I still recall, rather vividly, driving those last few miles to Cody, en route to my University of Wyoming student teaching assignment. I drove slower, and slower, as if the pace would delay and allay my classroom jitters.
My unlikely trajectory into teaching was due to my indecisiveness. I had no particular interests but words and writing, but shared the worry and objective of many college students in the late 1960s: how to avoid getting drafted and dispatched to Vietnam. So I chose education, along with speech and English.
But there was another reason I felt uneasy on the road: I came from nitty-gritty Rock Springs, a union coal town starkly unlike the conservative, white Cody Country to the north. I grew up with all kinds of kids, sons and daughters of miners and railroaders, a mix of nationalities and races.
As it turned out, student teaching was not as grim as I feared, thanks to the mentoring of icon Wynona Thompson. Upon graduation, the school district even hired me and I spent two years teaching full-time there.
I ponder my Cody memories a half-century-plus later, when national talk is punctuated with, “that’s not who we are.” But exactly who are we? My Cody glimpses offer insight about Wyoming, a solidly conservative state now increasingly dominated by far-right politicians. And there’s a swath of the USA on the same path.
In my first year in 1967, I lived in an apartment, and it was there I heard from neighbors the latest town gossip: The first Black family had moved to Cody! It wasn’t shocking to me, as I had classmates in Rock Springs who were Black.
In 1968, I moved to a rented old house just off Cody’s main drag. And I added a part-time job, playing music for a couple hours nightly and weekends at KODI-AM. The station then also aired daily far-right programs, including the John Birch Society’s 15-minute noon commentary, five minutes from the “peace through strength” American Security Council and station owner Lyle Ellis’ local morning riff.
Wayne Coffey, the program director who hired me, came to KODI from California. He knew music and compiled a station hit parade, even playing, when other stations banned it, Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” about Black and white teens dating. But one night, when Wayne ditched the standard sign-off national anthem and substituted Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Ellis hit the roof.
It was also in1968 when former Wyoming Republican U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson performed in blackface at a Cody Rotary Club “minstrel show.” The once-feisty Casper Star-Tribune, where I subsequently worked as state editor and columnist decades later, ran the photo on the front page in 1992, prompted by Simpson’s grilling of Anita Hill during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing, in which he referred to her allegations as “sexual harassment crap.” The picture was taken by Dewey Vanderhoff, a former student of mine and freelance photographer. Simpson, in a statement in 1992 said he had come to realize blackface was “insensitive and offensive.”
It wasn’t me who pushed to publish the photo, but rather my assistant state editor, the late Debra Calling Thunder, who wrote accompanying articles on Lander’s One-Shot Antelope Hunt, where Simpson appeared in red face, dressed as a parody of a Native American woman with unsuccessful hunters. Calling Thunder, a Northern Arapaho, noted the hunt raised questions about how whites treated their tribal neighbors. The annual event was “the only time they want to act as our friends,” a former Shoshone tribal official told her.
I left Cody in 1969 when the school district decided it needed to do its part to support the Vietnam war, and no longer backed teacher deferments. I secured a teaching graduate assistantship at UW, but the draft board rejected my appeal, and at an old draft age of 24, I shockingly found myself at Army boot camp, low-crawling at Ft. Lewis in the shadow of Mt. Rainier.
I didn’t return to Cody until 2000, when I was working on a story (never published) about Wyoming, my interest fueled by negative national publicity in the wake of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man, outside Laramie.
Cody has a low-wage service economy based primarily on Yellowstone tourism. So I expected local chatter to be about snowmobiles because the National Park Service had announced snow machines would be barred from Yellowstone by 2002.
But when I tuned into KODI’s “Speak Your Piece” program, the word “snowmobile” was never mentioned. Instead, the buzz for two days running was about “foreign workers,” probably Mexicans and Jamaicans, possibly headed to Cody that summer to work in motels and cafes where $5.50-an-hour jobs go begging. The callers worried where “these people” would live, how many would stay in a house, if they took baths, if they would speak English — and if they would leave after the tourist season.
“I wonder if this would be a problem if the workers coming in were fair-skinned and blue-eyed and came up here from Utah … (not) brown-eyed, brown-eyed and brown-skinned,” suggested one caller, at the end of the program. “I doubt it’d be as big a problem,” agreed the radio host.
That caller, I learned later, was former student Vanderhoff.
