Department

An Angel Silenced

Sixty-five years after her death, Emily Griffith’s legacy still influences Denver.

December 2012

On August 16, 1947, a 20-year-old fisherman from Lakewood, James Walter Oakes, waded into South Boulder Creek and poked his fishing pole at a carcass he’d found wedged beneath a rock. He was standing on a boulder midstream, and at first he thought it was a dead animal—until he saw the legs. The body was so badly decomposed that the face was unrecognizable. Most of the person’s clothing had been ripped off by the water.

The loose-rock riverbank near Pinecliffe was soon crowded with Denver detectives, the Boulder County deputy coroner, and the local sheriff. It took nearly an hour to hoist the body from the water. The coroner could still make out a slight indentation on the male victim’s right thumb. That, and the partial dental plate on the lower jaw, would help identify Fred Wright Lundy.

What made the finding even more unusual was that the deceased wasn’t just a victim, but also a possible criminal. In the weeks before his own demise, police had wanted to question the 60-year-old Lundy about two of his longtime acquaintances—Denver educator Emily Griffith and her sister, Florence—and why they had turned up dead.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the lasting impact that Emily Griffith’s life and school—now called the Emily Griffith Technical College—have had on Denver. The technical training school’s once-condemned building now takes up an entire city block downtown on Welton Street, across from the Colorado Convention Center. It offers more than 45 programs and 500-plus classes in a variety of subjects, all designed to prepare students for the workforce. Its English as a Second Language program is the oldest and largest in Colorado, with 3,000 students enrolled last year. A partnership with Plumbers Local Union 3 has continued since 1917. Although classes are not free, tuition costs less than at local community colleges. Original programs for skills such as welding and millinery (hat-making) still exist, and modern classes such as tax preparation and video editing have been added.

Griffith’s influence is so pervasive that it’s difficult to spend any time downtown and not interact with a graduate of her school. Its alumni have included chefs at the nearby Denver Athletic Club, hospitality workers at local hotels, and many others. The school’s average student is about 30 years old, and the classrooms are some of the most diverse in Denver. And at a time when graduates of other institutions are facing uncertain employment prospects, Emily Griffith routinely boasts an 80 percent placement rate, sometimes higher. “The biggest market for employees right now, not just locally but nationally, is at the trained technician level,” says school director Jeff Barratt, referring to the kind of graduates the school has produced for nearly a century. “They’re not outsourcing mechanics on your car. You still have somebody come in and replace your water heater.”

In short, the Emily Griffith Technical College simply helps our city run. “We’ve been an icon, literally a fixture in the Denver community, for 96 years now,” Barratt says. “We’ve served 1.6 million students since our inception, so that touches a lot of lives. Everywhere I go, every meeting I’ve been involved with, people will say ‘I have some tie to Emily Griffith.’ ”

Emily Griffith was born in 1868 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her family eventually migrated to Nebraska to try homesteading, only to find that Griffith’s father couldn’t effectively farm the Plains’ unforgiving sod. The second-oldest child, Emily started teaching by the age of 16 to support her family—especially her sister, Florence, who suffered from an unidentified learning disability.

After the Griffiths moved to Denver in 1894, Emily soon started substitute teaching for Denver Public Schools. She eventually worked her way to a permanent gig at a local school, and when she noticed that an unusual number of her students were skipping classes, she decided to figure out why. Once she learned that many of them were immigrants who endured poverty, language barriers, and culture shock, Griffith started holding night classes to teach her students’ parents the basic skills they’d need to survive in Denver.

This was World War I–era America, and for every immigrant Griffith helped, another one arrived at Union Station. She needed to expand, and she convinced the Denver school board to let her try. In 1916, Griffith bet her reputation as a teacher against these gnawing questions: In a country so replete with immigrants, why didn’t America reach out to its new workers by offering citizenship and English classes? And why did it cost so much to learn a trade? She envisioned an “opportunity” school where adults could learn a variety of vocations, attendance wouldn’t be required (because working students’ schedules were unpredictable), and tuition would be free to all Denverites.

