John Colson: A word about wealth and the wealthy |

John Colson: A word about wealth and the wealthy

The week just past has been something of a melancholy time for yours truly, in part because death and other circumstances awakened in me certain realizations that I have long felt privately but never clearly expressed publicly.

To explain: A loyal and regular reader of this column over the past three-and-a-half decades might conclude that I despise all people who have a lot of money.

That is not true, and perhaps it is time I explained myself.

I can point to a list containing several local examples of wealthy individuals whom I have respected and honored, starting with the recently deceased Carbondale-based benefactor Jim Calaway (condolences to his widow and partner in philanthropy, Connie).

In fact, it was Jim’s death at 87 that prompted this column as an idea whose time had come.

I should note that this highly subjective and personal list of admirable wealthy neighbors includes George and Patty Stranahan, currrently of Carbondale, whose largesse has enriched the lives of many people up and down the valley over the years, and Virgil and Joan Simon of Snowmass Village, whose generosity has powered the growth and vitality of the Aspen Choral Society and given the valley a long heritage of great choral music that culminated in a recent performance by some ACS members at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

I’m sure there are others in the valley who deserve similar credit for using their wealth in ways that benefited society at large rather then diminishing it, but I’ll leave it at that for now and try to explain my thought processes in this rather murky matter.

To begin with, my thinking goes this way.

I understand how some might conclude I stand in opposition to all wealthy people, because I frequently do take off like an avenging warrior after those who use their riches (and resultant political and social power) for purposes that I feel are undemocratic, unenlightened and generally unsupportable in a global-welfare sense.

One example of those I target, for instance, are those who as a group seem determined to support efforts to undermine democracy by making it harder for other groups to exercise their rights to vote and to have an effect on the governance of this country.

The notorious Koch brothers are at the top of that list, predictably enough, as they have been ladling funds aimed at assisting Republican politicians at the state level in their collective bid to rig elections on the GOP’s behalf. I’m referring here to the practice known as gerrymandering, a nickname for the decennial process of redistricting state and federal electoral districts that is mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

Originally billed as a way to guarantee equal representation in state capitals and in the U.S. House of Representatives, gerrymandering has in the past half-century become a way for political party hacks (mostly on the Republican side) to solidify their hold on political power by manipulating district lines to disempower such groups as Democrats, people of color, the poor, the elderly and college students studying away from home.

But it would be simplistic to presume that all wealthy people support this and other like-minded, political-power grabs (the most blatant of which can be seen today in such states as Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina). I would bet that my aforementioned list of local wealthy philanthropists do not in any way favor these kinds of blatant attempts to undermine the principles of democracy.

Calaway, for instance, came up from a hardscrabble young life to make his fortune in the oil fields of Texas and then moved to Colorado, met and married Connie, and made his home in the Roaring Fork Valley starting in the 1990s.

Once here, the Calaways immediately started spreading their wealth around to benefit everything from health care institutions to schools, animal welfare to local live theater, community-building facilities like the Third Street Center to the struggling Garfield County Library District, among others.

The Stranahans, who used to live in the Woody Creek area, long have been well-known for unstinting support of many local causes, persons and organizations.

And the Simons, also longtime valley denizens, have quietly been helping an organization that brings joy to the masses in the form of angelic voices from volunteer singers.

These exercises in giving, to me, are not in sync with the selfish, power-mad behaviors that I so frequently rail about in this space.

I’ve been thinking for some time about setting the record straight in this regard, both as a way of explaining myself and at the same time as a way of pointing out that while all that glitters is not gold, all that is golden is not necessarily evil or bad.

I still find it impossible, of course, to accept or endorse humanity’s emphasis on money as the most important way of measuring a person’s true value in society, nor do I welcome money’s role in propping up authoritarian and autocratic tendencies on the part of rulers both here and abroad, and its globally unsustainable establishment of oligarchy as a preferred way of running the world.

But I am thankful that some of our wealthy neighbors (and certainly there are others in other places) care so much about the welfare of their communities and their neighbors and are willing to put their money where their hearts are.

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