They could make it so much easier on themselves. They could jump on any Web site, choose any clever screen name, and rail against whatever, or whomever, they want then wait for reaction while in the insulated comfort of anonymity.
Hey, sometimes, maybe they do. But these people also stand above the online cacophony to send in thoughtful e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org. They attach their names to messages that earn them scorn, derision and, yes, sometimes admiration from their fellow readers. They keep the Independent's letters page alive, and a place for (usually) intelligent debate.
So, to say thanks, and to give these participants in public discourse a chance to tell their stories, we profile a few of them below. Worth noting: Everyone we approached for this story agreed to be a part of it, even those who often find themselves tte--tte with our columnists' opinions or choices in news coverage.
- Jill Crouch
City of residence: Colorado Springs
Passions: Animal rights, the environment
First letter: Written in high school, to Glamour magazine.
At age 33, Jill Crouch decided to enlist in the Army. She hoped to become a military police officer and eventually to work with a K-9 unit. But after a grueling 17 weeks of basic training in Missouri and only 10 months into her service, a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome forced her to depart Fort Carson in 2000.
Still, she says, "That [experience] was something I'm really proud of. I never fell out of a run. There were 17-, 18-, 19-year-old girls falling out, and I hung in there."
Faced with a new challenge of what to do, Crouch, who's originally from Michigan, found beauty in the local surroundings and decided to forge a home. She volunteered with local organizations, picked up office work and enrolled in classes at Pikes Peak Community College and University of Phoenix. After positive feedback from teachers on some of her class writing, Crouch says, she experienced a boost in confidence that inspired her to begin writing for publication.
"As a member of this community, I need to speak up and say things once in a while that I feel are important whether it's in this town, the state or about what's going on in the world," she says.
It was her aunt who inspired her activism as a young woman.
"We marched on D.C. for women's rights when I was 17," she says.
One passion at the forefront of Crouch's advocacy since that time is anything to do with animals. A bird-watcher, pet owner and member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund, Crouch has recently worked to stop the annual slaughter of dolphins in Japan.
Her second priority currently concerns energy and the environment. Crouch hopes to network with a woman in Denver who's working for coal power-plant alternatives. She also intends to be of use when the Democratic National Convention rolls into Colorado.
Quite a load of work for a woman who requires a minimum eight hours sleep a night to manage the condition that kept her from military service.
"I just feel like there's a lot of injustice in the world," Crouch explains. "And if I don't [take action], who's going to?" Matthew Schniper
"Worst nightmare,' "neat guy'
Name: Larimore "Nick" Nicholl
City of residence: Colorado Springs
Passions: Watching the religious and political right, promoting peace, protesting the war
First letter: In 1960, after the American U-2 plane was shot down by the Soviet Union, Nicholl wrote a letter published by Time magazine pushing his "ban the bomb" beliefs.
One of Larimore Nicholl's former students is Dana Perino, the current White House press secretary.
"Every time she comes on the TV screen, I go into Tourette's syndrome," Nicholl says. "She is, in my view, a war criminal, supporting the Bush killing machine, and this year's version of Joseph Goebbels."
Thankfully, it seems, that a lot of good also came from Nicholl's time at Southern Colorado State University (now CSU-Pueblo). Except for a brief period in the mid-1980s when he got crossways with new administrators, was fired but fought and got his job back he stayed with the school for 35 years.
"I loved it there," Nicholl says. "They left me alone, and I had total academic freedom."
During that mid-'80s hiatus, he moved from Pueblo to the Springs. It actually was a return for him, to the place where he was an unusual Colorado College student in the early 1960s.
Already having served in the Army, he became a philosophy major and a football lineman for the Tigers. He also routinely became offended at what he was reading in the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, and began writing letters to the editor.
"I went for the jugular," Nicholl says, chuckling at the memory nearly a half-century later. "I blasted 'em, because they were plutocrats masquerading as libertarians. They really came after me, too. I sent them three letters, and they responded with 18 editorials."
Nicholl, who's originally from Wheat Ridge, characterizes himself as "the worst nightmare of the religious and political right here at ground zero of that movement. I am a leftist, a Democrat, a socialist, an atheist and a pacifist. Why? Read Twain, Socrates, Thoreau, Paine, Aristotle, Tutu, Sagan and the rest. The right-wingers I know are most surprised by the fact that I am a really neat guy!"
Nicholl enjoys reading the Indy's letters, but says he's more bothered by those who don't write.
