The Padre

The PadreSouthern Gables Neighborhood Association

This is one in an occasional series about local history and old-time characters by our neighbor Ken Fischer. To see more of his stories, click on his name at the end of the article.

He was a small man in stature, but pretty large in all else.

He wore a tam and, but for the Roman collar, one would have made him for a leprechaun for he had a wry smile and lively eyes. The wry smile was not unfamiliar. I had seen such when I would identify a new device, scheme or process that seemed too good to be true (and usually was). My beat partner, Jim Miller, would say nothing but issue that smile with the implicit assumption that this was another shell game. Some days later he would wryly ask “how’s that working out for you?” It wasn’t.

The Padre looked a lot like the actor John Fiedler.

He was a Theatine Priest. An Italian order dedicated to education of less privileged youth and characterized by gentleness, patience and humility. Boy did St. Cajetan, the founder, have his man here in James Prohens.

I met him through a great (not just good) friend, Vince Coyle. Vince was a man for all seasons who lived his faith daily, not just on Sundays. He was such a commendable character that he was the victim of multiple practical jokes throughout our lives. Vince and JoAnn had been married by the good Fr. Prohens in Colorado Springs in the fifties.

During a visit in Denver, Vince took me along to meet this diminutive pillar of the faith for lunch. I was impressed. He spoke sparingly but said a lot. He was funny and also enjoyed ribbing Vince.

At one such later lunch, I asked Father his take on the community angst fostered by a younger firebrand priest and the La Raza movement, known to the police for bombings in Denver. Without hesitation, Father quietly retorted: they have spirit and dedication but they have never heard the bullets pass overhead.

I did not immediately digest or understand his meaning. Vince clarified. James Prohens was a seminary student in Spain during the bloody Spanish Civil War and had often faced life and death encounters. He knew the territory and walked the walk. He was beloved among his parishioners at St. Cajetan Church, the first Hispanic parish in Denver. I asked him how many parishioners there were. He asked back, “Officially or unofficially?” Enough said.

My wife and I had taken our Pre-Cana (marriage preparation) instruction through him at the parish and were honored to have him at our home for the baptism of our son several years later. He was smooth and easy to talk to. Vince related that he also had skill in negotiation as well as legal issues. This became important when his traditional parish site in Auraria was to be reconstituted into Metro State University property. A new venue for St. Cajetan’s had to be found. An appropriate property was located and plans initiated until the City of Denver found multiple problems and denied the request.

St. Cajetan Church. Photo: Colorado Historical Society.

Fr. Prohens politely researched, developed and presented a better plan with all the bases covered. He recruited a phalanx of high rollers on his team to run interference for him if necessary. It was not needed, and on the strength of his plan the parish was built on west Alameda to serve a thriving population of mostly Hispanic working-class faithful. Part of the deal was to have the old church building stay and become a multi-purpose building, hosting lectures, concerts, recitals, and other community events as part of the Auraria campus.

Fr. Prohens however was an addict…. His addiction was well known and actually supported by his friends and parishioners. He loved Village Inn pie. After executive sessions with church leaders, it was off to Lakewood and Village Inn.

We had become pretty good friends, fighting the battle to make life better for people, but from different directions. We would often see father and his flock at the VI at ten o’clock or after when we would get our last coffee before ending our shift at 0100. One night the spirit of mischief overtook me and in a page out of the Vince Coyle practical joke manual, I approached father’s table and sternly advised him that this time he would have to pay his bill or receive no future service. The management was willing to overlook this once in a while but…. Fr. Prohens took up the drama and promised to do better in future.

This performance being witnessed by ten or so of his parishioners was surprising with most of them instantly stepping up to cover what appeared to be bad judgement by a PRIEST! We cut it short, laughed and embraced and the heart rates of those present went back into acceptable range.

I am not religious but do believe in God. The big guy in the sky had a skilled soldier in James Prohens. He would sometimes ask for my help which I would gladly give. Mostly it was information regarding a bad domestic situation, family members making bad choices based on bad information or a kid in trouble. He had an abiding principle that there were no ”bad” people, just poor judgement based on anger, greed, substance abuse or depression. I was advised that he could usually calm most storms and it put me to mind of a verse from a Kingston trio song: the reverend Mr. Black. “He stood like a rock, a man among men and he let that lumberjack hit him again, and then with a voice as quiet as could be, he cut him down like a big oak tree…”

The years passed. Life was busy and packed with experience and commitment. I got a call from Vince advising that father had been diagnosed with inoperable abdominal cancer. He was in no pain and at the parish, but unable to work in his life passion as extensively as before. One afternoon I called him and later met with him at the rectory. We shared some great Village Inn pie.

