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Mayor Bob: Tribute to a Springs icon

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Mayor Bob Isaac got a big laugh out of being presented with - his own Superman cape, and someone turned this photo - into a batch of buttons. - CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • City of Colorado Springs
  • Mayor Bob Isaac got a big laugh out of being presented with his own Superman cape, and someone turned this photo into a batch of buttons.

For more than two decades, the phone calls would come out of the blue, perhaps several times a year. In those days before caller ID, one never knew whom or what to expect.

The suspense ended as soon as that thundering voice would say something like, "We need to talk. Let's have breakfast tomorrow at the Waffle House on Eighth Street."

You didn't say no to the mayor. You maneuvered your schedule. We'd meet at that little place, which no longer exists, or perhaps the original Wade's Pancake House, and we wouldn't waste a minute. Between bites, or sips of coffee, he would "enlighten" me on whatever subjects mattered most that day, from city finances and utilities to baseball.

Bob Isaac never beat around the bush. He could laugh and be charming, but he didn't squander his time with insincere niceties. There was a purpose, a reason behind every single thing he did. And those motives weren't personal, either.

During his 18 years (1979-97) as mayor of Colorado Springs, Isaac wasn't just a leader. He ruled the city, and his forceful style was both dominating and awe-inspiring. Whether you liked him or not, you had to appreciate him because he knew more than anyone about every detail, every side, of every city issue, major or minuscule.

And if you didn't have a complete, impeccable case for your idea or argument, Mayor Bob took great relish in lowering the boom, slicing and dicing, publicly or one-on-one, even at the Waffle House. Yet somehow, he could perform that verbal surgery and leave you feeling respect, not anger, toward him. You could find hundreds of people around the city who share the same experiences and opinions.

Isaacs acquaintances over the years included former New - York Mayor Ed Koch. - CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • City of Colorado Springs
  • Isaacs acquaintances over the years included former New York Mayor Ed Koch.

All of us in that group felt another emotion last Friday, after the news came that Isaac had died at age 80, surrounded by family at the Union Printers Home, succumbing to complications from pneumonia.

Those who knew him were, and are, wistful and heavy-hearted, mainly because we never had the chance to say goodbye more properly. After his deteriorating health and memory took him away from normal life a few years ago, only those closest to Mayor Bob were able to continue seeing him regularly.

After arriving at the Independent in early 2007, one of my first moves was inquiring whether one more looking-back interview might be possible. The answer was both poignant and discouraging: "Some days he might still be with us, but most days he's not."

One can only hope that, in his declining years, Mayor Bob might have sat down with a tape recorder and given his version of this city's history across his lifetime. His reflections, observations and inside information would be an absolute treasure, an invaluable lesson in local politics for anyone. But as far as we know, that didn't happen, leaving those of us who knew him with only memories.

"Bob was a phenomenal individual," says Vice Mayor Larry Small, who served one term (1991-93) on City Council with Isaac and still considers him a role model. "I never saw anybody like him in politics. He was a conservative guy, but very visionary, and he was truly a defender of the city. His style was to take things head-on, and when an issue came up, he wanted a decision today.

"But one thing a lot of people probably never knew about him: If anyone on Council needed his help to get something done, he would bend over backwards to help you. ... I know it's said that we don't have a strong-mayor form of government, but he was about as strong a mayor as you'll ever see."

Small says it's appropriate for Isaac's public memorial service (11:30 a.m. Friday) to be at City Auditorium, since the mayor fought in 1992 to preserve the aging building despite others wanting to sell it or tear it down. Isaac saved it by calling a special Council meeting at the auditorium, and supporters filled it to the rafters. The opposition faded away, and Isaac once again could say, "See? I told you so."

Isaac hit the big time, including presidential attention, by being elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. - CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • City of Colorado Springs
  • Isaac hit the big time, including presidential attention, by being elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Randy Purvis, the local attorney serving his second stint on City Council, had a seat on the dais for Isaac's final 10 years as mayor.

"The first impression, of course, was that he was very much intimidating," Purvis says. "He had that voice, and just the experience was overwhelming. He came at you, and he wanted the result he wanted. But the more I worked with him, the more I saw the whole person. I came to very much respect Bob and his priorities. The city always came first. And he could work a room, or a crowd, as well as anyone I've ever seen."

Purvis recalls admiring how Isaac so smoothly handled his exit from office: "He had studied the city charter, and he timed his departure so that Leon Young could become the mayor, also the first black mayor, and the city wouldn't have to go through the cost of a special election."

Everyone who served with Mayor Bob inevitably came to appreciate the depth of his knowledge about anything related to the city government, and how he could use that expertise at just the right moments, such as pushing for the new airport.

That skill was also evident in 1987, when the chance came to lure minor-league baseball back to the Springs after a 30-year absence. He shrewdly "uncovered" $500,000 in a long-ignored "bed and bar" tax account, and that money, combined with pre-designated park space for a stadium site, helped convince the Hawaii Islanders to relocate here.

He walked away from public office in 1997 and continued to have a visible presence for a few years. Our last official visit came in March 2000, and Mayor Bob still had incisive views on every pertinent issue facing the city. After that talk, my piece (for the Gazette) ended this way: "Having him around to offer his views is a luxury Colorado Springs doesn't fully appreciate. But we should."

Sadly, the city never really did. As Purvis said this week, "There was a nice party for him at the Antlers when he left office. But I remember thinking later that sometime after that, things just kinda faded away."

Now it's too late. Mayor Bob is gone, yet the familiar description is more fitting now than ever before.

Truly, there will never be another like him.

routon@csindy.com

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