"There must be thousands of fellow faculty people in this huge city, at CC, UCCS, the Air Force Academy, Pikes Peak Community College, et cetera," he says. "Where are their letters? Why should I have all the fun? When this nation is teetering on the cusp of a plutocratic semi-fascism, who will speak and write? If not now, then when? Torture, secret prisons, invasions of little nations too weak to fight back remind you of anyone in central Europe in the 1930s?"
Strong opinion, no doubt, but that's what you get with Nick Nicholl. Ralph Routon
- Duane Slocum
Name: Duane Slocum
City of residence: Colorado Springs
Passions: Belief in the private sector, patriotism
First letter: "I don't have a clue."
Duane Slocum ended his career as a human resources director nearly six years ago, but the business cards he carries tell a more complete story of his current status: "Retired more or less," they read.
Slocum tries to limit his substitute teaching to four days a week. He writes for the Woodmen Edition and seems seldom to miss a night posting to his "Kansas Plowboy" blog (slocum.rnsmith.com).
And, with upcoming trips to Mexico and Ecuador, he's trying to improve his Spanish skills.
"I like to learn something new," he explains.
All the activity gives him plenty of ideas for letters. One recent missive published in the Independent blasted a Colorado Springs Utilities technician for what he calls a shoddy effort at investigating a billing question. He has plans for another letter commending an employee of a local court program for her extra effort helping a woman in a custody battle.
A recent story in the Indy, updating readers on the life of a Fort Carson soldier who ran off to Canada last fall (written by yours truly), aroused a similar urge to take up his, uh, keyboard.
"I thought it was pathetic," he says, eyes twinkling, smile conveying friendliness but certainly not an apology.
Delivering praise and criticism where warranted, appeals to Slocum, it seems, as part of community-building. Not everyone close to him, however, thinks his editorial letters will change the world.
"My wife thinks I'm dumber than a stump," Slocum says, again with apparent warmth and amusement.
Slocum grew up on a farm in Kansas that did not have running water. He went to a high school with only 59 students, then joined the Navy six days after graduation, serving four years at the tail end of the Korean War.
He and his wife raised five children, though one died of illness when he was young. Slocum says joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped him cope with the loss.
The Slocums came to Colorado Springs in 1978. They now have 20 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
"We've had a great life," he says.
Slocum is suspicious of government and believes the private sector generally handles things better.
"I think TABOR's the only thing keeping government from drying us out like cottage cheese on the clothesline," he says.
Slocum smiles as I write down his analogy, expressing concern that it will date him. But he's not so concerned about whether people will agree with him; he just sees letter-writing as something of a civic duty, "like voting."
"I'm not a very good sit-on-the-sidelines person," he says. Anthony Lane
Name: Bob Nemanich
City of residence: Colorado Springs
Passions: Most progressive causes
First letter: Written in the 1970s to an Indiana newspaper on the "nuclear vs. solar" debate. (He preferred solar, but didn't think it would take off until the energy system collapsed.)
Bob Nemanich gives nothing away in his appearance.
He dresses in slacks, a collared shirt and a sweater vest. He has a large frame, thick silvery hair and blue eyes so round and expressive they make the rest of his features look like afterthoughts. Book-cover intuition could peg him a Bill O'Reilly lapdog as easily as a Barack Obama enthusiast.
But just wait till he opens his mouth.
"I'm a wild, progressive liberal in town," he says, his tone deliberately prideful. "And I'm knowledgeable, so I'm dangerous. And I'm unemployed right now, so I have the time."
He turns his eyes on you as if to add, "so watch yourself."
According to Nemanich, he's always been this way. His recent letters to the Indy reveal distaste for U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, former City Councilman Bernie Herpin, Mayor Lionel Rivera, homophobes and President Bush. In the future, Nemanich says his letters will tackle issues like the environment and universal health care.
"We have allowed the nonregulation of greed to rule our society," he says.
Happily married for 21 years and the father of two academically successful dyslexic teenagers, Nemanich has nevertheless had his struggles. Growing up in Illinois, he was steered away from his dream of being a political journalist by his "typical country-club, powerful Republican" father. After a short stint as a middle school teacher, Nemanich began a long career as an executive recruiter. (He also ventured into the dot-com world for a while.) He was a successful businessman in Illinois, and later in Wisconsin, where he and his wife chose to raise their children.
