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Barney Graves died June 23rd at the Prospect Park Living Center in Estes Park. He was 80. The Trail Gazette ran his obituary on the front page. They listed his many contributions to Estes Park. They called him a civic leader, and he deserved that; at various times he was president of the Chamber of Commerce, treasurer of the school board, chairman of the Sanitation District, member of the Planning Commission, and member of the Town Board. He was a Shriner, an Elk, and a member of the Lions and Rotary. He was a volunteer fireman for 20 years and was active in the library and museum. The Estes Park schools are, in large part, a result of Barney’s activism.
The obituary tells us what he did, but little about who he was. Barney was my friend and my employer, and when I was young I knew him, not as well as some and better than most.
In my late teens Barney hired me for the summer to help install gas lines and furnaces in our valley. At that time there were two gas companies in Estes Park. One was The Estes Park Gas Company, owned by Barney’s father, and the Graves Gas Company, owned by Barney. I heard a number of stories about why Barney had decided to strike out on his own and compete with his father, but it was all conjecture. Barney never talked about it.
So if you own an older home with a floor furnace, Barney may have installed it; floor furnaces were the heat of choice in the 50s and 60s. He hired me because I was skinny and could get into the crawl spaces under old cabins to hook up furnaces. I also dug ditches to lay gas pipe at Longs Peak Inn. I learned how to thread black iron pipe and flare copper tubing. We used a tool to make a larger opening in the end of the pipe, where it would fit into the appliance. It takes a certain amount of skill to flare copper, and Barney was patient with my first attempts. He took the time to teach me. Barney was an artist with a flaring tool.
Like the rest of us, Barney wasn’t perfect. His work and his civic leader role took a toll in his family life. He saw quite a bit of Leona, his first wife, because she had a home decorating shop in his office building on Moraine Avenue. Leona died in 1975 after a short, painful illness. When Barney retired a few years later he sold the business to Ferrellgas.
His children, including two boys, took no interest in going into the business, and I think it bothered him. When two people work for eight hours a day, eat lunch and sweat together all summer, you learn as much about the person as you do about the work. He had a temper, too, and when he got mad his already florid complexion turned very red. It was always easy to tell when Barney was steamed about something.
The strongest image I have, however, is of him laughing. He loved a good joke, as long as it was clean. I never heard him swear, and he had plenty of cause, including some of my work. He was always stocky, and when he laughed his shoulders shook and then the shaking sort of worked its way down his body. When he was through with a job he always had a smile and wave of his hand for the customer as he turned to his truck.
When I was away for a year, he took a special interest in my family, making sure everything fired by propane was working and that the tank had plenty of gas. He did that with many of his customers who were alone, elderly or infirm. As a result, his customers were fiercely loyal.
Times change. Now we look for the lowest price for propane, and hot water heat has replaced floor furnaces in many new houses. Since Barney retired I haven’t even known the name of the person filling my tank. Barney enjoyed having a few words, maybe a cool drink, and in general getting to know his customers. He and I would reminisce about that long ago summer. In later years he had drivers who filled tanks, but Barney often cruised the territory, asking people about their needs and pressing the flesh to cement relationships. He was a humanitarian, but he was also a good businessman. He knew that his reputation for friendliness, competitive prices and fast service was what made him a respected and well-to-do member of the community.
Barney moved to Estes Park in 1935, so he was here, except for a brief hiatus when he retired, for 60 years. And now he’s gone.
What is the measure of a person’s life? Is it public service? Is it a good family? Is it achievement in work? Perhaps it’s just what they leave behind, in the lives and memories of the people they knew.
I have two floor furnaces, installed by Barney, and I haven’t thought much about them as they’ve cycled on and off over the years. Now, when they fire up on a chilly morning, I think of Barney, and miss him, and probably always will.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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