Sunday Profile: ‘Service’ could be Dave Sturges’ middle name
From his first job delivering telegrams by bicycle as a teenager in Michigan to his current retirement gig delivering prescription drugs to senior citizens, to countless volunteer efforts in-between, Dave Sturges has dedicated his life to serving others.
In offering some parting comments Thursday upon leaving Glenwood Springs City Council after two terms, Sturges evoked the guiding principle for the Rotary Club, of which he was a longtime member prior to his election — “Service Above Self.”
“That really says a lot about what I believe in, and what’s important,” he said. “I’ve had the privilege of working in federal, state and local government, and a long period in private practice law for corporations.
“But the real heart of my work has always been in the nonprofit public service area,” said Sturges, who views his seven-and-a-half years on council as just another chapter in a lifetime of civic engagement.
He recalled that former longtime Garfield County Commissioner Marian Smith, a devoted public servant herself, once told him, “‘Dave, you’re really a social worker with a law degree.’”
At the time, Garfield County was in hot water with the federal courts for continuing to operate a “little, unconstitutional jail,” in Sturges’ words — famous as the place from which serial killer Ted Bundy had escaped in 1977, and infamous locally during the early 1980s as an often overcrowded, ill-equipped “drunk tank.”
Sturges, who had once served as a legal adviser on criminal justice matters to former Illinois Gov. Dick Ogilvie, remembered meeting with county officials in a downtown Glenwood Springs basement to discuss the situation.
Out of that meeting evolved the county’s jail advisory board, which Sturges volunteered to head and which worked for many years to make sure the jail operated in compliance with a federal court decree while planning to build a new county jail.
That work led to several years serving on the county’s community corrections board, and later work with various nonprofit organizations, including Lift-Up, YouthZone (then Garfield Youth Services) and various legal services.
Sturges, now 74, also had numerous appointments to city boards and commissions, and served on some state boards, including the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, prior to his time on City Council.
It all started in his native Michigan, where Sturges said he first became aware of the word “service” when his older brother won a high school student service award named in honor of a former principal.
“I won that same award when I was a senior in high school,” he said. “From that point on, service, and particularly public service, has been pretty integrated with who I am.”
After graduating from DePauw University in Indiana and earning his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1966, he worked for a time with the legal staff for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.
While there, a college friend of his introduced him to the newly elected Gov. Ogilvie, who hired Sturges to join his legal staff. He served for four years as assistant legal counsel to Ogilvie, specializing in criminal justice matters such as extraditions, paroles and pardons.
He stayed on for a short time with the next governor, Dan Walker, then worked in the state’s legal aide office. In 1972, he landed a job with the Federal Energy Administration at the start of the OPEC oil embargo.
“We basically had to come up with a rationing system overnight,” Sturges said of the national energy crisis that ensued.
After two years in that role, he was asked to joined the U.S. Attorney General’s Office in Chicago, working for then Assistant U.S. Attorney “Big” Jim Thompson, who went on to become governor of Illinois in the 1980s.
It was there, while representing the federal government in a major Clean Water Act case against U.S. Steel Corp., that his name got passed along as a prospective corporate attorney.
“I’ve been very fortunate at opportunities in my career, but I’ve always been very cautious,” Sturges said.
When Peabody Coal Co. out of Denver offered him a job, he jumped at the opportunity.
After a previous failed marriage in Illinois, he met Linda, the love of his life after moving to Colorado.
They married in 1977 and moved the next year to Glenwood Springs, where Sturges became acquainted with the Delaney family, part owners of the Mid-Continent coal mine in Redstone.
He then went to work for the Delaney and Balcomb law firm in Glenwood Springs, representing coal mines and related interests in the region, and later went into private practice.
“The best decision I made other than marrying Linda was coming to Glenwood Springs,” Sturges said of his adopted home, where he and Linda raised two children.
In addition to his volunteer work in community corrections and with several local nonprofit organizations, Sturges took an interest in local transportation and land-use issues.
He was one of the first members appointed to the city of Glenwood Springs’ newly formed Transportation Commission in the 1990s, and later was appointed to serve on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
At the state level, he was appointed to the Colorado Natural Areas Council and later served for four years on the Water Quality Control Commission under former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer. He ended up being the swing vote that led to the defeat of the Two Forks dam project.
“That was probably the hardest, most intellectual legal work and public policy work I’ve ever been engaged in,” he said.
The morning of Oct. 1, 1997, brought a rude awakening for Sturges when he suffered a heart attack.
That night, he still managed to catch the Glenwood City Council meeting on the local TV station from his hospital bed. Then Councilman Greg Jeung offered well wishes for a speedy recover to Sturges during the meeting.
“I’m a very lucky man at this point,” Sturges said of having overcome several health issues, including back problems in more recent years, with a strict regimen of exercise.
“I’m in better shape physically at this point in my life than I’ve ever been,” he said.
For all of his years of public service, the one thing Sturges had never done was seek election to public office. So, when a Glenwood City Council seat came open in 2007 he decided to run, ultimately defeating David Blazier in that fall’s city election.
Sturges was then unopposed for re-election to the At-large council seat in April 2011, after the city moved its election time to the spring.
It’s been one of the most eye-opening experiences of his career, Sturges said.
“Some people criticize me for being too nice,” he said. “And I’m just fine with that.”
After being involved in state and federal government, he said he prefers the exchange of ideas that can take place between individuals in local government.
Sturges counts among the city’s accomplishments during the years he has been on council successfully weathering the Great Recession. A testament to that was the completion of the city’s new wastewater treatment plant, despite the economic challenges that came in the middle of planning for and carrying out that project.
“I was very vocal in pushing for the city to get rid of the old plant, and I’m very proud of what we were able to do,” he said. “The old plant functioned OK, but it was an obstacle to some great things that are now going to happen in the confluence area.”
Sturges acknowledged that one of the criticisms of his style has been a propensity to talk at great length in expressing his viewpoints, and engaging others in long discussions.
“It’s probably a valid perception that I’m too willing to ask for or entertain too many discussions about things,” he said. “Maybe the hardest part is listening to the six other people on the council … because they are just as passionate and concerned as you are.”
Sturges said he promised his wife that he’ll take a six-month break from any new civic involvement. In the meantime, he’s perfectly content to work his part-time job with Downtown Drug delivering prescriptions to people’s homes.
“It’s probably the happiest and best job I’ve ever had, because it gives me the ability to keep up with old and new friends, and deliver something that they need,” he said. “It’s just a great way to remain in touch.”
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