At the end of 1990s, the U.S. Census Bureau listed the percentage of whites in Park County at 98.8%. It’s remained that way for decades, a “white bread” town, another former student said.
To a certain degree, that’s what brought some retirees and summer-home owners to Park County, then-County Planner Ken Markert told me in 2000. “I’ve heard of people who consider … a place like this that’s ‘all-white,’ and they say, ‘this looks good to me.’” Another motive that drives the Cody Country second-home and retirement market is money: Wyoming residents don’t pay income tax.
At the Cody Chamber of Commerce office, I talked with Paul Hoffman, also the area’s economic development director. I asked what he would like to attract. In “my wildest dreams,” a gun factory that would bring maybe 400 jobs, Hoffman said. “There’s still a fairly good political climate for guns in Wyoming.”
As I left Cody on my 2000 state tour, headed south to my hometown Rock Springs, I spotted a billboard advertising a Wyoming-based taco joint offering a bit of parting irony: “A Whole Lot of Mexican.”
Fast-forward to late 2020, when the harassment of a same-sex couple from Chicago living in a subdivision on the road from Cody to Yellowstone hit the news. “You are not welcome in Cody Country … You pretend to be a man, and you need to leave,” they were reportedly told.
“On one local Facebook group, a man described the couple as “liberal socialist democratic homosexual transvestites from Chicago’ who ‘hate this country,’” NBC News reported. One of the couple told NBC, “We have employees and friends and neighbors who don’t fit the ‘white Caucasian’ profile who have been made to feel uncomfortable in our town in recent months.”
Considering Park County’s demographics, what brought another new transplant — Kayne West, the Black music mogul and shoe entrepreneur — to Cody? Money, and “economic development,” seems to be the answer. His apparel company, Yeezy, in 2019 leased two vacant warehouses built for another failed firm with state funds. By December 2020 with little Yeezy activity, local development officials fretted about a “‘here today, gone tomorrow’ type of relationship” with West, who appears preoccupied with his high-profile divorce from Kim Kardashian.
One other stop I made in 2000 was in Laramie, where, by sheer coincidence, the city council discussed a proposed but watered down “hate crimes” ordinance in the wake of Shepard’s killing. One councilman suggested it was “pandering to the left-wing socialist agenda.”
No surprise. Wyoming remains one of three states without a hate-crimes law. And when Congress in 2009 passed a federal hate-crimes act, the state delegation voted against it.
Those Cody Country values I witnessed back in the late 1960s seem to have spread throughout Wyoming, the state that gave Donald Trump his biggest vote margin in both 2016 and 2020. My once-home Sweetwater County, once Wyoming’s “Democratic stronghold” in Wyoming, has even gone full Trump. “Socialism” fears grow more intense: When Cynthia Lummis ran for Senate in 2020, she talked about “stopping the socialistic agenda,” invoking the “Wyoming way of life.”
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The right-tilted, Republican-dominated Legislature frets about voter ID and loosening gun laws but refuses to tax incoming high-rollers like West, figuratively fiddling while coal fizzles.
There remain in Wyoming nice people who support gay rights, racial and female equality and voting rights. Indeed, many Cody neighbors actively supported the Wapiti couple in 2020.
But It’s been 20-plus years since I moved from Wyoming, joining many younger folks who voted with their feet. Similarly, isolation, lack of opportunity and intolerance fueled my departure. And with Biden-Harris elected, a good share of the USA isn’t following the “Wyoming way.”
I’ve always Loved reading your columns. 👍🤠
Good to see and hear from old friend, Paul Krza, who wrote an article in 80’s about Claudia Bennett following sheep camp sites in Sweetwater County to teach English to the Basques so they could continue working in the U.S.
What a good article.. Speaks for all of us who have left and aint coming back… So many of those I grew up with in Laramie and worked with in Wyoming over the years are now everywhere else or about to be.. All I miss are a handful of friends and the views of that beautiful landscape.
Wow Paul, you hit a nerve and what a response your column generated. Wyoming has moved to far to the right and unfortunately further away from the “live and let live” and the common sense big tent Wyoming could encompass. So we are in another identity crisis and a deep state of denial regarding climate change, the dismal future of fossil fuels and whether we will become inclusive or limiting. I hope for a future of the “live and let live” ideal, that will reject the growing racism, sexism and homophobia that currently reigns. Wyoming’s future depends on us embracing a more diverse citizenry and a more diverse economy. The landscape of Wyoming embraces us but Wyoming’s politics do not, unfortunately, come close to matching that potential.
