Wendell Pryor, on civil rights and public service, family values, the importance of Internet for rural connectivity, and only semi-retiring in his 70s
(Publication Date: 2.21..23)
In this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, host Adam Williams talks with Wendell Pryor, the retired former executive director of the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) in Chaffee County, Colo.
Wendell tells about growing up in what was then a rural area outside Denver, coming up in a two-room schoolhouse without indoor plumbing, and spending weekends in the city with cousins.
His dual-environment childhood and being surrounded by family values would be shaping factors in his life. Wendell would end up leaving the States as a teenager, however, to go to high school in Germany, where his civil servant father took a career stint for some years.
Adam asks Wendell, who would have a lengthy career in public service himself, about his experiences and insights as civil rights director for Colorado and in other roles, including as executive director of the EDC. In that position, he would help to bring broadband internet to this rural slice of central Colorado, empowering a surge of intellectual and entrepreneurial capital to move into the region, among other things.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host, Producer & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service.
Although it is largely accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams: Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness, community, and wellbeing based in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams.
Today, I'm talking with Wendell Pryor. He retired not all that long ago as the executive director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation, though semi-retired seems like a more accurate description. I mean, Wendell has been working since he was six years old growing up on a farm and some habits they just don't fade easily.
(00:34): We get into some interesting family stories from Wendell's early years. We talk about the shaping influences of those experiences. We talk about the role his train hopping uncle played in the family way back in the day, and the role Wendell's family played in his worldviews as a child in the 1960s. We dig into his professional career too, including his long history of public service in local government in a number of cities. And we get into his involvement in civil rights and his conscious decision to work for change from within the system rather than from outside it.
(01:06): Though he did have one particular protest of sorts, which, well, I don't know if it was exactly rebellion, but it did get his father's attention. We also talk about the roots of social issues in the country today and some foundational changes that we need to make to turn things in a more positive direction.
We talk about curiosity, resilience, and inclusivity, and the internet, which is no small matter in a rural place like where we live and connect here in central Colorado. And Wendell had a hand in establishing those technologies in a more meaningful and necessary and lasting way, which I can say affects me and my household directly and even my ability to be here doing this podcast, actually.
(01:47): Wendell and I cover a lot of ground in this conversation from a two room schoolhouse in the front range of Colorado to Germany to the Bay Area and ultimately back here to Chaffee County, which Wendell clearly appreciates for its richness of intellectual capital, community, and opportunity.
Show notes in the transcript from today's conversation are posted at wearechaffee.org. If you are listening to this show on a podcast player like on Apple or Spotify and you want to help us to spread the good of what we're doing here, you can rate and comment on the show on your player. It really is helpful.
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. Now, here we go, my conversation with Wendell Pryor.
(02:37): So Is it true that you went to high school in Germany, Wendell?
Wendell Pryor (02:47): Yes. I graduated from an American dependent high school in Germany in the late '60s.
Adam Williams (02:51): Okay, so tell me more about that. I mean, how did that come to be? Why were you there for high school?
Wendell Pryor (02:58): Well, my dad was a civil servant at [inaudible 00:03:00] Air Force Base in Aurora, which is where I was raised, and decided to take a tour of duty in the mid '60s to Germany where he landed and fought in World War II. So he wanted to go back and basically explore some of what he helped defend and visit.
Adam Williams (03:20): Wow. Okay. So you say he landed. Was he in the Army? Was he a paratrooper? What are we talking about here?
Wendell Pryor (03:27): He was in the Army and my understanding, and don't quote me on this, is that he was part of that group that landed on Omaha Beach and France and went up through France into, I guess it would be southern Germany and Bavaria.
Adam Williams (03:40): Okay, so some real serious experience there.
Wendell Pryor (03:42): Yes.
Adam Williams (03:43): Did he ever talk with you about that much?
Wendell Pryor (03:47): Not a whole lot. My mother talked a little bit more about it. He had an injury, which became a lifelong injury for him. But they met before the war and when he came back, she said he was hampered by some of the physical injuries that he had, but he wanted to have that once in a lifetime opportunity to take his family overseas.
Adam Williams (04:08): Okay. What was it that he did as a civil servant?
Wendell Pryor (04:12): I can't say a lot about it because he was a civilian, but he was in the, what you would call disaster control arm of the Department of Defense. And that's about all I want to say about it.
Adam Williams (04:27): Okay.
Wendell Pryor (04:27): I'll tell you more off mic, but I can't say anything more about it than that at this point.
Adam Williams (04:32): Okay. Okay. Well, what I'm really interested in in this experience and why I wanted to start with Germany is because that's an unusual experience as a teenager. You're going to another country, obviously being a military kid, that's kind of a common story, but your dad had a different experience there. And then I'm curious what your experience was to leave Aurora, Colorado, move over for, it sounds like, a few years to Germany and those are some pretty critical years as well as a high schooler. How did you fit in? Who were you surrounded by? Just what was that experience for you?
Wendell Pryor (05:07): So first of all, I want to clarify, he was a civilian, so he had a civilian designation.
Adam Williams (05:12): Sure.
Wendell Pryor (05:12): Although, we had all the benefits of the military personnel. And I think it was an enlightening experience to live in another country and learn another culture and the families there and kids were fairly close because we were Americans. At that time, I think the United States had about a half million Americans stationed in Germany and throughout bases in Europe and Germany. So it was just like a small town within a country.
