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On the Death of Otto Walter, Postmaster
Otto Walter was an original. In a place where characters abound, Otto was one of a kind.
We knew he wasn’t really well. He’d had heart bypass surgery a few years ago, and he’d given up smoking and drinking, but we knew, if we thought about it, that a bypass improves the quality of life, but doesn’t extend it very much. Still, it was a shock.
I had pulled up the to the post office that Friday morning to pick up my mail, and I paused to admire the new bulletin board which was built because Otto had for years permitted, in a slight bending of postal regulations, the posting of various unofficial notices in the post office. When some jerk snitched, he had been forced to end the practice, so we now have a handsome community bulletin board. I worked from left to right, and I saw Peggy Mills’ card, and a hasty scrawl with an ad for a refrigerator: “$25.00 –Works.” And then, in the center of the board, a neat, handwritten notice: “Otto Walter, our postmaster, died this morning, November 23rd, 1990.” Even now it’s hard to believe. I had just assumed he would always be here.
To many who knew him only slightly, he was “Postmaster Otto,” but he was much, much more. When he died on November 23rd I lost a good and dear old friend.
I suppose I knew Otto as long as anyone outside his two families; I met him in 1946, when he and Margaret first moved here and he didn’t have a beard and his hair was always neatly barbered and he was 23 years old. He bought some land and lived at the Pow Wow while he worked on his house, just across the road from the remains of Alonzo Allen’s cabin. In addition to calling square dances, he did the sorts of things many men have done around here, both before and since. He was a caretaker, carpenter and handyman, and he had a little sawmill where he provided lumber for a number of houses still standing as monuments to his hard work, as well as for his own house, which progressed by fits and starts for more than 20 years.
His left arm was crippled by polio in the early years of WW II, but Otto nevertheless was able to do everything anyone with two good arms could do, and some things they couldn’t, like running a jackhammer with one arm, and water witching.
He came here, like so many others, to have a home of his own in a place he thought beautiful, and he quickly became an active part of the community and in his later years one of its acknowledged leaders. But he was our caretaker in the 1950s, and his handiwork can still be seen around our place. In the late 60s, although he was really no longer in that business, he installed a new septic tank at our cabin. He must have been a little rusty. He overestimated the amount of dynamite needed and blew a two pound rock about a hundred feet in the air. When it came down it went through the roof and landed on the bathroom floor. He patched the roof — no extra charge.
When he became the postmaster in 1960 he ceased to be our caretaker and instead saw to it that my mail always reached me, wherever I was. I told friends all over America, in Japan, on Guam and in Southeast Asia, “Just address it to ‘Allenspark, Colorado,’ and I’ll get it. I did, too, because Otto kept track of me, just as he did of any number of people who needed no other address.
My travels had to do with the Air Force, and he didn’t agree with my participation in the Vietnam war. We argued about it, but he didn’t hold it against me. And he did love a good argument. Lacking much of a formal education, he was nevertheless well read. He helped start a Great Books Club in the 70s, and he enjoyed reading the modern philosophers, too, though he seldom alluded to it. But his reading often showed when the discussion heated up.
Over the years we argued about just about everything from politics to how to raise our children, but such disagreements never interfered with our respect for one another or our friendship. There were those who didn’t like Otto, mostly because his opinions didn’t match theirs and he had an opinion he was willing to voice about almost everything. Sometimes that earned him the enmity of various individuals and groups, but that didn’t bother him. As far as I know, he never held a grudge, except against people with power who mistreated those without..
Aside from his devotion to water management and fire protection, he wasn’t a joiner of groups, but he was always interested in current events and how the country was being managed, or mismanaged. For years he wrote letters to the editor, mostly in favor of lost causes. His last one appeared just a week before the recent election, asking for votes for Josie Heath. She lost.
As he got older, he cultivated a curmudgeon image with some care, but it was a facade. When I asked him why, he said, “Aw, I don’t know, David. I’m just havin’ fun.” But underneath there was a gentle man who loved and supported his children and adored his grandchildren. And, dispensing common sense as often as stamps from behind the counter at the Post Office, he soothed tempers and patched up friendships.
To be sure, there were some rough times for Otto and his two families — no life is perfect, and Otto’s was far from perfect, but he gave me some of the most valued memories of my life, of the evenings when we danced to “Sally Goodin” under the pines at the Pow Wow and it seemed the summer could never end.
I will remember him best for a gift he often said afterward didn’t mean very much to him, but has been an important part of my life. In 1961, when I married and Otto was the new postmaster, I brought my bride to the mountains for our honeymoon, and we had dinner with Otto and Margaret. Otto said he regretted not having a wedding present for us, and I responded by telling him that he could indeed give us something we wanted very much.
Most people knew Otto only as caretaker, builder, or postmaster, but few were aware that he was an accomplished painter. He had a water color of a tea kettle, a pipe, and some fruit, painted in 1941, and an oil, done in 1954 in the drip style of Jackson Pollock, a painter Otto admired. It was among the last paintings he ever did. He gave us both of them as a wedding present, and the later one, on 1/4 inch plywood, hung as the centerpiece of our living rooms (over the fireplace when we had one) in 14 homes over the next 29 years. In some places we were allowed few possessions, but that painting always traveled with us. Today it hangs where it looks truly at home — above the fireplace on Big Owl Road.
Friends who look at the two paintings are mystified by the difference in styles — one highly representational and the other a mass of swirling colors. But to us they are a living reminder of Otto; an apparent contradiction which speaks to us of the many changes in his life — his appreciation for the beauty of simple things and the turmoil with which he often surrounded himself as he grew older. And they are a constant reminder of a good friend who often mystified us with his behavior but who added immeasurably to our lives.
I often brag to visitors that I own two original Otto Walters, but in fact there was just one original Otto, and he’s gone, and will be sorely missed.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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