Longtime Aspen resident and humanitarian James M. DeFrancia has dedicated his life to service both in and out of Aspen.
His Aspen work includes once serving as president of the Rotary Club and as a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission and the city’s budget task force. Currently he sits on the city’s Historical Preservation Committee. He’s also working on Amendment 66, a November question on the state ballot related to raising money for education.
“We’re a small town, but we’re part of a larger world,” DeFrancia said. “(People) here are involved in things outside just our local community and doing our best to contribute to the larger society.”
DeFrancia’s contributions beyond Aspen were demonstrated in July, when the Department of the Navy recognized and presented him with one of the three top Civilian Service Honorary Awards — the Distinguished Civilian Service Award.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus presented DeFrancia the award “for (his) exemplary service while serving as Member of the Secretary of the Navy Advisory Panel from February 2010 to December 2012,” the award says.
DeFrancia has devoted much of his life to the Navy. He first attended the Naval Academy in 1959 and went on to serve seven years of active duty and in the reserves for 20 years. DeFrancia took this position with no hesitation and said he was happy to serve after being nominated by the White House and appointed by the secretary of defense.
“The Navy was always my first love,” DeFrancia said. “When I received this appointment three years ago, I welcomed it. It was a great honor to me personally because of my long-standing affection and commitment to the Navy.”
It’s the highest civilian award that an individual can achieve, given to a person for their extraordinary service, specific achievements and/or accomplishments, or heroism in a life-threatening situation, according to the Navy.
DeFrancia was recognized for his recommendations specifically concerning energy efficiency, shipbuilding, Asia-Pacific engagement, intelligence organization and maritime issues. He said he was most excited about the efforts he devoted toward energy-saving options within the Navy.
The Navy is focused on reducing its energy and fossil-fuel demand by 50 percent in the next six years, DeFrancia said. After being exposed to the Aspen community’s efforts toward saving energy, DeFrancia was able to take this knowledge and experience to Washington, D.C., he said.
“It wasn’t so much because of anything I did, but I shared a lot of information I got from other people,” he said.
Born in Denver, DeFrancia is a fourth-generation Coloradan. He first started visiting Aspen with his parents when he was a young child. When he was old enough to ski, he would come out for a weekend with his uncles.
“We would get here late Friday night and ski all day on Saturday, ski Sunday and leave in the afternoon.” DeFrancia said. “I’d get home around 9 p.m.”
DeFrancia became the principal of Lowe Enterprises, a national real estate development company engaged in residential, commercial and resort development activities. He is also the president of Weston Capital Corp., another real estate firm, and he has held several positions with ITT Corp. DeFrancia and his wife, Cynthia, built a home in Aspen in 1989, and he has been living here since then.
DeFrancia calls Aspen home but has spent most of his life traveling to the East Coast and across the Atlantic. After graduating the Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering, he set sail for Vietnam.
He took post at the Naval Headquarters in Saigon, served as an aide to Rear Adm. Leland Porter Kimball, the commanding officer to the Naval Supply Center in San Diego, and worked in the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.
Choosing to join the Navy was second nature to DeFrancia after his father and uncles served in World War II. He wanted to see the world and do his civic duty.
“The Navy seemed like something exciting, interesting and different, particularly for someone raised in the mountains,” he said.
During his seven years of active duty, DeFrancia became an officer with lots of “salad dressing,” a term used to describe an individual’s number of decorations. DeFrancia has seven present decorations, including the Expert Rifleman Medal, Navy Achievement Medal and Arms Forces Expeditionary Medal, among others.
His service to the Navy and Aspen never slows down. DeFrancia has served in the Navy Congressional Liaison Office at Congress, declassified top-secret documents from World War II in the Naval Archives, served with the director of Naval History in reviewing archival material and been involved with many more reserve duties and Department of Defense commissions.
Mike Hoffman, president of the Rotary, has known DeFrancia for eight years and sees him as “a respectable and all-around good guy.”
At one Rotary meeting, an individual made a distasteful and insulting presentation to the members, and the one man to stand up and make a comment to this individual was DeFrancia, Hoffman shared.
“What he had to say was so beautifully articulated and intelligently stated,” Hoffman said. “It was absolutely the correct thing to do.”
DeFrancia believes that the nature of community service is to contribute to the local and larger community you are a part of. He does not treat this award as a personal award but sees it as an award he was able to achieve through his broad experiences professionally and philanthropically.
“As citizens, we have an obligation to contribute to our community, and in doing so, we make our community better and a better community for us,” he said.
Abby Margulis is an editorial intern working at The Aspen Times. She is a junior at DePauw University in Indiana.
“As citizens we have an obligation to contribute to our community and in doing so we make the community better and a better community for us.” — James M. DeFrancia