But in 2000, Nemanich developed a disabling allergy to mold that kept him away from work for long periods of time. He moved his family to Colorado Springs in 2005, hopeful the dry climate would help his health. It did only for a short time; hence his current unemployment.
The ongoing health problem drained the once-affluent family's bank account, and caused Nemanich to reconsider his life. He realized he needed a career he liked currently he wants to go back into teaching and that he wanted to be involved in politics. Recently, he's volunteered with Obama's campaign.
As long as the little guy is getting screwed, Nemanich says, he's going to keep running his mouth. And if he gets to piss off some powerful conservatives along the way? That's frosting.
"Sean Paige doesn't like me," Nemanich says with a look of overwhelming triumph.
Apparently, the former Gazette editorial page editor and Nemanich had it out over the reintroduction of wolves into Colorado. Paige didn't like the idea. Nemanich thought Paige was acting like Little Red Riding Hood.
"I go, "I just don't understand you,'" Nemanich recalls. "He goes, "Well, you'll never get an article in my paper."
Nemanich's big eyes await the right moment with the patience of a 5-year-old's.
"I did." J. Adrian Stanley
Name: Phil Kenny
City of residence: Colorado Springs
Passions: Current events, politics, the Iraq war
First letter: "It was March 3, 1995. I wasn't using what brains I had. [Bill] Clinton was in office and I started reading all the angry letters in the Gazette about him."
Retired from the Air Force since 1979, Phil Kenny finds himself with a good amount of time on his hands these days. So, to stay busy, he keeps an eye a very, very close eye on the world around him.
"The young people, they don't pay attention," Kenny says. "They're too busy going on dates. The old have time. They're always involved."
Kenny watches C-SPAN, reads political books and types away in political chat rooms. But, mostly, he reads. Often, what he reads inspires him to write, and he's been published plenty: in the two Denver dailies, the New York Times and Time magazine. Of course, he's been published in the Springs' papers, too, although he's all but sworn off "the goddamn Gazette" (his words, not ours).
After a fairly distinguished letter-writing career at the Springs' only daily including one instance in which a single letter Kenny wrote inspired a full page of responses Kenny started getting frustrated.
"They just treated me so shitty," he says. "My last letter had four paragraphs in it. They printed two. My friends came up to me and said, "Phil, what was your letter about?'"
As he had done many a time before, Kenny fired off an e-mail complaining about the edits. The return e-mail wasn't the apology he'd expected.
"You know what their last words were to me?" Kenny asks. "They said, in an e-mail, "Phil, there's always the Indy.'"
Three years later, Kenny's taken the hint. And he says he's happier for it.
He still wields his trademark frankness, even though it's gotten him in trouble a few times. Once, an Army veteran "stalked" Kenny, calling him up at work to harass him about the opinions he'd expressed in a letter. It was a slightly frightening experience, but it fizzled quickly Kenny threatened to call and tell his opponent's wife that he was chasing down a rival letter-writer. It also did little to faze Kenny himself.
"My primary reason to write is to get my point across," Kenny says. "And if it provokes other thoughts, that's good. Who's to say that I'm right all the time? I'm just pushing me." Pete Freedman
Name: Greg Hartman
City of residence: Colorado Springs
Passions: The need for intelligent debate, in-depth analysis
First letter: In the 1990s, to Willamette Week, an alternative newsweekly in Portland, Ore., chiding the paper for a self-congratulatory editorial.
If the Independent's letter writers ever would engage in a full-scale battle, in the ring or an alley, it's safe to say Greg Hartman would prevail.
Hartman, a first-degree black belt instructor at Kempo Karate Schools (aside from his day job), insists he never would look for a fight, "but if there was no way I could avoid it ... it wouldn't last long."
That's just one element of a complex individual. Hartman's a Web designer and freelance writer, refers to himself as a born-again Christian, and tends "to be conservative politically, but not by default."
Oh, and he makes his own beer at home, preferring Scottish ale or a German style.
A native of Topeka, Kan., he had his first published work in the daily Capital-Journal there, contributing to a religion page in part because he was a rescue-mission chaplain.
Hartman later earned degrees in theology and journalism from Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Ore., and wrote for a small suburban newspaper there. When he first looked into moving to Colorado Springs, Hartman recalls feeling concerned about the potential negatives of such a strong military presence. But soon after arriving in 1998, he realized the city was "family-friendly," and now he fully believes it's a great place for him and his wife to raise their two kids.