Hi Paul Thanks for such a well written article. Nice to see your still at it. Really enjoyed those years working together at the CST.. . Take Care!
Thanks, Paul, for such a column that brought on such a torrent of fine comments. Reminds us that some wonderful people still live here, even if we lost you. I’m like Maria, I love Wyoming’s, landscape, its colors, the drainages etched on the hills. It’s a hard place to leave. We have to keep working to make it a better place. I want to believe that for Wyoming and for the country, what we see too much of now is indeed a last desperate backlash from people with a set of beliefs that are on their way out.
Hi Paul….great to read your analysis & reflections on the current state of the state of our Old Wyo.
It’s good to know that in the midst of that state’s slide into perilous Trumpist extremism, senator Liz Cheney showed that ethics & courage, if nowhere else, still exists in the soul of a woman legislator from Wyoming. And serendipitously, I just happened to read a big review about Wyoming in the NY Review of Books, ‘Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West’, by Justin Farrell. Poor Wyoming. Anyway, keep up the good work, my friend!
just read your comments and I must say I am glad you don’t live in Wyoming, where we still believe and live the way we have for many years. We don’t need a designated “hate crime” bill, there are already many laws on the books that cover, murder, assault, stalking etc. that suffice. We also don’t need others telling us we are “too” conservative, if you don’t like it, stay away, there are many other places where there are practicing liberals. You mentioned “Trump extremism” I will take that any day over the liberal ,socialist, cancel culture extremism of the current occupant of the WH who is already destroying our country. I just hope there is something left to save. As for LIz Cheney, she showed neither courage or was ethical in her voting for impeachment. She showed just how out of touch she is with the citizens of our state as she does not represent the majority of us in Wyoming, and was censured by the Wyoming GOP. Guess she will find out in 2022
I’m not sure about you, but as a lifelong wyoming resident, I can recognize and appreciate doing the right thing regardless of what others want you to do.
Liz Cheney is everything that is wrong with our politics. But, she recognized chrump as a failure and felt he had a role in the capitol riots. She voted the correct way.
You can believe the lies from chrump where he claims that the riot was a love fest and people were hugging and kissing and what not. But, you don’t speak for me.
I guess honesty and integrity is something you’re willing to ignore when it comes to supporting your orange deity. Truth is truth. There are no such things as “alternative facts”
Thanks for this long view, my friend. I was in the Casper schools in that era & am still benefiting from many of the outstanding teachers (& mildly proud of our reading The Aeneid in, yes, Latin.) My junior & high schools were somewhat diverse, but I recognize now that was not the case in most of my classes. Why? Obvious systemic racism doing it’s job.
It is hard to participate in progress here as our legislature careens off the cliff to the right. How do the few brave & sensible politicians hold their sanity in that crowd? And how can the young, smart & brave members of the next generation see a future here?
And yet I stay, still loving this place, this drainage, these mountains & the old pals that light it all up.
We have to acknowledge the remarkable courage of Lynn Cheney, who in her actions regarding the January 6th insurrection demonstrated the best of Wyoming conservative tradition. Despite the truth of Paul’s articles about longstanding racism in Wyoming, we also have a tradition of responsible conservatism that we can be proud of and that Rep. Cheney so clearly represents.
Wyoming is about to receive $1.3 billion in pandemic relief and State Senator Charlie Scott described it as “what the Feds have done to us.” Another example of a long history of having our cake and eating it too in Wyoming politics — accepting Federal support while attacking Federal government policies, especially anti-racist policies. It is time for a change in Wyoming. This will only happen if progressive people committed to fairness and equality run for State office.
Spot on, Candra. I once voted as a fiscal conservative, and then I saw the Republican Party sway so far right, many now appear to admire Vladimir Putin and others like him. I’m currently Independent and I will not vote for authoritarian leaders, or those who refuse to recognize freedom (including the freedoms of people who don’t look or think like you), facts and science.
As I look at the following bills in the 2021 legislative session, I see light at the end of the tunnel:
HB 0218 Bias Crime, HB 0182 Antidiscrimination, HB o209 Marijuana, and SF 0154 Medicaid. Can we ride the conservative bronco for eight seconds?
Good to see you still writing great thought provoking articles. As a classmate and friend we shared a great public school education in a place where the diversity of 53 nationalities was a thing to be proud of.
