Former Sen. Shoemaker honored at memorial

Celebrated at the Platte for his life force and legacy
The Colorado Statesman

Former state Sen. William Joseph “Joe” Shoemaker — a fierce lawmaker known for both his fight and humor — was celebrated on Tuesday for his life force and legacy following his passing on Aug. 13.

Shoemaker, who died on his 88th birthday at home in the company of his loving wife and family, was remembered for many things, including his passion for crunching numbers; his accomplishments as a trumpet player; his ability to cross his Republican Party line to work with Democrats; and his storied legal career, to name just a few of Shoemaker’s impressive accomplishments.

Chip Darling, the nephew of Joe Shoemaker, displays the program for the memorial of the former lawmaker held at Confluence Park in Denver on Aug. 29.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

But perhaps the greatest notch to his inspiring legacy was his dedication in the 1970s to transforming the blighted Platte River from a dumping ground to the recreational waterway that has become an oasis for downtown outdoor enthusiasts. It is why friends, family members and colleagues chose Confluence Park to hold the joyful memorial service.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, greets former Gov. Richard Lamm and former House clerk Steve Katich at Confluence Park before the start of the Joe Shoemaker memorial.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“He confided to me that he had this dream to clean up the Platte River,” recalled former U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong, R-Colo., who spoke at the memorial. “This was not something that was high on my list of priorities… but Joe said to me, ‘Would you help?’ And I didn’t hesitate because even though the Platte River was not a big deal to me at the time, Joe was, and so I said, ‘Sure.’”

Morgan Smith, a former state representative who served with Shoemaker in the 1970s, offers comments about Shoemaker before introducing the speakers.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Armstrong also read a statement from former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, R-Colo., who agreed that Shoemaker’s force behind the Platte River cleanup was not just about the river itself, but also the entire Denver urban landscape, including the nearby Auraria campus.

Former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm shares his experiences and memories of long time colleague Joe Shoemaker.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“Joe literally remodeled Denver,” read the statement from Brown. “While many helped with Auraria, Joe made it happen. This development became a key element in renovating downtown Denver and created one of the largest educational centers in the nation.”

The Platte River was largely cleaned up because of Shoemaker's many years of dedication.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

A statement from former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb also reiterated this point: “Joe Shoemaker, more than any one individual, transformed the South Platte from a dumping ground and a disgrace to a wonderful river that’s a source of great pride to all of us today.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, is the beneficiary of U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette’s nearby fanning during the sweltering morning at Confluence Park.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock continued Webb’s point, adding, “The life of Joe Shoemaker was one of accomplishment, one of care and concern for his community. The Platte, today, is a gem that is being recognized around this country, and it flows because of the power and the vision of Joe Shoemaker.”

Lindsey and Madison Shoemaker offer a rendition of “Wait Til the Sun Shines, Nellie.”
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Rather than a memorial filled with tears, it was laughter that filled the park as Shoemaker was remembered. His friends and family say that was just the way he would have wanted to be sent off — with a lot of laughter, and within a concise and punctual timeframe. The service started on time and lasted about an hour.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock addresses guests at Joe Shoemaker’s memorial at Confluence Park.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“My father had several great statements,” remembered his son, Jeff Shoemaker, who sits at the helm of his father’s Platte River legacy as the executive director of the Greenway Foundation and the Foundation of Colorado State Parks, both of which were started by his father. “He would say, ‘If you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else,’ and, ‘If you need 100 percent to be happy, you’ll be miserable all your life.’”

Joe Shoemaker’s widow, Karen Shoemaker, displays a U.S. flag just presented to her by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The flag was flown over the Colorado State Capitol prior to the memorial.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“I grew up in a house where it was filled with love and filled with happiness. But it was also a household where you were given an example of how to seize the day,” recalled Jeff Shoemaker, who honors that example with a license plate that reads “carpe diem,” which translates to “seize the day.”

Born in Hawarden, Iowa in 1924, Shoemaker attended Iowa State University, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the University of Iowa Law School before making his journey to Denver upon graduating from law school in 1956. Once in Denver, Shoemaker launched his legal career as the 18th attorney to be hired at Holland & Hart.

His political career took off serving as chief of staff for former Denver Mayor Richard Batterton. He also served as manager of public works for Denver, before serving in the Colorado Legislature as a state senator from 1962-1976. It was during his time at the legislature that Shoemaker flexed his mathematical capabilities, becoming chairman of the powerful Joint Budget Committee.

“The JBC is an organizational challenge — three Democrats and three Republicans. It’s almost like as if a rabbi and a priest and a minister would get together and try to agree on a religious service,” joked former Gov. Dick Lamm, a Democrat who spoke at the memorial. “It’s a real challenge, but Joe would do it.”

Shoemaker’s political aspirations also included unsuccessful runs for mayor, lieutenant governor and governor. But friends were even able to joke about those failed campaigns, such as his lost primary in 1978 for governor.

“He did not have the opportunity to get badly defeated by Gov. Richard Lamm,” quipped former state Rep. Morgan Smith, a Democrat who served from 1972-1978.

Shoemaker is preceded in death by his wife, Penny, and is survived by his loving wife, Karen Ozias Shoemaker, who he married in 2009. He leaves four children, their spouses, nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Colorado State Parks and the Greenway Foundation.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com