitch. Whereas everyone else on the baseball diamond is standing around a lot of the time. So it wasn’t necessarily being the center of attention, as it was the center of the action.” I suggested that there wasn’t much difference between the center of the action and the center of the attention. Hickenlooper smiled and said, “It’s true.”
He was born and raised near the tony Philadelphia suburbs known as the Main Line. The Main Line is the Merion Cricket Club and the Devon Horse Show; it’s Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges; it’s names like Mellon, Biddle, du Pont. It’s some of the oldest, WASPiest money in the country. It’s The Philadelphia Story. Yet Hickenlooper was born and raised in Lower Merion, on the border of the Main Line; his town marked the transition from the posh horse shows and country clubs to the grittiness of West Philadelphia. He lived in both—and neither— worlds, which may explain why there’s no pretense to Hickenlooper. One of the very few overt hints of Main Line privilege is his use of the word “rather,” which he pronounces like a Great Gatsby character from East Egg, drawing out the long “a,” as in, I’d rahther be governor than mayor.
He’d tell you that his resilience comes from his mother, Anne. She was already a widow when she met his father, John Hickenlooper. Her first husband, a World War II fighter pilot, had been shot down twice. Both times he was captured by the Germans, and both times he escaped and continued to fly missions, only to come home and die while on a routine transport assignment. Just days before getting out of the service, a plane he was flying got caught in an electrical storm, and he died in a crash.
A widow with two small children, Anne moved in with her parents until she married Hickenlooper, a Cornell University–trained mechanical engineer. He had flat feet, a bad back, and terrible vision, any of which made him ineligible to serve in the military as his two older brothers had done. By the time their son, John, had turned five, his father had been diagnosed with cancer. The young boy watched as his mother tended to his father, the nonstop changing of sheets and preparing for the linen service.
A childhood memory that he calls one of the 10 most “revelatory moments” of his life happened when his mother informed him she would be unable to attend one of his school performances. Standing on the landing of the stairwell in their home, young Hickenlooper shouted at his mother, complaining for all the house to hear: “You never come to any of my school plays. You never come to my stuff.” He remembers that his older brother, Sydney, a half-sibling from his mother’s previous marriage, grabbed him and pushed him against a wall, and, face-pressed-to-face, said, “How do you think that makes your father feel?” In that instant, Hickenlooper says, he began to appreciate empathy.
After his father’s death, some of the troubles Hickenlooper had been having were exacerbated. He was dyslexic (although he didn’t know it at the time), and he required speech therapy in third grade. A quintessential gangly dork with thick glasses, just like the father he’d barely known, Hickenlooper wasn’t varsity material at Lower Merion High School. To compensate, or perhaps draw attention away from his shortcomings, he would wise off. This got him beat up. He was so bullied at Lower Merion that his mother pulled him out of the public high school and, thanks to the roughly $250,000 Hickenlooper’s father had left her, she enrolled him in the Haverford School. He was eventually accepted at both Princeton University, in New Jersey, and Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, and opted for the latter because the school had accepted him first.
Hickenlooper spent most of the next 10 years in college. During his freshman year, as he put it, “I almost had...no, I didn’t have a nervous breakdown, but I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t sleep.” There was a girl, his first love, who didn’t love him back. Fostering friendships was a challenge. He was briefly prescribed lithium. With his mother’s help, he spent the summer volunteering with a Quaker youth group in Maine that turned a sardine factory into a school. He took a semester off from Wesleyan and worked as a teaching assistant at the school.
He returned to college and took as many blow-off classes as he could. “I couldn’t figure out what to do,” he says. “I never took a science class. Never took a math class.” He became an English major—did some creative writing, music, jazz theory. “All this kind of weird stuff. Anything that didn’t require me to do heavy reading. I’m taking electronic music. I’m taking the design and construction of stained glass windows.”
Just before he graduated, in 1974, Hickenlooper discovered geology. He audited a friend’s class. The subject was leach fields; it had to do with how developers could juice the test methodology for drainage fields in order to perhaps sell someone a home on land that looked dry and stable but became a swamp during the spring. “It was so fascinating and so pragmatic,” he said. Hickenlooper stayed at school for another four years and got his master’s in earth and environmental science; along the way he became engaged to an anthropology student who owned a parrot and studied witches. Hickenlooper ended up having more in common with the parrot. The engagement ended when he accepted a job with Buckhorn Petroleum in Denver.
It was a dream gig. It was 1981, and Hickenlooper was driving a company car and earning $27,000 a year, which was more than his mother’s third (and final) husband, a Harvard graduate, was making. He was not only flush, but he was also in love again, this time with a Swedish girl he’d met while on a vacation in St. Croix. Her name was Ellinor, but everyone called her Nalen. Again, there was a short-lived engagement. As Hickenlooper explained it, “I was ambitious. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was driven. All she wanted was me and a house and a dog and, at some point, kids.”