Adam Williams (05:43): An American town. Were you primarily surrounded by fellow Americans and American students?
Wendell Pryor (05:47): Only on the base. We lived in a German town. Bitburg, Germany is the name of the town.
Adam Williams (05:53): Okay. I realized by the timing of what you experienced over there, it happened to be when my dad was over there. He had been drafted during the Vietnam era and was stationed in Germany. My oldest brother was born there as well. So in my mind, as I'm preparing to have this conversation with you, there are, I guess, some parallels in terms of family experience, although not my own personally. And I've always been curious about what their experience was. So I guess you can enlighten me a little bit on that just through your own.
Wendell Pryor (06:25): Sure. Again, I think with the number of Americans overseas, it compared now to a medium sized city of half a million people, but there were probably a dozen or more American bases stationed throughout Germany. We had our own high school athletic league and traveled. The recent Salida High School basketball team reminded me a lot of that experience, going to a championship. In my senior year, we actually won the European [inaudible 00:06:54] championship for the league that I was in.
Adam Williams (06:58): Okay. What were you playing?
Wendell Pryor (07:00): Basketball.
Adam Williams: Okay.
Wendell Pryor: Yeah.
Adam Williams: That was my primary sport as well.
Wendell Pryor (07:04): Okay. Yeah.
Adam Williams (07:04): Did you play others or was basketball really your... For me, it was my love. Was that something that you really focused on?
Wendell Pryor (07:10): I focused on that. I played football my senior year, but basketball got me a partial scholarship back to the States to attend Western State, at that time, college.
Adam Williams (07:19): Okay. Is that now Western Colorado? Is that-
Wendell Pryor (07:22): That's Western Colorado University, yes.
Adam Williams (07:24): In Gunnison?
Wendell Pryor (07:25): Yes.
Adam Williams (07:25): Okay. Okay. Well, something else about that time period, if you don't mind hanging out there with me for a little bit more, is that we are talking about the '60s. We're talking about a pretty significant time in American history. We're talking about the civil rights era. Besides the Vietnam era, there was a lot going on socially, politically, culturally, and I wonder how that experience was for you or were you maybe a little removed from it by being in Germany as opposed to continental U.S., surrounded by it?
Wendell Pryor (07:58): Yeah, I think we were somewhat removed from it for the two years that I spent over there, and then I went back for a summer after my freshman year in college. But I think it, in some ways, insulated me from what was happening in the United States. But I remember the early in 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King and then followed by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, that's when it kind of hit you that things were real and you were growing up and you had to process and understand what was actually happening, not only to you as a youth, but also the country.
Adam Williams (08:39): Yeah, sure. Prior to going to Germany, back when you were in Aurora, Colorado, you had described to me previously that that actually was more of a rural type area at the time.
Wendell Pryor (08:55): Yeah, it absolutely was. We were on South Chambers Road at the time, which was the farthest eastern point of the metro area. So I think I mentioned to you, I grew up on a five acre farm, went to a two room country schoolhouse, and that also was impressionistic.
Adam Williams (09:13): Yeah. Well, tell me about that. What was the impression that that made because that two... When you say two room schoolhouse, that sounds very old school. It's very small, and I'm just curious, what were the grade ranges, for example, in those two rooms? What was that like to be out... I mean, I'm really picturing almost Little House on the Prairie, just so remote for two rooms.
Wendell Pryor (09:38): That's exactly right. As a matter of fact, it got modernized when I was there because we had indoor plumbing. I started there and had two outhouses when I went there. But I think the junior high and high school were in the second room and the grade school was in the first room. And I remember vividly, and this is something that affected me too, I got moved over a row. I didn't understand exactly what was happening, but I skipped a grade because I took all of the teaching for one grade in half a year so I moved over a grade and got skipped. So I graduated from high school at 16.
Adam Williams (10:14): Okay. That really makes it sound like you're older than I think you are, at least in my mind. When I think of a two room schoolhouse and outhouses. I mean, that sounds like something that might have been 100, 120, 150 years ago, and of course you're not that old.
Wendell Pryor (10:33): Yeah. No, this was recent. I think the thing that people miss a lot of times is that was rural living. I think I mentioned to you that I grew up as a farm kid. I was the oldest, so I milked the cow, slopped the hogs, fed the chickens, and that was just part of the way that you grew up in that rural area of, what was then, the eastern metropolitan area of Denver.
Adam Williams (11:00): How often did you get into Denver?
Wendell Pryor (11:02): Every weekend because my mother's relatives, most of them, all moved to Denver during that period of time of me growing up. And it was a great story behind that. So I had both an urban and a rural kind of living experience growing up.
Adam Williams (11:21): Well, I am curious about that story. Go ahead and let me know.
Wendell Pryor (11:23): It's a great kind of American story. Part of it is I think more traditional, but I had an uncle that came out of the south. My mother was from Beaumont, Texas, came out of the south in the '30s, hopped trains. They would call him a hobo now. But he finally settled down in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
And my mother wasn't able to attend college in that town because they didn't admit Blacks to the local college. So he decided, not because of her, but because of his experience in settling in Cheyenne that he would give every one of his relatives a one-way ticket out of the south to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Adam Williams (12:00): Wow.
Wendell Pryor (12:00): And so he managed to bring most of the family to Cheyenne, Wyoming. And then when my mother and father married and went to Denver, they helped migrate to Denver. So I have a substantial number of cousins in Denver and Aurora.