As a fifth-generation Wyoming native (four generations in Cody), I feel fortunate to not have been raised to embrace these narrow, bigoted views. We will stay here because we love our home state. As an open-minded person who believes in equality for all—regardless of skin color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age—it’s not always easy. But we will stay here to continue to advocate for tolerance and inclusion across the state of Wyoming. While it would be easier in many ways to cut and run — there’s too much at stake.
It is embarrassing how Stupid our Wyoming Legislature has become, wasting all this time and money on one goofy Bill after another and many of them are actually dangerous and harmful to Wyoming citizenry as well as destructive to our economy.
Yep and Wyoming taxpayers are still sending money to bankrupt coal companies trying to keep them up and running…..who do you suspose will do the clean up…ans reclamation?
I had read this article the other day, but was working on Roe V Wade and I wanted to get back to it to discuss a specific line in the article. As this line really triggered my past experiences as well as drives home the point about what makes a good public school teacher and why we had such good public schools, where I went in Kettering, Ohio.
“I left Cody in 1969 when the school district decided it needed to do its part to support the Vietnam war, and no longer backed teacher deferments.”
This statement really hit home as many of my male teachers, while unbeknownst to me at the time, were the “beneficiaries” of this deferment. Yes I put in quotes, beneficiaries, as to them it was not a benefit but a life saving decision. As a public school kid that was educated from the 1960s to June of 1981, I had no idea where my teachers came from or why they were in teaching.
Certainly I knew of the Vietnam War as it went on so long I thought, I too would be drafted. But it ended and I went on to be (IMHO) successful in college and life. During my time rising within organizations I wondered about my public education compared to others with whom I worked. I had taken account of enough of my classmates to see that many advanced into leadership positions across the spectrum of American society. I came to the conclusion that Kettering provided a high quality education and I wondered why?
As chance would have it I ran into my old Trigonometry Teacher, one Dennis Priser, at a teacher retirement party and I asked him the reason for such success. And ole Dennis delivered. He told me I had a great education because of two factors: Americas bias against female employment and the Vietnam War. He went on to provide the following analysis.
Due to American bias against women, the only jobs over educated and undervalued women could do was teach or nursing. He indicated that my cohort had some of the last female teachers that had limited opportunities prior to the rise of feminism, which resulted in much more opportunities for women to get paid for doing something they wanted instead of what they were limited too.
He said the other major supplier of over educated and limited opportunity teacher workforce came from the Vietnam war draft deferments as he was one of these teachers. He said when he was in college he had no intention of entering teaching, but due to the War and the fact that he was “too ugly”/ not ready for marriage and actually hoped the war would end soon, he took the deferment. He also went on to say that because males entered the profession was one of the ONLY reasons that female teachers got raises as males had to “take care of families”.
He also said that public education debate has really never been honest about what makes a good teacher, which is offering a salary that is commensurate with other professions like a chemical engineer or an attorney.
Now that I have read Paul Krza’s article, it makes me wonder how much educational opportunity was robbed from other Wyoming students that did not end up getting the benefit of an inspirational teacher that were forced into the profession due to a war? I realize it is kind of hard for a state to admit, it chose ignorance instead of inspiration, but decisions have consequences and getting rid of the deferment robbed Wyoming children, which I contend ripple through today’s society as evidenced by the current Wyoming Legislature.
It seems Wyoming has been cutting its nose off despite its face over so called principles for far too long and is ending up at the back of the line every time. Education, Medicaid, Abortion, Guns, Coal……it goes on, but if you have poor education then what else would you know?
I want to say that I have read the comments of all the writers so far and I too lament the loss of tolerance and to stick with the idea that racism is learned at home and may only be reinforced or broken at school.
Fascinating comments about the history of teachers. Thanks!
Our children spend so much of their time in schools — and schools can make a huge difference in attitudes and values. Sadly, many of our schools decline to take advantage of this opportunity to truly “educate”.
Thanks for the reminder of what a good job the teachers and students I encountered in Rock Springs during the early to mid-70s did to instill an appreciation of the strengths that come from a diverse community. The history of Rock Springs had its fair share of black marks in how it treated various minorities and outsiders, but those dark moments were often dragged into the open and discussed by our teachers as an educational opportunity. I was much better prepared for life in a wider world from what I learned in those discussions. It’s been a great disappointment to see a general slide and decline in open-mindedness across the state in the years since, but I remain hopeful for a future Renaissance.
