Friends remember Sy Coleman, founder of Aspen Public Radio
Very interesting. Very intelligent. Very complex.
These are phrases commonly used to describe Sy Coleman, a longtime Aspen resident and founder of KAJX/Aspen Public Radio.
Coleman, a physicist and software engineering whiz, fierce political activist, “lovable curmudgeon” and most well known for starting APR out of his condo living room, died suddenly of a heart attack in Cusco, Peru, on Monday, where he’s spent his winters for more than a decade. He was 77.
“He was just a very special, very smart guy,” said Michael Eizenberg, one of Coleman’s first cousins. “We’ll all miss him terribly.”
A native of Brockton, Massachusetts, Coleman’s intellect and passion for science was discovered at an early age, according to Eizenberg.
His parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, and Eizenberg remembers spending lots of time as a family with Coleman and his other cousins in Brockton, fishing at lakes in the area and going through school together.
“Sy was different. He had wires strung up all over his house for his ham radio and was chosen for the smart kid classes early on,” Eizenberg recalls.
Coleman went on to study at the Worchester Polytechnic Institute for two years after high school before starting work in spectroscopy as a consultant. He also helped Eizenberg create an integrated computer software program for Eizenberg’s company in Boston around the same time.
“He used to say, ‘It’s not my job to give you what you say you want, it’s my job to figure out what you do want.’ That was Sy,” Eizenberg said. He went on to say the cousins stayed close through adulthood, and that Sy was a unique character who will be missed by many.
“If he were a painting, he would be a Picasso, not a Monet,” Eizenberg said. “He was jagged and different with all sorts of facets but somehow was able to pull it all together to make a good, well-centered person.”
STARTING ASPEN PUBLIC RADIO
In an interview with The Aspen Times earlier this year, Coleman reminisced on how he started KAJX in Aspen, a place he quickly grew to love and support in the a multitude of ways.
Coleman said he moved full time to Aspen in 1977 from Boston, where he was an avid public radio listener. He soon grew to miss the classical, jazz, NPR news time and bluegrass standard offerings of the big Boston stations, and was tuning a radio from the top of a mountain in the Aspen area in 1980 when he discovered something that changed everything — a station playing a clarinet concerto broadcast live from the Aspen Music Festival.
“I was so excited, I said, ‘Oh my god, I can listen to public radio from the mountaintops,’” Coleman said.
Soon after, Coleman and a few other “techy, radio types” illegally hiked transmitters up the area mountainsides, like Shadow and Smuggler, and were able to broadcast what Coleman learned was the KUWR station out of the University of Wyoming into Aspen in 1981.
This meant bringing NPR programming from the Laramie station into Aspen for the first time, Coleman said.
In 1988, the Federal Communications Commission approved Coleman’s request for a license to broadcast as KAJX, according to Aspen Public Radio. Coleman first went on air out of his living room, where he read stories from the local newspapers and made comments alongside other volunteers.
Coleman was soon able to move the station to a “shoebox” in the Aspen Business Center, according to Coleman’s good friend and former KAJX classical music host Michael Stranahan.
“It was never easy and it certainly was never regular,” Stranahan said of being a volunteer DJ for Coleman at KAJX. “But we really were having fun and the fun we were having came through the loudspeakers of radios up and down the Roaring Fork Valley.”
The station then moved to its current space at the Red Brick Center for the Arts. Frank Peters, a former Aspen politician Coleman helped campaign for and a carpenter, said he helped Coleman remodel the arts center station space and admired Coleman’s passion for the station.
“He viewed it as his initiative, his idea, something he put his own personal time and money into when no one thought of doing such a thing,” Peters said. “I always loved the character of the radio station and how the local DJs would do their own idiosyncratic thing.”
Coleman left his post as station manager in the mid-’90s, and a plaque commemorating him as founder of APR still hangs in the station today.
Earlier this year when APR made the decision to cut the bulk of its local music programming run by volunteer DJs, Coleman spoke out against the move.