Adam Williams (12:15): I'm curious for somebody who was hopping trains, what was it that he did that he was able to then afford those tickets to bring along the family?
Wendell Pryor (12:23): Well, a lot of the history of especially the railroad and African Americans was that they were porters on trains. I had two uncles that were porters on the railroad and landed in Denver and stayed at the Rossonian on Welton Street. But the trains afforded people an opportunity to travel and also earn a decent living.
As a matter of fact, one of our most famous civil rights laws was a result of a train, an African American trying to ride on a train and that was overturned by the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision. So railroads are part of the fabric of this country, which has made it great, but it also afforded African Americans an opportunity to travel and have some commerce.
Adam Williams (13:14): Okay. When you would go into the city, you said that you had kind of the rural and urban experience as a kid, and I wonder what that was like for you. Maybe you got enough dose of both that you didn't think much about it. But I know for me growing up in a small rural town in Missouri that I was sort of envious of the cousins who lived in bigger places and envious of anybody who did really.
I was curious about what that was, the opportunities, the adventures, the dangers even, I mean, the trouble I could have gotten into as a kid, whatever. Did you have that city mouse, country mouse sort of thing going on? Were you envious at all or do you really just feel like, "Oh, I kind of am cool with both? I'm comfortable in both."
Wendell Pryor (13:58): Yeah. I think that frankly helped prepare me to transition very easily between cultures. I mean, when you talk about a farm kid milking cows and slopping hogs and feeding chickens and putting up fencing and growing a garden, everybody can relate to that rural story.
But I also, like I said, had relatives that lived in Denver in an urban setting. And so that was just part of the upbringing. I think it brought to mind family and the importance of family and the importance of how families influenced your behavior growing up. It helped shape and mold you.
Adam Williams (14:36): Yeah, I was just thinking about family and just how much you've already kind of related the influence of family, not only your father and his having been a World War II veteran, a civil servant, all these sort of things, the farm structure, cousins, aunts, uncles, there's a lot of family you've already referred to, which makes me wonder about if you'll elaborate on more the influence of that in general and what family means to you and has meant to you throughout your life.
Wendell Pryor (15:07): Well, I think family provides that framework and structure and probably a lens through which you view society, and it's probably to some extent the breakdown of the family that's contributing to some of our current social ills and problems. But I feel blessed to have had a family that allowed me to excel with whatever gifts that I was provided with. And so I think family and family structure is important in having an extended family of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents that helped influence your behavior is vitally important.
Adam Williams (15:46): Did they keep you on the straight and narrow?
Wendell Pryor (15:48): Well, absolutely. Yeah. You just understood the things that were expected of you, especially if you were African American and had opportunities, and that was what my father provided me with him being able to finish college on the GI Bill and having a professional job in the Department of Defense and being able to provide things for his family that a lot of people wouldn't have had the opportunity to do.
Adam Williams (16:19): Did that feel like pressure at all to you that these opportunities were there for you, that you needed to be able to follow along with what your father had set as an example, taking advantage of the GI Bill, getting education, having this solid career? Did it ever feel like maybe this is too much pressure that you're having to follow through and sustain these expectations?
Wendell Pryor (16:45): I think they were opportunities and expectations that went along with the opportunities. And I think that again, is creating an environment that allows you to succeed if you have the will and desire to succeed. So I didn't feel the pressure other than to tow the line in terms of how you were to treat other people and how you were expected to be treated, so.
Adam Williams (17:18): I think sometimes it's that expectation to tow the line that at least for me sometimes creates a little energy where I want to buck that. And it's like, well, wait a second. This is where I'm feeling uncomfortable. I'm feeling kind of pushed in a way where I need to be perfect or I need to succeed in a certain way. And I say that with this background.
My parents were both teachers and of course they expected these great grades, and I had older brothers and they got great grades and they succeeded in all these things. So as I'm the younger brother coming along, I'm thinking, "This is an awful lot to live up to." So that's the lens that I'm looking through when I ask you this question, I think.
Wendell Pryor (17:53): Yeah. Well, I think the only expectation I didn't meet of my dad is I grew my hair. I had an afro in the late '60s that he wasn't too pleased with, but other than that, I was a college kid who got decent grades and maintained an athletic scholarship and proceeded to get through college.
Adam Williams (18:11): So let's go on with that path then, because you studied, I believe, psychology in undergrad, but then would go on to a master's degree in public administration. You would get a law degree. So obviously very highly educated and across a range of subject matter. And then you would go into a career that likewise, like your father, was government oriented.
So did you feel an encouragement from your parents that that was a path to take? Did you just appreciate maybe what you observed of your father having worked for the government and say, "There are the things I can do here to serve my community," or I don't want to put the words in your mouth. What was the appeal of such an education and career path for you?
Wendell Pryor (18:56): Well, I think if you're a product of the '60s, which I was, the late '60s, it was curiosity. There were all these things that were opening up. There were events that were taking place that you just were curious about and wanted to know more about and to some extent be a part of. So I think curiosity was the main thing, but I think the upbringing and the education provided the foundation for that.
Adam Williams (19:23): What was it you were curious about in particular? What are some things that stood out from that time that you knew you wanted to pursue?
Wendell Pryor: I think for me, I grappled with my own identity to some extent as an African American male in the late '60s in the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement that was part of that and the women's movement, which came on shortly after that in Vietnam and the protests.