I grew up in Cody–my Dad Marlin Kurtz was basketball coach and history teacher. My speech teacher was Wynona Thompson–my classmates were Pete Simpson and Alan. lmy relatives, the Newtons and Ingrahams were practically founders of Cody with Buffalo Bill. —–I worked at KODI–and wrote for Cody Hi Bronc newspaper———-My Dad was Speaker of House. We werre all good republicans—–My Dad woould turn over in grave to see where the republican paarty is today. I belonged to John Birch Society—but Now==i have become a member of Democratic Party and have been a writer for CSTribune wtih feaature articles as well as telling about conspiracy the0ries and fake news. ——-I taught school at Cody High as well as a teacher in Natrona County Schools –I pray that we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Oleta Thomas—C asper.
It is heart warming so read these comments. Some of the contributors I have heard of but don’t know on a personal basis. I was born and raised in Casper and now live in Basin. I can remember when I was in high school and I was walking into a store with my family when a school member of a black family walked by us and we said ‘hi’ to each other. Once out of ear shot of the other student, my father turned and said, “Don’t talk to them”. I lost a great deal of respect for my father that day. When I think about some of my sister’s grandchildren and 1/2 Black and others 1/2 Native American I just get a smile across my face. The only real difference is the geographical origin of ancestors. I think it is nothing more than issues about resources. .
Good to hear from you, my old friend. You nailed it.
So sad. Are we all bad? I think many Wyomingites have learned a lot since the days you describe; I hope so. I don’t know how to undo the past, and I’m at my advancing age “guilty” of a naïve childhood, and upbringing, with no teaching of harm to others from my parents or my community…a community which did have Black families, Mexican families, Irish, all kinds. What is the suggestion, to right the wrongs?
We can’t put smoke back down the chimney but we can strive to live the Golden Rule each day.
A very accurate analysis, but much to kind. You barely scratched the surface of a difficult topic and I laud you for posting it. I love living in Wyoming and Cody as I have since birth, but I am not proud of our record on discrimination and prejudice. I feel my children’s education in Cody schools was incomplete because the population is so vanilla. My children knew no racial or cultural diversity in their elementary and high school years which is a disadvantage to them now (they all live out of state).
Telling it like it is. Thanks
Good to hear from you. I think of you and Kate every time I drive by your former house on 12th Street. I think. the last time we talked was when we met to discuss the aftermath of the first year of the Wyoming Business Council disaster.. If I recall correctly, you talked to the ex-CEO John Reardon and he told you that I was the problem with it all.
Interesting article. I was born at Jim Creek, Wapiti in 1960. Our family never judged anyone by their skin color, political beliefs, religious leanings, or sexual orientation. I have often wondered what the world would be like if we all adopted a “live and let live; love and let love” mentality. It is all about respect. Now, technology leads to instant communications which are the breeding grounds for people to arm up against others. People seem to be so angry. People have changed into monsters instead of the good neighbors that we used to be.
Thanks for the piece.
I do get a kick out of hearing, “All you liberals in Casper”. Having lived in 11 different states during my career in sales and project management, I can tell you, they don’t know what a “liberal city” is!
OTOH, my wife and I looked at Slovenia (all 4 of my grandparents came over from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the early 20th C., she’s 5th generation Casper), but the current Trumpty-Dumpty like PM there put a stop to our plans. Good luck getting rid of him.
Hi Paul, You were a college of mine in the first grade through Junior High School in Rock Springs. Thank you for writing the wonderful article that summarizes the state of the state. Sweetwater County was once the coal miners democratic haven, both my grandfathers worked the mines and my father was the coal mine doctor. So sad that so many followed the orange, imbecile Trump that led to daily horror stories of his avoidance of science, walking around masskless, and promoting clorox and the virus that “never went away”.
With more sun and wind than most states, Wyoming should have led the green revolution and employed hundreds of ex-coal and trona miners for the future.
Take care my old friend,
Paul – it is good to hear your voice again! I always enjoyed your reporting.
I was in basic training in Fort Ord back in 197o and the overwhelming majority of us white guys refused to eat the lettuce or grapes in support of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Topday’s army would eat all they could . But a lot of good things have also happened since then and these reactionaries are like polar bears standing on a melting sheet of iice in the climate change of politics. The smaller the ice gets the more desperate their behavior