He reads books all the time and the Indy regularly. He doesn't hesitate being critical of the news coverage.
"Usually when I write a letter, it's because I see the Independent missing a larger story in favor of taking cheaper shots or just parroting the talking points without any in-depth analysis," he says. "I have been surprised that in a city that's so conservative, the Independent or other more liberal/progressive outlets tend to be so shrill; sometimes it sounds like an out-and-out caricature of the liberal viewpoint."
That observation is longer than some of Hartman's letters. He likes the idea of making one point, clearly and succinctly. He also has noticed that he and another regular, Phil Kenny, have engaged at times in back-and-forth exchanges, though they don't know each other personally.
Something else about Hartman, though he insists it's not a big deal: One month after he earned that black belt in 2005, he was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis.
No self-pity, though. He believes the martial-arts conditioning and discipline will help as he deals with his condition, which is on the milder side with occasional dizziness and cramps.
"It's no picnic, but I can live with that," he says.
So much so, in fact, that next summer Hartman will be trying to earn his second-degree black belt.
In other words, whether or not you agree with him, take Greg Hartman with you down that dark alley, and you'll be fine. Ralph Routon
- Cyndy Kulp
Name: Cyndy Kulp
City of residence: Colorado Springs
Passions: Community organizing and activism
First letter: "I think the first thing I wrote was on property tax increases for the Philadelphia Inquirer."
When Cyndy Kulp first came to Colorado Springs more than 50 years ago, she arrived as an Army brat. My, how times change.
Now she's a peace activist and community organizer whose presence is familiar at local events ranging from war protests to City Council meetings. Google her name, and no fewer than 35 Indy news stories and letters appear.
Asked how the transformation occurred, she laughs.
"I never toed the line with that Army stuff."
Though she was actually born in Tokyo, Kulp considers herself a Springs native, having spent most of her elementary through high school years here. She finished her education with a degree in social work and community organizing from Adams State College in Alamosa.
Her attitude about Colorado upon graduation: "Get me outta here!" she says. But she returned, with a husband and children, in 1990.
"We moved back because my family was here," she says with a sigh. "Is there ever any other reason for coming? I certainly didn't come for the political climate."
Though Kulp's critiques can be sharp, she's not a whiner. She backs up her words with action. "I love identifying an issue in the community that needs to be solved, then bringing together different people to come up with a strategy that can make it happen," she says.
Recently she has helped organize events concerning Palestine, Darfur and closer to home tenant rights, minimum wage and homelessness. Of the national scene she says, "I'm completely against Bush and the war in Iraq, and now I'm miffed at Starbucks, too. So that's a new one."
Yes, Kulp is the letter writer who first informed our readers about the removal of the Independent from Starbucks coffee shops. Though as an activist she often seeks out controversy, this one came to her.
"I just went to get my coffee," she reports. "And I thought, "I'll pick up an Independent while I'm here. When I asked them where it was, they said, "Somebody complained.'"
Until they listen to her complaint, she'll be enjoying her Independent sans caffeine. Jill Thomas
- Sharlene White
New Mexico bureau
Name: Sharlene White
City of residence: Santa Fe, N.M.
Passions: Researching political issues, Amnesty International
First letter: "Oh gosh, I was really young. I think I was, I want to say I was in my 30s, maybe. ... What I remember about it, I did a little illustration because I'm a sketch artist, too. They printed that. I was more impressed with that than what I wrote."
Sharlene White and her husband David moved to Colorado Springs in 2003, to be closer to their kids. Their son was stationed at Fort Carson with three of their grandchildren, and the Whites thought they'd be here at least six years.
"The Army had different ideas," White says.
So in February 2006, after her son had been transferred, White and her husband picked up and headed to a place they'd traveled to off and on. As a photographer, White saw a lot of potential in Santa Fe. She's gotten involved in the community, starting an Amnesty International branch with another woman and showing activist films such as Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.
So why does White keep writing to a paper in Colorado Springs?
"You guys print me more than anyone else," she says, laughing. "I've always loved the Independent."
White writes to papers all over the country, including the L.A. Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
"Apathy is our worst enemy," White says. "I always fight apathy. I've been able to get a couple of people active that didn't want to be. So I'm always pushing for that."
She adds, "I think the main reason I write letters is I know people read those editorials. Opinion sections it's the most interesting part of the paper to me."
White says she reads a lot of books and researches online, trying to "get to the real thing," instead of just taking the media's word.