(19:49): And I made a conscious decision at the time to work for change in this system from the inside and not from the outside, but I became very well-read and a lot of the activists at the time in the Civil Rights Movement... And that kind of stayed with me. But I'm a person that likes to see change, and I think that was in honor of my dad's military background and experience from the inside of the system rather than beating on it from the outside.
Adam Williams (20:20): So would it have been disrespectful in your mind or in his maybe had you been a protestor and protesting, say, the Vietnam War or trying to fight things in that way on the street versus within the system like you're describing?
Wendell Pryor (20:34): Well, I think the biggest protest for my dad was wearing an afro. So after you get by that, there's not a whole lot more to say. But again, I maintained good grades in college and got through college and they valued education. So they were proud of the fact that I managed to complete my education then go on to pursue higher education.
Adam Williams (20:56): What was it within the system that you were focusing on? I know that you were involved in labor relations. There was a time when you were involved for the state of Colorado as the civil rights director. I am not doing your career path justice when there's a lot of years of work there. I know you were in San Francisco, Oakland, Denver. There's a lot there so I'll just let you speak to whatever pieces of that you want. But I'm curious what within this system you are focused on overall?
Wendell Pryor (21:24): I think change and change for hopefully the betterment of society and also for individuals. I was able to help a lot of people, not only in my role as a HR director, but just being the first African American in a lot of different roles. I was able to be a role model I think for some people, but more importantly, I was kind of that agitator on the inside of the system because I had a lot of education and a lot of knowledge.
And I think people welcomed me and kind of took me under their wing and taught me how the system worked and what needed to be changed. So I've got a lot of that on my resume too. I never worked for more than five years in a job until I got here and doing economic development.
Adam Williams (22:08): Was that by chance or was that a choice where you're actively saying, "You know what? If I've stayed more than five years, I've maybe been too long in one place"?
Wendell Pryor (22:15): That was by choice. Because I went in to get things done. I didn't go in to collect a paycheck or a salary or a retirement. I was hired typically in jobs that nobody else wanted to do and I enjoyed the ability to succeed and have some measure of success in those jobs.
Adam Williams (22:37): Okay. When you were dealing with civil rights as director again for the state of Colorado, first of all, what period of time was that? And then what was I guess the mission, whether that was personal or actually as it was given to you by, I don't know, is that the governor who says, this is what I want you to accomplish?
Wendell Pryor (22:56): Yeah, even though I'm not a governor's appointee, I think part of the irony of my civil rights work was under the Bill Owens administration who people viewed I think as conservative, but he and I had a relationship even before he became governor. And we knew each other. I was the director of the state employee organization, so I was very political at the time. But I think we kind of had an understanding that he would allow me to do my thing within the framework that he set out.
(23:29): But I think for the Civil Rights Agency, there was a lot accomplished in a fairly short period of time. We were the first, I think, civil rights agency in the country to automate our records. So we did away with paper filing of documents during my time at the beginning of the crisis in the housing crisis in 2008. We helped investigate and prosecute one of the most serious cases of housing fraud in the country.
(24:00): And so I always viewed his and his administration as kind of hands off. We knew kind of where the boundaries were, but I've got a fair amount of support in allowing me to advance the cause of civil rights and also the agency. Some people would disagree with that. We closed some offices, but when Bill Ritter was elected governor, who I grew up with on that five acre farm in Aurora, we opened them. So I think there's a lesson there.
Adam Williams (24:28): Okay. When we say civil rights, I tend to think, especially racially, but also if we think contemporarily, now we're talking about transgender rights, we're talking about the issues with legislation and the Supreme Court in abortion. There's all kinds of angles on what civil rights I think contains. But given your experience with it, maybe you have a definition of what all that might encompass and what all it was you were looking at to affect change.
Wendell Pryor (24:58): Yeah, I think it's a fairly narrow definition in my mind. I stay within the parameters of the law and certainly sex, which has morphed into gender as a protected category. But I think the big misunderstanding that people have about civil rights is civil rights is for all people.
And when we provide civil rights to some, it really is for the betterment of all. And there are numerous instances I can cite for that. And I just think it's kind of gotten off track like a lot of things have in society, but I'm proud of the work I did, and I'm proud of this country for what it's been able to do with civil rights. We are that beacon of hope and light for the rest of the world in terms of how we get things done.
Adam Williams (25:39): Can you be more specific on the civil rights and what that includes? So for my own education here and understanding, when you say it's a little more narrow and within the law, what are the specifics that are included there?
Wendell Pryor (25:50): Yeah. Well, the law defines five specific categories in the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. I dealt with employment and housing and public accommodation, but race, sex, age, creed, color, ancestry, religion, veterans status as a protected category. So those are the ones that create the framework for the legal aspects of civil rights. But they protect all people, not just people of a certain race or gender. And my point would be it ensures protection for people regardless of race, color, sex, creed, et cetera.
(26:27): And so I think people tend to apply it narrowly by identifying people a certain way and say, well, it only applies to Black people, or it only applies to Native Americans or Mexicans. That's not true. And even we had a case that was one of the first in the country that morphed the idea that when the Civil Rights Act was passed to include sex, which was kind of by accident, and there's a story there, but it morphed to include gender, which then gave people with a different sexual orientation some protection. We actually had a case in Colorado that was one of the first cases to do that.