Because there was no other program like it in the West, Griffith didn’t know if the school would work. Neither did the school board, which cautiously agreed to let her use two rooms in a ramshackle building at 13th and Welton. The board replaced the windows and provided the fledgling school with desks, a box of chalk, and a portable blackboard. There was one typewriter. Over the main door, a painted sign read: “Public Opportunity School—For All Who Wish to Learn.” The petite, brown-haired, blue-eyed Griffith set up her rolltop principal’s desk in the hallway near the entrance. She was hoping to attract about 200 students that first year; instead, the school welcomed 1,400 in the first week.

Early classes focused on millinery, bricklaying, and carpentry. If 20 students requested a specific course, Griffith would create it. There were so many students that some classes were forced to meet in hallways or on the steps. Every day, Griffith showed up—often sporting hats created by the school’s students—and found a way to make things work, to stay open a little longer.

Although the Opportunity School operated 13 hours a day, Griffith’s work extended well beyond simple teaching and administration. After one of her students fainted in class because he didn’t have time to eat between work and school, Griffith implored her mother to start making soup, which Griffith sometimes carried to the school on a streetcar and served to any student who needed a meal—sometimes often more than 200 free bowls a day.

It’s little wonder that by 1934, Griffith was exhausted. She’d simply given too much, to too many, for too long. Her relentless schedule had somewhat compromised her social life—although she had many friends and occasional suitors, Griffith never married or had children—so she quietly retired and moved to a makeshift cabin in Pinecliffe with her sister, Florence. The builder of the home was an old friend and former teacher at the school named Fred Lundy. The cabin was rustic, simple—and isolated.

Emily and Florence Griffith were found dead on June 19, 1947. The two had been shot in the back of the head a day earlier, execution-style. (Detectives determined that the sisters had been kneeling with their arms behind their backs.) There were no signs of a struggle. In fact, except for the dead bodies, the scene was pastoral: The kitchen table was set for dinner with three plates and silverware, a pot of cooked beans and a pan of mashed potatoes sat on the sink, and three freshly cut slices of apple pie were laid out for dessert. Nothing appeared disturbed, and no money was missing.

On the afternoon of the murders, a deliveryman had dropped off groceries at the cabin and was greeted by the two sisters and Lundy, who lived nearby. By the next morning, Lundy had disappeared. One person said he’d seen Lundy hopping a Denver-bound freight train, and his Nash sedan was found near Pinecliffe. When police smashed the window to get inside, they discovered a suitcase filled with $555 Lundy had withdrawn from his bank accounts a week earlier, along with a note that read:

To the coroner: If and when I die, please ship my body to Roscoe, Illinois, to be buried in our family plot. No autopsy. Contact [cousin] Roy Cummings. No funeral here. Money in this briefcase can be used for immediate expenses. Thank you. P.S. Embalm in Boulder, Colorado.

Lundy also had mailed an unsigned letter to his brother the day of the murders. In it, he settled his estate. “Don’t come here,” he wrote. “Nothing serious. Just wanted to get this off my mind.”

At the time of the murders, detectives wanted to search the creek for Lundy, but June’s snowmelt left the waterway clogged and raging. By then rumors had begun churning: Lundy was in love with Emily, but it was unrequited. Emily was sick and could no longer care for her sister, and Lundy couldn’t bear to watch the sisters’ health deteriorate. Maybe it was a mercy killing.

We may never know for certain what happened on June 18, 1947. Sometime during the past six decades, after a few storage facility changes and a fire, the Griffith murder investigation files went missing from the Boulder County Sheriff Department archives. Although all the available evidence seems to point to Lundy, his death meant the case never went to trial. No murder weapon was ever identified—police were unable to determine whether the bullets came from a .38 or a .25—and no forensic evidence exists because the sisters were immediately cremated.

All we’re left with today is Griffith’s legacy, which is perhaps best reflected by a simple picture of her face etched onto a window that hangs inside Colorado’s Capitol, near the former Supreme Court chambers. Her gloved hands are tucked under her chin. She’s wearing a massive hat—no doubt probably a student’s creation—and a slight smile graces her lips. A backlight shines through the glass onto the floors below, into this hallowed place where our state’s laws are made and its future course is determined. It’s as if this pioneering woman—who played such a pivotal role in putting so many Denverites to work—is forever making sure, day in and day out, that our city still runs.