"I think it's important for people to know what's really going on. If we just accept what somebody tells us, they can tell us anything," she says. "We can be led down this path which we have been, I believe, because of our laziness." Kirsten Akens
Name: Dwayne Schultz
City of residence: Colorado Springs
Passions: Self-governance, a "republic" form of government
First letter: "I think it was when this one priest wrote about how Christianity was nonviolent. The first thing that came out of my mind was, 'Is this guy daft?'"
Dwayne Schultz thinks a lot about something that most people haven't thought much about since high school civics: the difference between a democracy and a republic. "It's a very easy description," Schultz explains, leaning forward in his seat, blue eyes widening. "In a democracy, 42 wolves and 38 sheep can vote on what they want to eat, and the majority wins. In a republic, 42 wolves and 38 sheep can vote on what they want to eat; however, the wolves cannot vote to eat the sheep."
"You cannot vote or pass a law that prohibits a person from living their own life as they see fit, as long as it's peaceful," he continues. "This is just plain common sense."
Of course, this kind of sense has actually become less and less common, which is why Schultz has become more and more inclined to write letters.
He usually eschews name-calling for lofty quotes by thinkers like Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Carnegie when making his arguments, though in person, he'll say some incendiary things.
"These Christo-fascists that see gays as evil ... why, I have no idea," he says, adding, "My path might be slightly different from yours, but whatever you do, don't get in my way."
It's fair to guess that his path is different from that of most locals. Born in Bakersfield, Calif., Schultz grew up as one of six children, in what he calls a Los Angeles ghetto. He escaped the danger and crowds of L.A. for South Dakota years ago.
He has, however, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition he says stems from his troubled childhood. Life, love and circumstance have taken him from South Dakota to Illinois, back to South Dakota, Arizona and finally, five years ago, to Colorado Springs.
He lives on the east side of town with his wife, Lisa, and spends much of his time at East Library. Feeling better than he has in a long time, he hopes he soon might get to work maybe back into cabinet-making for the first time in 14 years.
Meanwhile, you can bet he'll be finding plenty to write about. We seem to be a ways away from the kind of society Schultz dreams of.
"We were put on this planet to do three things: love, share and help," he says. "If we're not loving each other, if we're not sharing everything we have equally, if we're not helping people, what are we doing?" Kirk Woundy
- Don Smith
Name: Don Smith
City of residence: Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
Passions: Political issues with wide interest and keeping on top of his local politicians
First letter: Indy: Do you remember the first letter you ever wrote to a newspaper? DS: Oh, hell, no! That would be 40 years ago. Sorry, 45.
Don Smith has never been to Colorado Springs. Well, not since passing through as a child, at least Smith was born in St. Louis, Mo. and raised primarily in San Jose, Calif.
So how does a 71-year-old man who is now an Australian citizen come to write the Independent almost every week?
It all started with a friend from high school, who lives in Colorado Springs.
"Because I have a lot of my letters to the editor published in my local paper, she said ... "Here's the Web site for the Independent. ... Why don't you get on to them? Maybe there's something interesting there.' So I did."
And the getting online didn't stop. Smith has been logging on weekly ever since and reads the entire paper. He even checks out Advice Goddess. "I like that one," he says, laughing.
Smith reviews the local news but his letters typically focus on wider shared issues or topics he can relate to what's going on in Australia.
"I have no business, you know, commenting on local issues. Because, well, for one thing, people would say, "What gives this guy the right to say that? He's halfway around the world.'"
The former film and television producer/director doesn't keep quiet on issues local to him, though. Smith's had more than 100 letters printed in the Brisbane paper, and a few in the national paper, the Australian. And he seems to be known for them.
"[I like] just rattling a few cages. Get up the nose of a few local politicians," Smith says. "They got to the point they're so tired of it, they don't respond to me anymore. But they get copies of my letters that I send."
Really, though, the issues in Australia that get Smith riled up sound very similar to the ones that frustrate many in Colorado Springs.
"I get really concerned about issues that don't seem to be going anywhere. For instance the local state health system is in shambles. ... Public transport here is in shambles."
Smith sees himself as just a concerned citizen, "someone who feels that the public should be more aware of the feelings that are generated about issues."
It doesn't seem he'll ever give up sharing his own feelings in print. "[Writing letters] was a buzz at first, but now I almost expect it," Smith says. "I'm disappointed when a really good letter of mine doesn't get published." Kirsten Akens