Tony Frank: On the lives they lived

Each December, The New York Times does a special magazine issue on “The Lives They Lived,” a look at a handful of Americans who died in the past year and what they did with the lives they were given. Some of the people they feature are famous, others aren’t well-known, but each of their lives made an impact that continues to resound long after they are gone.

In that spirit, I want to use our newsletter this month to tell the story of two people from different backgrounds whose lives became an inextricable part of the fabric of Colorado State University, and in doing so made our world a better place. One was a girl from the South Pueblo neighborhood known as The Blocks, the other a boy who grew up in Denver’s Park Hill. Both were born in Colorado and spent most of their lives here. Both realized their college dreams thanks, in part, to scholarships provided by others. And both helped pave the way for thousands of other young people to follow their dreams with an education.

Mary Ontiveros was the second of six children born to a Mexican-American family in Pueblo in the middle of the last century. Her father was a laborer at the Pueblo Army Depot who worked his way up through the ranks to the role of equal opportunity coordinator there; her mother was a homemaker. Neither had the opportunity to graduate from high school, but they believed deeply in the importance of education and learning and wanted that for their children.

Growing up with limited means instilled a strong work ethic in Mary from a young age. She excelled at school and athletics, and she was a natural leader. When she graduated high school, her parents insisted she go to college, even though they couldn’t afford to send her. They gave her their encouragement and $7 for the bus ride up to Fort Collins. Always resourceful, Mary hitched a ride to campus instead and saved the $7 so she could eat when she got there, since the dorms weren’t open when she arrived.

She moved into Durward Hall and when she wasn’t in class, she went around campus asking for work. In her own words: “I had a lot of jobs.” She worked through holidays and breaks when other students went home or on vacation. She was elected vice president of the student government, and she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in four years.

A proud Chicana, Mary arrived at CSU in 1969, to a campus of just over 16,000 students, few of whom were students of color. She brought with her a fierce pride in her heritage, a well-defined sense of justice at a young age, and an inability to be anything but authentic and straight-forward in her dealings with people. Charming and kind, a natural storyteller, she had a skill for working with and listening to people that served her well in what would become a nearly 50-year career at CSU that culminated in her becoming the University’s first Vice President for Diversity — and first LatinX vice president. Today, she is revered in both her hometowns — Pueblo, where she was rooted, and Fort Collins, where she lived her entire adult life — and there are people all over Colorado and the country with stories about Mary and how she changed their lives, opened doors, mentored, and taught.

Joe Blake also had an innate gift for working with people. The second son born to a family in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood in 1935, he led almost every enterprise he ever was part of — early on, he was Head Boy in his class at East High School, vice president of Boys Nation, and an Eagle Scout. On the advice of his high school counselor, he applied to Dartmouth in New Hampshire, and they awarded him a full scholarship. Joe spent four years there immersed in the books and poetry he loved as an English literature major (and president of his senior class). He went on to a law degree (serving as president of the student bar association) and brief tenures in politics and as an FBI agent before he came back home to Denver.

From there, his remarkable life and career included leadership of the Denver Metro Chamber, development of Highlands Ranch, high-profile work for state governors on both sides of the aisle, and service as the first full-time chancellor of the CSU System. He was one of the most loved and respected figures in Denver (and Colorado) for decades, and he used his influence to help build the city’s public mass transit system and garner better funding for public education, among countless other endeavors.

I’m not sure Joe knew much about Colorado State University when he was first named to our CSU System Board of Governors by Governor Owens, but its founding as a beacon of access and opportunity, one of the public universities envisioned by President Lincoln to serve all Americans, resonated deeply with him. The democratic mission of a land grant university aligned with his dearly held values and hopes for his community and country. And so he became one of CSU’s greatest champions.

He and I were inaugurated into our respective roles at CSU — he as chancellor, I as president of the Fort Collins campus — on the same day in 2009. A short time later, we conceived and launched a scholarship program, with Mary’s help, that ensured any Pell-eligible student in Colorado could enroll at CSU Fort Collins with a full scholarship for tuition and fees. Later, Joe made the largest private gift ever to CSU’s College of Liberal Arts and created the Blake Scholars program to help students build their skills in leadership and critical thinking.

Joe and Mary both died this week — a span of less than seven days from the time I’m writing this. I reread that sentence as I write this and it still doesn’t seem quite real. Their absence is profound for those who loved and admired them, and as their friend, I will miss them both enormously. I already do. But their deaths are not nearly as profound as how they lived, and the impact of their extraordinary lives — lives that followed different trajectories, but eventually intertwined through their work, and ultimately served to leave the world better — and not just a little — than they found it. What’s more, like the legacy of American public higher education that they served so well, they made the world better for future generations they’d never have the chance to meet. Who could ask for a finer legacy than that?

Personally, I know I’m a better person for having known them both, and I’m grateful for that and for the community of learning at CSU that brought us all together.

– tony

Tony Frank, Chancellor
CSU System

This message was included in Chancellor Frank’s February newsletter. Click here to subscribe to the Chancellor’s monthly letter.

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3D magazine with the Winter 2021 cover