Adam Williams (27:06): Okay. So if I'm hearing you right, it sounds like when we use the phrase civil rights, what you think people often interpret it to mean is, oh, well that means rights for a Black person or whoever of a specific category. But really what we're saying is, "Well, no, it's for all rights. So that if there is a white person who is getting offended by civil rights referring to something, we'll know it's actually for all of us," and that has led to confusion or political differences.
Wendell Pryor (27:33): Yeah. And that's, I think, exactly what I'm talking about. We've handled cases. I remember a 68 year old white male who was laid off from his job and being one of the top performers who came to us and said, "I'm not ready to quit, but they fired me," and we managed to help him get his job back. Or, a person who announced that he was going to have a sex change, had worked for a company for 15 years, and then six weeks later was fired.
(28:05): And one of my bright investigators who was waiting for the results of his bar exam decided that, "Hey, I think he was terminated on the basis of sex," and that is what has evolved into the understanding now that sex does apply to sexual orientation and the law has been amended to do that. And housing is another one and also public accommodation, being able to go into a restaurant regardless of your race or sex. So it's broad, but those are the parameters and kind of the guardrails that we have in this society that make us unique, I think, in the world in terms of how we have come together as a society with a lot of people from different places.
Adam Williams (28:48): I don't know if in what I'm observing here is about you as a person, a personality, as much as maybe it's your expertise, decades of education and experience, but you seem to have a rather objective and reasonable, rational sort of perspective on this. And I think that that stands out to me in this moment because, well, probably I'm looking through my own emotions, but also that what we are living in right now in our society is very heightened emotionally, politically in the culture wars and so on. And I wonder about your lens on everything overall of what you're seeing in the world, that we're all seeing. And if I'm assessing you in a way that you feel is fair and true, you're a rational objective viewer of it.
Wendell Pryor (29:37): Well, I think with age comes some wisdom.
Adam Williams (29:39): Okay.
Wendell Pryor (29:40): And I think the life experiences also help shape that. And like I said, being raised as a country kid, those values that you have and understanding hard work and how you basically earn your living from the land. My dad used to sell corn on the weekends. We'd take five pound bushels of corn and sell them in East Denver.
I remember that and I remember hard work. I think that's the other thing is that to some extent we have to redefine work, but I think people have lost the meaning of a day's work and hard work and what that really means. And I think we have ourselves to blame for some of that because as we did better in growing up, we gave our kids everything. We didn't have that, and I think we've lost that. But I have hope for this generation and of women participating in society. And so I'm hopeful. I'm always a cup half full kind of guy.
Adam Williams (30:40): Okay. I want to step back a little bit back to your parents and influences that they might have had because we've talked about civil rights, you've helped define and give me some parameters on this. And I wonder, I'm always curious with people, what influenced them, what gave them the philosophies, the wisdom, the world views that they have.
With civil rights and this being part of your career and the things that you have done in your life, I wonder what was maybe talked about back then in those '60s when you were a kid and in the '50s, younger, if we go even earlier when you were growing up on the farm before going to Germany, were these things being talked about? Was the news being talked about? You mentioned Robert Kennedy being assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. Being assassinated. Was this level of conversation around the dinner table with your parents? Were they educating and influencing you in terms of civil rights matter, this is something we fight for?
Wendell Pryor (31:41): Well, I think frankly it was more fundamental and basic than civil rights. They were both born and raised in the south, in segregated Texas. They saw Colorado as an opportunity to have some experiences that weren't available to them, and I think that's what they wanted to provide to their kids. So education was important. I think the other thing they told us and taught us, and I think [inaudible 00:32:11] modeled for us is that your race was never to be an excuse for not accomplishing something.
So as bad as it might be or sound or the way you were treated, there was a certain way that you were supposed to behave and the expectations were you were going to succeed because you'd been provided with opportunities that their parents and their brothers and sisters weren't. And so you were to make the most of those opportunities.
Adam Williams (32:39): as that something extraordinary about your parents and what they believed, how they worked hard, served in the world, served you as parents, was that extraordinary?
Wendell Pryor (32:51): I think so, but I think it was born to some extent, this is going to sound a little trite, out of the greatness of this country. My mother was a registered nurse, so she worked as a nurse. My dad eventually got his degree and worked in defense, but they knew that they were the first of their generation in their family to be able to succeed. Their parents weren't able to. So especially on my dad's side, all of his brothers and sisters went to college and the expectation was that you were going to help the family continue to move ahead by, first of all, going to school and getting that college education. And then secondly, modeling that behavior for your kids and the family.
Adam Williams (33:36): That sounds extraordinary to me as someone who can only know by learning through history classes or something from that time period. We're talking again, your father was in World War II, so we're saying the first half of the 20th century. This is pre-civil rights legislation, racism still exists. So obviously it did then and there was separation and all these things. For them to have the education levels and to work in the world in the way they did, can you, if you don't mind, educate me a little bit maybe on that history and why they were able to do these things at a time when that wasn't exactly widespread?
Wendell Pryor (34:11): Well see, I don't take issue with it, but I would say that my parents were no different than any other post World War II families. Some perhaps with different ethnicities and backgrounds that wanted to have the opportunity to do better than their parents had done. And that applies to poor white people or people of different descents and Native Americans, Italians, Hispanics, all of those families who had somebody go to war and came out of the war wanted to benefit their family for generations to come. And that's what we've lost sight of. This country has given us, I would say, a fairly equal opportunity to do that. Now, the treatment that people receive is different than the opportunity, and that's the distinction I think we need to continue to make.
