It was one of our less stellar college moments, that Friday night on Flint Street in Laramie back in the 1960s — for me, and certainly for somebody who was to become a high-powered lawyer, self-described “social engineer,” legislator, judicial nominee and upstanding community member.
Outside in the yard of the house shared by college friends at the University of Wyoming, in full-on party mode and fueled with plenty of alcohol, Ford and I were exchanging inflammatory expletives that I now can’t exactly remember, fists raised, onlookers gathering, and the cops on the way.
It all ended well enough, with no actual blows landed, no arrests, and, most importantly, no lingering animosity.
I recalled the Flint dustup when I heard the other day that Ford Bussart, high-profile Wyoming attorney and public official, died at age 65. (Casper Star-Tribune obituary) My old college roommate accomplished a lot since those wild UW days and that night when his quick mind and fast words collided with my smart-ass demeanor. It was fittingly feisty, I thought, for a guy who later in life would emerge as a hardcore, fearless and frank advocate for change and civic improvement.
The Vietnam War was still going strong after our UW graduation in 1967 and Ford and I went our separate ways, me drafted into the army and Ford, after finishing law school, enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he worked in the military Judge Advocate General Corps.
A few years later our paths crossed again, this time in our home towns in Sweetwater County. Ford had just returned to Green River, where he was born, and I was back in my birthplace, Rock Springs, beginning my career in journalism. That was in 1973, just as the energy-fueled boom in the two cities was beginning.
Growth had exploded in 1971, when development-driven Gov. Stan Hathaway, anxious to reverse the decades-long doldrums in the state, got a big power plant sited in Sweetwater County, to take advantage of easily strippable coal.
That the county previously had been in a bust, in the economic pits, was an understatement. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Rock Springs was a backwater, devastated when the Union Pacific Railroad converted its trains to diesel and almost overnight shut its underground coal mines. Many folks moved away, leaving behind a depressed town of about 10,000 people. I remember my father, a suddenly unemployed coal miner, coming home with black-and-white-labeled government “surplus commodities” to make ends meet.
The power plant project stunningly reversed everything. Suddenly, literally thousands of construction workers started pouring in, clogging streets, filling bars, and generally overloading a creaky infrastructure. In just a few years, the population doubled.
What followed was a textbook example of what happens when industry is suddenly plopped down in an unprepared rural area. In fact, Rock Springs was actually studied by sociologists who dubbed the array of unsavory effects and general chaos “the boomtown syndrome.” In the midst of this turmoil, Ford set up his law practice in a Rock Springs office while continuing to live in Green River, racking up a lot of mileage and gaining knowledge of both cities. Throughout his life, he worked to diffuse the longstanding Rock Springs-Green River rivalry.
As the boom gathered steam, locals who had hunkered down during the slack times rejoiced, rubbing their hands with delight as the dollars flowed in. Those in political and economic control knew the boom was coming, and when it did, some of them attempted to maximize their opportunities, using inside information to locate and open more bars and motels, build apartments, sell cars and get permits to set up mobile home parks which would become housing for the temporary dwellers.
Then, the already-frenetic pace accelerated, as the nearby nascent natural soda ash industry launched major expansions, and what had been limited oil-and-gas drilling in Sweetwater took off in the wake of the 1970s OPEC oil embargo.
Dissidents Fight Corruption
On the streets of Rock Springs, a new, permissive, cash-fueled culture took hold. Gaggles of prostitutes appeared, and drug dealing violence became the daily norm. At one point, when I was reporting news at KUGR radio, my boss and then-station news director Kate Padilla (who had been Ford’s Green River High School classmate, debate partner and, later, my wife) counted 17 murders in Sweetwater County in just over a year, so many that we couldn’t easily cover them all in any detail.
The local power structure, meanwhile, brushed aside increasingly vocal calls for reform by first, concerned locals, and then, state officials and other outsiders who were aghast at what was going on. We’ve got things under control, the establishment insisted.
But not everybody was buying the official line. Reports of payoffs to police, of criminals operating openly and sleazy practices at City Hall starting making the rounds. A new word surfaced: Corruption.
Interestingly, along with the flood of new workers came an infusion of more progressive people who wanted change and accountability. They were soon joined by mostly younger locals, Ford among them, equally upset with the old, selfish order. Both groups were quickly labeled by the county establishment as “dissidents,” “troublemakers” and “vigilantes,” often harassed and threatened.
By 1977, the turmoil reached the boiling point. Ford, elected a year earlier to the state House, blasted Rock Springs officials who ignored rampant prostitution, “in blatant disregard of state statute and city ordinance.” National media outlets arrived, and that summer, Dan Rather and his “60 Minutes” crew began poking around. In October 1977 the CBS program portrayed Rock Springs, “Our Town,” as a place dominated by “a blend of permissiveness and criminality.”
In 1978, Ford took on a twelve-year state senate incumbent, Rock Springs lawyer Robert H. Johnson, prime defender of the entrenched order in his multiple public positions including as Rock Springs city attorney. It was a pitched street-political battle, which Ford acknowledged on the night of the watershed election, saying, “unfortunately, it became necessary to crawl into the trenches, but I did that and I think I did that very effectively.”
The contest, it turned out, was not even close: Ford won by a two-to-one margin. “The people of this county are damn tired of what’s been going on,” he said. “I’ve got four years of insulation and I’m going to start speaking out about the things that are wrong.” It was a pivotal shift in local politics and daily Sweetwater life, with Ford playing a key, outspoken role.
Federal Judge Nominee
Other than covering his public persona, I didn’t spend much time with Ford when the boom drama was playing out, probably overcompensating in my effort to cover events while trying to remain impartial. And, of course, I was kept more than busy with my own battles to bring public business out in the open, unlike the earlier bust period when officials operated with little scrutiny.
Much later, long after the dust settled in Sweetwater, Ford became the lead plaintiffs’ attorney challenging the unequal way in which the state funded education, ultimately taking the issue to the Wyoming Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. The case absorbed two decades of his life, and helped raise his political profile in Wyoming to the degree that he was considered a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 1986.
No way, he told me, figuring that if he won he would be stuck trying to govern a state that in the 1980s had gone bust, with little prospect of getting a mineral industry-dominated and Republican-controlled Legislature to raise taxes, especially to pay for an improved education system. So he continued lawyering, content, he said, that he chose “social engineering through litigation rather than elective office.”
Our paths diverged, but Kate and I remained friends with Ford, and in 1986, he did what I call the legal “hocus-pocus” by presiding at our wilderness marriage in his capacity as district court commissioner, or stand-in judge.
Eventually I left Rock Springs and Wyoming as have many others, especially young people looking for better opportunities. I couldn’t quite understand Ford’s interest in staying. But I think it was simply that he liked the place and he honestly wanted to make it better.
Last year, he was nominated but not picked to be a federal judge. That would have a been perfect for Ford, who would have brought to the job his street and brain smarts, hard-fought life experience, humor and frankness. I’m sure that night on Flint wouldn’t have disqualified him. Actually, it would have more qualified him.
Writer Paul Krza taught school and spun records in Cody, worked in Casper and lived in Cheyenne to report on the Wyoming Legislature. His past work includes reporter and state editor at the Casper Star-Tribune and freelance editing and reporting in Denver and Albuquerque. He and his wife Kate live in Socorro and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and travel frequently, most recently to the Balkans and Crete.