In 1986, Hickenlooper found himself laid off but got a severance package worth a little more than $100,000. He bought a 1967 red Chevy Malibu convertible. He drove to California. Still the aspiring writer, he and a friend took a chance at writing scripts. They managed to get one read by a producer for the hit television show Moonlighting, which starred Bruce Willis. Just as Hickenlooper and his writing partner were hearing encouraging responses to the script, the show was canceled. Hickenlooper got another idea that seemed almost as crazy as writing for TV: opening a brewpub in an old warehouse in the run-down LoDo section of Denver.
It would be a brewpub restaurant that specialized in all-natural, small-batch beers. He found investors and did it on the cheap. He called it Wynkoop Brewing Company. Within five years, he had pubs all over the state and all over the country. His second was Cooper Smith’s Pub & Brewing in Fort Collins, then the Phantom Canyon Brewing Company in Colorado Springs. Along the way he bought a few local places like Wazee Supper Club and the Pearl Street Grill. He created local partnerships that opened brewpubs like Wynkoop in cities such as Omaha, Des Moines, Green Bay, Wichita, and San Francisco.
The business model was to take the same all-natural craft brew and historic-building idea and partner with local investors. It worked, until it didn’t. The business expanded too quickly. Hickenlooper didn’t have control over all of the out-of-state operations; some of the partners in other cities did things differently than Hickenlooper, and he ended up with some “strugglers,” prompting him to sell off his interest in almost all of the out-of-state businesses. As mayor, he put the management of the bars and restaurants, along with all of his business interests, in a blind trust. By the time he’d run for governor—in what was perhaps one of the strongest signs that he’d given up business and committed himself to politics—Hickenlooper had sold off all of his interests in the brewpubs except for Cooper Smith’s and the Beach Chalet in San Francisco.
On the conference table in his office, Gov. Hickenlooper keeps a pitcher of water and pint glasses with “Wynkoop Brewing Company” frosted on them. He’s always referencing the bar in stories. He finds all kinds of ways to link political situations to his experiences at Wynkoop. The bar is located on the southeast corner of 18th and Wynkoop streets, but that isn’t necessarily why Hickenlooper chose the name. In the beginning, it was merely one on a list of potential names: the Iron Horse Brewing Company, the Union Station Brewing Company, the LoDo Brewing Company, and even Hickenlooper’s.
Hickenlooper didn’t want a name that elicited strong, preconceived notions. He wanted a name that was a blank slate, such that his unique business and the community could define the brand. For many months, Hickenlooper carried a list of eight names with him around Denver and would ask people in local pubs and restaurants what they thought of them. People either loved or hated the Hickenlooper name; some thought it sounded made up, like Fuddruckers. In his informal polls around town, Wynkoop rarely ranked first or last; it almost always ranked somewhere in the middle, which meant Wynkoop, then, was perfect.
As Hickenlooper researched the name, he learned that it had belonged to a man named Edward Wanshaer Wynkoop. In 1861, Wynkoop enlisted in the Colorado first cavalry. He was a flamboyant guy. Thinking that his uniform was too bland, he had his future wife put in some red stitching, like the Indians who would adorn themselves with war paint.
By the mid-1860s, Wynkoop had met and befriended Cheyenne Principal Chief Black Kettle. Believing there was peace to be brokered and a potential end to the regional wars between the white men and the Indians, Wynkoop arranged a meeting between Colorado’s Gov. John Evans and Colonel John Chivington. Wynkoop thought the meeting had gone well and that his ability to broker a behind-the-scenes meeting just might have quietly changed things for the better.
Shortly after that meeting, however, Chivington took 250 men, surrounded Chief Black Kettle’s camp near Fort Lyon, and attacked the peaceful community. Outraged, Wynkoop spearheaded investigations that proved Chivington had killed hundreds of unarmed women and children in what became know as the Sand Creek Massacre. The politics and prejudices of the time overpowered the rights and the truth, and no charges were ever filed against Chivington.
Wynkoop, who was born in 1836 in a Philadelphia suburb, came from a well-off family and attended the finer schools of Pennsylvania. He was a charismatic speaker, learned the political game quickly, and long had a reputation for attempting to broker peace behind the scenes, despite, it would seem, overwhelming odds against him.
Hickenlooper says that when he named Wynkoop, he didn’t foresee a political career for himself. Edward Wynkoop, he told me, was clearly a guy who knew what he wanted to do from a very young age, whereas Hickenlooper clearly did not. Wynkoop spent his teen years studying rhetoric and politics, while the young Hickenlooper avoided heavy reading and preferred to be on the pitcher’s mound.
“I threw a junk ball,” he told me. “A big slow curve. I had perfect control but never threw faster than 64 miles per hour. The opposing team would stand at the cage and drool. Then I’d throw these big curves. And it would just drop; it would come right at their head, real slow, and then drop at the inside of the plate and they didn’t have a chance.”