c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article first appeared in All About History magazine.
“Doctor Colorado’s” shingle is always out for the Centennial State’s History. Dr. Noel is an award-winning author and Colorado’s official State Historian. He is Professor of History at University of Colorado at Denver, and has authored an amazing 53 books and thousands of articles. In 2018, he was awarded the Colorado Author’s League Lifetime Achievement Award. He appears as “Dr. Colorado” regularly on “Colorado and Company” on Denver’s NBC. In 2018, Dr. Noel took time out of his busy day to talk about what he does.
Q: Being a native of Boston, what is your link to Colorado?
A: Although I was born in Boston, I must point out that I was conceived in Colorado, inside the Moffat Railroad Tunnel [insert laugh track here].
Q. Who gave you your colorful moniker, “Dr. Colorado”?
A. I received it from Colorado’s star marketing man, the late Lew Cady. He proposed that I become “Dr. Colorado” and make appearances. He set up a booth for me with signs at the front—“The Doctor is In” or “The Doctor is Out”—so I could go for a bathroom or a beer break. Then he gave me a lab coat monogrammed “Dr. Colorado.” At the time, I was mowing yards for $1 a yard. I asked if the “Dr. Colorado” gig paid. It was $100 an hour! So I have been “Dr. Colorado” ever since.
Q. Is it true that your Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Colorado Boulder was on the bars of Denver?
A. Yes. I was looking for a topic when my main advisor suggested, “Why don’t you do your dissertation on bars; you are already spending so much time there?” So I undertook to visit every single bar in Denver. I focused on the social, political and economic aspects, how they welcomed ethnic and gay groups, how they worked elections, and how they helped newcomers find a job, a home, a spouse. This was in the 1970’s when the Denver Urban Renewal Authority was demolishing many skid row bars. So I visited those bars first.
Initially my wife, Sumiko, would go with me. She was a visiting nurse who was assigned to make sure that the skid row denizens who had Tuberculosis were taking their medicine. Along with another nurse, she would go to the hotels and flophouses where the patients lived, but found that these guys hit the bars first thing in the morning. The landlords would tell the girls in which bars their patients could be found. The pair, in their nursing uniforms, would find their patients and take them, one at a time, to a back room and order them, “Drop your pants.” Then they would give them a shot of streptomycin in the fanny.
Q. What have you written lately?
Since Colorado: A Historical Atlas came out, I have co-authored with Steve Leonard on A Short History of Denver (2015), and just finished E-470: More Than a Highway: The Story of a Global Tolling Industry Pioneer. And I recently updated my book, Buildings of Colorado. Also, I signed on with Globe Pequot Press to write Boom & Bust Colorado, which focuses on booms and busts in the soaring beer and marijuana business. As the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, Colorado is reaping more than $100 million a year in taxes.
Q. Why is preserving history is important?
I have come to appreciate, promote and practice historic preservation as a way to make history come alive. With 2,000 new residents arriving in Colorado every week, it is vital to preserve the buildings that meant so much to our ancestors and can become anchors for present Coloradans. I served as chair of the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission, which has now designated more than 350 individual landmarks and 56 historic districts.
Landmark designation has transformed the lower downtown from dollar-a-night flophouses to million dollar lofts. It is the most spectacular case of how historic district designation can stabilize and uplift neighborhoods. Preservation is a way to promote a sense of place, of commitment to your neighborhood, your city. I try to build up interest in local landmarks, be they churches or taverns, parks or haunted houses.
Q. I have had the privilege of visiting your wonderful library, which spans the inner walls of your basement. Tell us more about your book collection.
A. In the last few years, my bookshelves have started groaning. I originally aspired to collect every book ever written on Colorado. Now if I acquire another book, I have to make shelf space by giving books to Denver Public Library. I have kept the most precious books, of course, hoping to take them to Heaven with me. I know I am going there, in case you wondered, because the archbishop promised me that when I finished Colorado Catholicism and the Archdiocese of Denver, 1857-1989.
Also I work with grad students and Denver Public Library to list all new Colorado non-fiction books in The Colorado Book Review. We try to list all books and review the more important ones. I have loved teaching at CU Denver full time since 1990. I am proud of many students whom I have helped to publish their own books or articles over the years, as well as those with whom I have co-authored. I do suspect my students have taught me more than I have taught them.
Q. It seems you are always on the run, giving tours for Colorado history buffs and students, History Colorado and the Smithsonian. Does it feel as though you eat, breathe, drink and sleep history?
A. My wife takes wonderful care of me and runs the household, giving me all the time I want for writing. Since I work at home, I take breaks to go out and putter in the garden, pull a few weeds, and pick flowers. I love gardening. Voltaire, the wonderful French wit and historian, concluded his masterpiece, Candide, with his final advice: “Cultive ton jardin” (cultivate your garden). Voltaire also gave us my favorite definition of history as “a trick we play on the dead.”
For more about Jan MacKell Collins, check out her website at JanMacKellCollins.com.