I had seen a lot of death and encountered people on the verge. I had never seen a man facing death with such grace and comfort.

He was going home. His race was run and he had finished well.

We shared a sentiment common to our roles in life: A man only gets so many days in his chosen vocation; make the most of them. Try to give back more than you take from life. He had.

His funeral was immense. People were standing for blocks around.

This quiet, humble man would have been pleased.

Ken Fischer holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Iowa and was involved in organizing Iowa’s first Law Enforcement Training Academy. He was on the SWAT Team in the Lakewood Police Department, and retired as a Senior Sergeant. A longtime resident of Southern Gables, he is an experienced woodsman and now runs a firewood business. 

A Christmas Story

A Christmas StorySouthern Gables Neighborhood Association

This week we feature a story about an earlier time, good people, and a gentle deception, by our neighbor Ken Fischer. To see more of his stories, click on his name at the end of the article.

His name was Francis Hoffman. Francis Frederick Hoffman I believe.

It was 1957 and the midpoint of the Ozzie and Harriet years. Times were good. The suburbs were still blooming with GI Bill money. Although the Russians worried us with Sputnik and we feared it might bomb us, we did duck-under-the-desk drills in school so we could be safe if they did.

Summer was looming. Another year of sticky hot deadly humid Iowa sunbaking except, to my surprise, Mr. Hoffman contacted my dad about tuck pointing his small brick house. My bricklayer dad was not really interested in such a small job and opened the gate for me. I had learned the basics of applying “mud” (mortar) with pointing trowel and striker to loose or missing bed joints between wall bricks. Also the more technical mortar “buttering” of suspicious brick along windows. In addition, my brother and I learned enough to be dangerous around brick veneering and in future years built walls, fireplaces, barbeque pits and some ornamental endeavors we will not discuss.

The Hoffman job would take a solid week for which I would be paid fifty dollars — minimum laborer’s wage. It went pretty well as I was athletic and worked from a ladder with minimal difficulty save keeping my mortar wet. I found it slightly odd that it was my dad paying me. Because he was my dad and knew I shouldn’t have all that money at one time, he paid the job off at ten dollars on the first of each of the following 5 weeks. I later found out Mr. Hoffman paid nothing and Bob Fischer covered the job. He was doing a favor for a neighbor, as well as paying for me to hone a skill.

Mr. Hoffman was a Bob Cratchit-like little man who spoke in the mumbling phrases of Mr. Magoo. He was a businessman of some sort. Left in the morning in a floppy suit. Returned at night, but was seldom seen outside the house. Mrs. Hoffman was never seen and it was understood that she was an invalid.

Their adult son, Francis, was known in the neighborhood as “Franney.” He would occasionally walk from the back door to the one car garage and do some type of bench work. We never saw him elsewhere, and he never spoke. This peculiarity fostered neighborhood talk, and the kids’ perception that Franney was weird, odd, strange, peculiar and scary. He wore military garb, usually khaki pants and a sleeveless olive drab tank top. It was rumored that he had been in the war and came home ”different.” Neighborhood women who sat together with iced tea on a front porch two doors down had a ripe gossip source in Franney. As usual they would add two and two, get five, then add four and get eleven. Several of the ladies changed the subject as this Salem-style inquisition began. As a youngster of ten, neither I nor my fellow adventurers much cared. However, just in case and just to be safe, we never traversed the Hoffman yard. The speculation about Franney made for respect or fear of what might loom in that garage. At one point, my dad afforded me a clue regarding this neighborhood rumor. I made some mention of Franney peering long and deep from the darkness of the garage toward the baseball game in the street. Pop’s comment — normal and brief, totally Fischer: “You think you’re pretty savvy. What you don’t know would fill a lot of books.”

What I did not know until years later was that Francis Hoffman was a pretty solid halfback at Senior High in the thirties. He was popular in school, a leader. He entered the Marines just after Pearl Harbor. He served his Marine Corps time in the Pacific and was a survivor of Iwo Jima — the most hallowed battle in Corps history. Those few who knew the real story, knew that Francis never really came home. He was termed to have “battle fatigue” and was not comfortable around people. Most of the men in the neighborhood were combat-seasoned in the first or second war, but spoke not at all, or very minimally, about their service. Most, however, seemed to put it behind them. Franney couldn’t.