Adam Williams (35:07): So I'm wondering where you feel like we stand in these efforts now with the country. You've referred to some of it maybe, but if we think of the more recent years' issues, George Floyd of course is the biggest name that gets thrown out from the past few years when it comes to issues with the police. We've had protests, we've had the rise of white nationalism or the reemergence of it. It would seem there's a lot going on politically again in the culture wars.
(35:40): Do you have a sense of what it was you have spent years working for in terms of those rights? And I'm not sure where to go with the question other than to get your insights because you have that background and yet your parents and everything you're talking about, it seems to me you have a rather all-American opportunity sort of perspective as well.
Wendell Pryor (36:03): Sure. And it may not be one that people share in, but part of the problem today is we're talking past each other. We're not listening to each other. And I was an adjunct professor for about 20 years at the University of Colorado where I taught a lot in diversity. And I remember one class making a statement that was provocative, because I think that's what academics is supposed to do, and I said, I think the civil rights laws need to include, and they do now, you're starting to see that, but I think it's being weaponized to some extent.
(36:38): The fact that my two boys deserve the right not to be discriminated against. Now, do they deserve the right to further affirmative action in the sense that they got an opportunity because the opportunity I was given, but that poor white kid who's going to be the first in his family from having lived in a trailer park to go to college, I think that kid deserves a shot.
(37:04): And that's what affirmative action ought to be talking about. It's not all about, but it's become more about class in this country and we're not talking about that. And I think that's led to some of the division that we're experiencing. We're talking past each other and ignoring the root of the problem and the root of the problem is class, I think. I think that's why the laws need to continue to evolve.
Adam Williams (37:27): What do you think we can do to improve that listening to each other and that... A word that often comes to mind for me and in conversations on this podcast is empathy. To actually listen to each other, believe in what the other person is saying as valid and actually just listen as opposed to be so quick to dismiss.
Wendell Pryor (37:48): I think empathy and I think understanding. I think also understanding how to promote resilience. See, one of the things we've talked about in this conversation is the fact that I have a certain level of resilience, not only because of my education, but because of my upbringing, which was to take care of each other.
And I can remember times when we were snowed in on South Chambers Road and one of the neighbors getting a tractor and collecting five bucks from everybody and driving to the store, because nobody could get out, to buy groceries and coming right back down South Chambers Road delivering groceries on that tractor. And that was a cattle owner, the ranch next door to us. But that's where people really in this society, I think, need to come together and stop picking each other apart.
Adam Williams (38:38): I feel like in the last several years where some of these changes we've had happen in the country, they've highlighted what we often refer to as division. It seems like we've gained ground in some ways and lost ground in others. I wonder though if this is an opportunity for us to assess where we are and maybe try more of the things that you're referring to, come back to that sort of, you know what? We need to care about those right around us.
Wendell Pryor (39:01): Sure. I have a great exercise, and I know we're getting close to time here, but I use this in my law enforcement class because I taught in the executive criminal justice program and want to be police chiefs and how to handle diversity before it became such an issue. And law enforcement and cops are a tough group, right?
You're sitting there teaching them and here's this African American guy telling them about diversity, that kind of thing. And so they had their arms crossed in class and the first night I knew I didn't reach them. And about two hours into the second day of classes, I looked up and I said, "We got to talk about this subject because everybody has one in their family and they don't know how to deal with it."
(39:42): So everybody has somebody that's different in their family. And I tell the story of our family picnic and the first white guy who was dating my cousin's daughter came to the picnic and I was ashamed of my family because they didn't know what to say or how to welcome that person. But everybody's got somebody in their family that's different and that's the same, I think, lesson that we need to apply to get getting along with each other.
(40:05): We're all different. That's what makes us unique and what I think frankly is one of the more exciting things about this society is that it allows you to be different, but we can't use our differences as an excuse not to get along.
Adam Williams (40:21): The differences end up adding sort of some seasoning too, I think. What otherwise if we start with, well, here's what we all have in common and for some reason we're skipping past all of that, or we're allowing ourselves, I think, to be persuaded that that's not the truth.
Wendell Pryor (40:35): Right. That I think that's exactly right, which is why I am pleased and excited to see women having and being given more of a role in society because I think they bring a different perspective and a fresh energy to the table just like the different generations. I'm curious, and again, curiosity I think is a big thing about what Generation X interprets this society's problems to be versus Y and then Z coming up behind it and what technology is doing to society. We've got to, I think, be aware of those changes that are occurring all around us. And I think part of that awareness and understanding is just being able to talk to people and listen.
Adam Williams (41:20): Curiosity is a big word for me, and you had mentioned it long ago when it comes to your education and what you were interested in coming out of high school. And I think that that's something that needs to be cultivated in people as well. And that also has to do with our relationships. We have to be curious about each other, including the things that are different, be curious to know what we have as common ground maybe as a starting point. But I think so much starts with that curiosity.
Wendell Pryor (41:45): Yeah. And I think discussing the real problems we have with educating our kids and dealing with some of the issues we have in society related to homelessness and poverty is a big one for me. So I think we have to have more of a problem solving and inclusive mindset about how we address these issues and these problems.
Adam Williams (42:08): Problem solving had just come to mind too with the word curiosity because we have to be curious to figure out what are better ways we can do things or just plain to solve what we are unsure about anyway. And right now, I think we're approaching a lot of things with certainty, and it's not necessarily founded on knowledge or experience or anything.