He wrote in a letter to the editor that the decision “deserves to be protested in the strongest possible terms,” as he felt the community would “(lose) yet another piece of its soul” if music and volunteers were eliminated from APR.
“The station was founded on community volunteers, it stemmed from the community itself,” Coleman said to The Aspen Times in February. “I think it was the kind of station that represented what Aspen is because it grew out of the town but now is really going in the other direction.”
In a story commemorating Coleman, APR recognized his disappointment with its recent programming decisions, and said regardless the station will forever remain grateful for him and his work.
‘A DEVIL AND AN ANGEL’
While founding KAJX/APR was Coleman’s local claim to fame, many of his close friends said he’s done a lot more for the Aspen community than most people realize.
“Some people have a personal empathy and capacity for compassion that nobody knows about because their character is assessed on the surface as something else, and Sy was one of those people,” Peters said. “There were so many wonderful things he did that he never talked about.”
From being a strong advocate for affordable housing and supporting the creation of the Red Brick Center for the Arts, to being a continual development watchdog, Coleman has helped spearhead and support many local community improvement efforts, and vied for many local politicians like Peters and Rachel Richards, a current Aspen city councilwoman, during their campaigns.
“I can literally say he’s been a part of 30 years worth of efforts, whether it was passing the county healthy community fund or renewals of the real estate transfer tax for the Wheeler or affordable housing efforts,” Richards said. “Just endless levels of involvement and an astute observer of human nature.”
But while Coleman could be kind and generous, he could also be gruff, unforgiving and persistent depending on the issue and discussion at hand, according to longtime friends like Richards and Peters.
“Sy was a person who was a devil and an angel. Some people say I’m that way but he was definitely that way,” Peters said, laughing. “When he was good he was very, very good and when he was bad he was horrid.”
Bottom line though, Peters and other friends like Howard Wallach, chair of the Pitkin County Democrats, said Coleman was an extremely moral person, and everything he advocated for and fought against was out of a desire to do good.
“He had a keen sense of right and wrong and what constitutes as social justice,” Wallach said. “If you could count him among your friends you could consider yourself a very lucky person.”
Coleman also continued to pursue his passion for physics and science while in Aspen. Stranahan said Coleman “was an avid learner all life long,” went to all the lectures at the Aspen Physics Center whenever he could, and interviewed many physicists and scientists on GrassRoots TV for at least a decade.
But most recently, perhaps the greatest passion in Coleman’s life was spending time with and supporting his family in Cusco, Peru.
The specifics are complicated as he was more of an adopted member of the family, Stranahan explained, but nonetheless the family was very, very important to him.
“He became great big Uncle Sy and was very involved in his godson Manuel’s education,” Stranahan said. “He was always shipping things down to Cuzco like drones for the kids to play with. … They loved him and he loved them.”
Although Stranahan first met Coleman at KAJX in the early 1990s, the two men grew to become close friends outside of the station, with Coleman living with Stranahan for the past decade when he’d return to Aspen from Peru in the summers.
Stranahan said he spoke with Coleman over the phone a few days before his death. Coleman had tested positive for COVID-19 this spring but seemed in relatively good health last weekend, said Stranahan and others who talked with him at that time.
Coleman’s death certificate states he died of a heart attack, which his Peruvian family shared with Stranahan. It is unclear if COVID-19 was a factor in his death.
When asking Coleman’s close friends and family members what they’ll remember most about him, many mentioned things like his intellect, the deep conversations on any and all topics and his loyal friendship.
For Stranahan, he feels like a rug has been pulled out from under him but plans to focus on all of the positive moments and stories he’s shared with Coleman over the years to keep his memory alive.
“He was the kind of guy who was young at heart, young in mind and his intellectual curiosity burned bright right up to the end. You just never think of people like that as people who are going to die,” Stranahan said.
“But what I found in the few days since I got the news of his death is that talking about Sy’s death is a downer but talking about Sy Coleman in life is an upper. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
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