Francis and his family were hardcore German as were we Fischers, the Vollenweiders next door and the Schmidts across the street. We were equaled by the very Irish Watsons, and the McCauleys in the same block. Having an early developed steel trap mind, I noted that the German parents were quietly supportive when it came to Francis’ singularity, probably because of his German ethnicity. The Irish were also supportive, but (I would learn) for different reasons.

The Nativity Church, one block away, was under the purview of Father Shekleton. He was more Irish than his name sounded, and his diverse flock brought the German and Irish communities together seamlessly. At Christmas, the church featured Santa Claus for the little ones. For one Saturday afternoon and evening, one of the stout parishioner uncles or granddads would don red and white to visit with the excited little people. When the prevailing Santa’s knees went south, a new Santa was needed. Father Shekleton was guarded about the new Santa and gave his holy assurance that the man was of high character and very interested in this one-day job. Parishioners assumed that the newly recruited Santa was from another parish, to prevent an identification crisis as had unfortunately happened with “Uncle Bill” once before.

The new Santa arrived in character and never left it. He spoke slowly and softly and with a calm, but deep and knowing voice. He would explain in detail the workings of the North Pole, the elf function and how he could cover the territory so efficiently. The children would linger in front of the big chair and listen to this first person history from a well-padded man, who sold it exceptionally well. Several of the parish mothers dressed as Santa’s helpers and provided small packets of jelly beans (the reindeer loved these treats) for the urchins to share on Christmas eve. Miraculously, each packet had the child’s name written on it in olde English script. How did they do that? Mrs. Watson (the artist), backed up by Grandma Vollenweider and Mrs. Schmidt. The child’s name would be mentioned and Peg Watson went to work. After the last child was “interviewed,” Santa would swing a large black bag (not dissimilar to a Navy sea bag) over his shoulder. His helpers would shake sleigh bells. He would gather all the letters regarding all the anticipated presents and make a dramatic exit through the back door of the church hall.

This door led to Nevada Street which Santa crossed in full costume, then walked through the high bushes disappearing across the vacant lot to the rear door of the Hoffman house.

The secret was secure for many years as that is how Franney wanted it. However, by way of Christmas cheer, a Dubuque Ham would arrive by messenger at the Hoffman house at about the same time each Christmas season. The trusted Germans of the neighborhood suspected the wily Irish, but it was not openly discussed.

In later years Francis Hoffman was good company for his mother, who was actually bedridden. In addition, he performed a variety of anonymous acts of kindness like shoveling snow (always covered completely to avoid detection) for the elderly. He was given leads on summer and winter service needs by his pal, Father Shekleton. Should some recipient of his work recognize him, they were strongly advised to keep it in the family. He came and went via vacant lot. Francis wanted no publicity or notoriety.

I thought of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Scout.” Francis was the “Boo Radley” of the neighborhood. A good and quiet man, who chose his own way in the world. He gave back far more than he took from life.

Ken Fischer holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Iowa and was involved in organizing Iowa’s first Law Enforcement Training Academy. He was on the SWAT Team in the Lakewood Police Department, and retired as a Senior Sergeant. A longtime resident of Southern Gables, he is an experienced woodsman and now runs a firewood business. 

About Half Tough

About Half ToughSouthern Gables Neighborhood Association

An occasional series about local history and old-time Lakewood characters by our neighbor Ken Fischer. To see more of his stories, click on his name at the end of the article.

This is a story about a couple who were definitive of a generation we may never see a match for again. They were aptly called the greatest generation which brings on the inquiry: how can you tell the entire story if there are still chapters to be written?

Their story is complete and they were solid. They honored the flag for reasons that many of today’s icons cannot digest. They were Americans and that is still a good trait to possess. I met Harold one sunny day after being directed to a small ranch home in the center of Lakewood. Humble but clean and adequate.

He had been cautioned about getting on his roof to remove branches and leaves. He was having dizzy episodes incumbent with 80 years of hard work. The city afforded volunteers to assist seniors in this activity although Harold felt completely comfortable doing it himself. It was the perspective of attempting to rationalize going up a ladder with his bride of 55 years that made him take the path of least resistance and accept help.

I had been at the door jousting with a female voice for a few minutes. She was giving no quarter and rasply interrogated me as to my presence. In short, she was not buying my goods and the 4 dead bolt locks on the front door assured no contact short of a SWAT crisis entry. “Deal with Harold…he’ll be back shortly” OK.