Wendell Pryor (42:27): Yeah, yeah. We're talking past each other. We're not talking to one another. And I think the beauty of this community is that there's just a lot of different opportunities and ways to get involved and to listen to people. And I've made the remark that as a community, the county tends to pull above its weight. I mean, you look around in other counties, they don't have, I think, the richness, not so much of diversity in terms of race and gender, but of thought and of opportunity and people trying to help one another.
(42:57): I've been impressed since I've been here, the people that will volunteer their time. I think that's is extraordinary in terms of things getting done in little pockets of people like [inaudible 00:43:10] running fundraiser for Ukraine. I mean, that's just something they took on and I happen to know the owners. But that's just one example and there are hundreds of examples happening every year in this county.
Adam Williams (43:21): I mentioned earlier that you had lived in a number of cities, so Denver, San Francisco, Oakland. And I am curious what drew you to this area, Chaffee County. You returned to rural and I know that was... You've had a role, you had it for many years until retiring within the last couple years for the Economic Development Corporation here in Chaffee County. But what was it that drew you out here in the first place, and then you can go in to tell me about the EDC and what your work was there too?
Wendell Pryor (43:51): Well, I think it was three things. Number one, Amicas Pizzeria. That was something that we were recommended to go visit in our afternoon of a couple's retreat that we had in the brewery. Then number two, I walked across the street and at the Mountain Mail, they had a poster of Richie Havens at the fairgrounds for 20 bucks so I knew it had to be somewhat enlightened to have somebody like Richie Havens. So the younger generation may not appreciate who he was, but he was a product of the '60s.
(44:21): And then I think F Street. And it reminded me of that small town in Aurora, which it was at the time, and Gambles. A lot of people don't remember Gambles and the two brothers that ran Gambles. It was just like a Mayberry in a small town. And it was just that small town welcoming feel that wasn't pretentious. I make the point, and this is no disrespect to the other towns along I-70, is that we're a town first with a rich history, and the resort part of it comes after that.
Adam Williams (44:56): Was it a return to something simpler and quieter like maybe you grew up with?
Wendell Pryor (45:01): It did. It reminded me of the Fox Aurora, which is the theater. We used to go to an Aurora on Saturday mornings while my parents did their errands and reminded me of that. I think the other piece of that is people coming here for a lot of different reasons. But I think a lot of it was just to live in kind of peaceful but nurturing environment where you could be what you wanted to be and be as quirky as you wanted to be or as quiet or get involved in whatever you wanted to get involved in.
Adam Williams (45:36): Okay. Let's go then to the professional side of this. Again, you were executive director of the EDC, the Economic Development Corporation here in Chaffee County, and I'm curious what your work was, what you saw the vision of that to be? And was that for, I mean, a good 10 years?
Wendell Pryor (45:56): 12 years.
Adam Williams (45:56): 12 years?
Wendell Pryor (45:57): Yeah. It wasn't my vision. It was the vision of I think a dozen very successful business people in the community who came together and said, "We've got to get some things done in this community if we're going to continue to grow and to thrive." And they came together and created the organization, self-funded it with some support from the county and some of the local governments, but they wanted it run as a business organization.
(46:24): And they wanted to be able to do things at the speed of business. And so the first thing that I think is still to this day foundation is the technology they brought in terms of creating a company to bring broadband or internet connectivity better than what we had to allow businesses to grow. And with that, I think you've seen the benefits of it, and we continue to grow, but without internet connectivity, they realize you weren't going very far.
(46:52): I remember one of the board members saying, "There's this thing called Netflix coming, which is going to eat up four megs of bandwidth, which is about all you got at the time." And so we knew we had to do better than that, but they supported me in doing that. Climax came up with a big grant to have me learn all I could about broadband. And eventually we helped track attract a company to come to the area, which was Colorado Central Telecom, which has now been sold to Carlin Walsh and is now Aristata Communications.
(47:22): And that's a foundation to me of everything that's kind of going on here because it allows people to come here and work. And I think a lot of the successful business people, and I cite Charlie Chupp as one of them with his Fading West Factory as an example of that. Dr. Mark Mueller and [inaudible 00:47:38] was the first biochemist and one of three wet labs in the state that's located at the Buena Vista Airport. And you have dozens of stories like that of small businesses that have come here and are flourishing.
Adam Williams (47:50): Well, then apparently I need to thank you personally as well and for my household, because the internet that is here was... I'd have to admit that living in more populated areas for many, many years, when we considered moving out to this county, to a rural area, which I have not lived in a rural area since I was a kid, I had come to take for granted internet and that we had all the capacities that we would need for anything we wanted, whether that was to stream Netflix or to run a business.
(48:23): And so when we learned, when we came out here, that that was not something we could take for granted, our timing was perfect because it allows us, me and my wife, to work remotely from this county and to still be part of a community like this while engaging with the sort of work and careers that we can from afar. Had that not existed, we couldn't exist here.
Wendell Pryor (48:50): I think the other part of that is the education in our schools. The Buena Vista School District was the last school district to be hooked up on what was, I'd say, marginally successful effort back 10 years ago called EagleNet. But the Buena Vista School District tied into that internet connectivity so it got some of the best broadband of rural communities anywhere in the state. Salida, because it's on Highway 50 has a great connection. But the more important thing is our kids and are they getting the same level and value of education as a kid from a metro area, so to speak. That's what we have to be concerned about and keep up with, along with telehealth, for example, in our hospitals.
Adam Williams (49:31): Those are obviously really big ideas and very important, but it also occurs to me that in the last few years we had such an extraordinary experience with the pandemic and kids being out of school. And a lot of things had to happen online. I mean, this can be a rhetorical question or you can speak to it if you have thoughts, but it's just what would've happened, or did happen probably elsewhere in this country, if internet was not a possibility in rural areas but kids weren't allowed to be together with their teachers? There are ramifications. There are some dominoes to follow from that sort of consequence.
Wendell Pryor (50:06): Well, I think it's been both the good news, bad news story. And speaking with one of the school superintendents, it allowed us to remain connected, but there's nothing like that social connection. And some would argue that social media has done more to affect negatively youth mental health. And we do have a youth mental health crisis in this county and around the country on a local chapter of the El Pomar Foundation.
And that's one of the big issues that we're struggling with is youth mental health. But it's been both good and bad, but you have to, I think, make it a net positive in terms of just maintaining connectivity throughout the county. And also search and rescue, I know, has used drones and internet connectivity in a lot of their work, and that's a big part of the industry here.
Adam Williams (50:56): So if there is something beyond this connectivity that we're talking about, is there something that is essential to sustainable economic growth in an area like this, setting that really big piece that we've already talked about aside?
Wendell Pryor (51:12): I think we have a significant senior population that is either going to age in place or age out of this county. We're one of the few counties in the state where you can actually measure the impact of the senior population. I think we have to be concerned about that. I think we also have to be concerned about people being able to afford to live here. So affordable housing is a big issue because those are the people that provide the services that this community has come to depend on. So that's a huge issue, I think. And I think the community, the county, the local governments, are doing what they can, but we need to continue to invest in making this place affordable or continue to be affordable.
Adam Williams (51:56): You retired, like I said, earlier within the last couple of years.
Wendell Pryor (51:56): Yes.
Adam Williams (51:59): Year and a half or so from the EDC, but you don't strike me as someone who is just sitting still–
Wendell Pryor (52:06): Nope.
Adam Williams (52:06): ... staying idle. What is it that you're working on now? What's keeping you busy?
Wendell Pryor (52:10): I'm working on a couple of telecommunications projects. The federal government has made more money available than we did in the '30s to electrify the country. And so this is promoting broadband productivity. So I'm working with a couple of companies to make sure the local communities get represented and served in that regard. And then, like I said, I'm working with a young entrepreneur who's got kind of a game changer of an idea related to housing that I can't say much about now, but I think is going to be a game changer, not only in the community, but around the state in terms of affordable housing.
Adam Williams (52:51): So to call you retired, does that seem-
Wendell Pryor (52:54): I say-
Adam Williams (52:54): ... not really accurate?
Wendell Pryor (52:56): That's true. I'd say semi, and I just realized I've been working since I was six years old on a farm, so I'm going to continue to work. So semi is probably the best way to describe it.
Adam Williams (53:06): Well, I think of this in terms of life work then, right? As opposed to just career. And there's that chapter, and then we flip a switch and now we're retired, which means we just fish or we, I don't know what? Watch soap operas on TV, if those still exist. If we look through that sort of perspective for you, if you were to boil down what has been your life's work, which is again, continuing, and I'm going to guess it might always, what has been most essential to you? What has been the focus or the most important thing whether that's philosophically to you in terms of your personal values? What is it that you have spent your life trying to contribute?
Wendell Pryor (53:49): I think helping people and communities achieve their goals. I think you boil it all down and I thought about that question coming into the interview. But in a number of communities, I've been the first to do something. So they had a goal, for example, in San Francisco of moving from a civil service environment to human resources. I was the first human resources director for the city and county of San Francisco. So being the first to do that, and then along the way, supporting individuals who needed some counseling, needed some help, needed some connections. But yeah, that's it. Just helping individuals and communities achieve their goals.
Adam Williams (54:32): It's service.
Wendell Pryor (54:33): Yes.
Adam Williams (54:34): And it's interesting you were thinking about that and reflecting in your life in that way, because I didn't give you that question in advance. You didn't know it was coming.
Wendell Pryor (54:41): No, that's who I am.
Adam Williams (54:43): Well, I appreciate talking with you, Wendell. Thanks for, well again, the internet service we all have here, but also just for your time and sharing your insights.
Wendell Pryor (54:54): Yeah, happy to do that. And just honored to be invited. So thank you very much.
Adam Williams (55:00): That was my conversation with Wendell Pryor. If what Wendell and I talked about here today sparked curiosity for you, you can learn more in this episode show notes at wearechaffee.org. If you have comments or know someone in Chaffee County, Colorado who I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Again, we invite you to rate and review the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or whatever platform you use with that functionality. We also invite you to tell others about the Looking Upstream podcast. Help us to keep growing community and connection through conversation.
Once again, I'm Adam Williams, host, producer and photographer. John Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to Kay Hen, 106.9 FM Community Radio, where we recorded today's conversation in Salida, Colorado, to Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment, and Lisa Martin, community advocacy coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative.
(55:57): The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority, and it's supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities. You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org and on Instagram and Facebook at We Are Chaffee.
Lastly, thank you for listening. And remember, as we say here at We Are Chaffee, be human. Share stories.