Shortly, a snappy green Mercury Cougar rolls into the drive and out pops a short but serious gent probably in his eighties. “Who the hell are you?”

I explained. He allowed me on first base. “So you met the wife? Ain’t she a pip? We ‘re married 55 years, no kids yet… wanted to see if it was going to work.” Old school. Pretty fast old coot. Not to waste any time, he floors me with his next one-liner: ”How do I look for a dead man?” Among the multiple choices for response, I had no game. So tell me the story, Harold.

He did. Two doctors advised that his heart was damaged enough to require immediate surgery but both declined, advising that he would die on the table. No light at the end of this tunnel. The third doctor advised a 20% chance of survival. Better odds than Vegas. He took them and survived despite dire predictions. He noted there are more old soldiers than old doctors and he had been a “Marine Raider.”

I queried, “Marine?” Nope. Marine Raider. A special force established during WW2, a precursor to the Navy SEALs and a tough bunch tasked to accomplish any difficult assignment regular troops were not trained for. The unit was disbanded after the war, possibly based on a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt to her son’s Raider unit. Their living conditions were very marginal and their tasks seemed monumental.

USMC Photo

Harold was bristling proud of his service in this group, but as was the norm in his generation, he spoke little about specifics. These men knew what they did and that it had to be done, so they got on with it and returned to their beloved country to speak English, not German.

I stopped by regularly to visit and learn. Harold had several careers but mostly in hardware. He had about 100 wood bins, accurately marked for content and he knew “stuff” about repair, fittings, durability and quality.

Priscilla was another page in the book. Feisty. Hard bark. Strong faith and an obvious knock down drag out love for this little man who saved democracy but couldn’t find his glasses. They sparred. She was four foot nothing and went about fifty pounds, but a tiger with a voice from the wizard of Oz.

For several years they were a stop at least in spring and summer. Trees needed trimming, leaves needed gathering, and they needed some light assistance to take advantage of services offered to seniors such as grocery delivery.

Harold had a stroke a few years into our friendship and was placed in a nearby nursing home. Priscilla went to be with him as often as she could get a ride but he was failing. He passed within months. At least twice a summer she would call to have her back lawn mowed. The dilemma was in convincing her to have her dogs utilize a given sector of the yard to do their business. She would wait for the grass to reach over a foot before asking for a mow.

The resultant was not only a mow but a launch of material and a tricky cleanup of the mower. No big deal. A gas mask. A pressure washer and a plastic suit. She earned the task. It always bothered me to see her collection of deadbolt locks. Finally I convinced her to have a friend who did locks on the side to examine her tribute to Fort Knox. I was impelled by the image of Priscilla fighting with the wrong key in the wrong lock as fire lit up her nightgown.

A victory allowed me to sleep better knowing my friend Ken Stratton replaced worn and dysfunctional double cylinders with single cylinders. As usual, Kenny did it on his own dime. I happened to be on a mountainside one afternoon dropping dead trees when the phone rang and it was her. More frantic than normal, she could not turn off her shower! The time honored rotary handle “would not work”. Harold had installed it in the sixties. Things just don’t last anymore!

I dispatched my good wife, Pam, to get over there and prevent a flood. Secure in the belief Pam could get through the front door without a locksmith AND that Priscilla would let her in, I awaited good news.

And it was. No plumbing problem. Priscilla had lost sufficient strength over years to finally be unable to push the shower valve inward to shut off the water.

No, not Priscilla, but she could swing a mallet. Photo from ZDNet.

Solution: a rubber mallet capable of driving the valve inward. Now if she would only keep it nearby….

I had not heard from Priscilla in spring and summer was upon us. I went by the house and there were no signs of problems. There was no answer in repeated calls.

I knocked. No answer.  Strange. No dogs barking either.

A neighbor approached. Unspoken reality ensued.

Priscilla had died a few weeks earlier. There were no immediate relatives. Married going on 60 years, no children, seemed like nobody was left to remember them, except possibly a niece in Arizona.

I remember them, and now maybe you will too, a little bit. God bless them both. I mused that they were again bickering and parrying verbally with one another and enjoying every minute of it.


Ken Fischer holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Iowa and was involved in organizing Iowa’s first Law Enforcement Training Academy. He was on the SWAT Team in the Lakewood Police Department, and retired as a Senior Sergeant. A longtime resident of Southern Gables, he is an experienced woodsman and now runs a firewood business.