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HOMETOWN U.S.A.: Paoli, Colo.

Virgil Harms' way: 50 years as a mayor in the 'other' Colorado

No opponents and no controversy are his keys to longevity in tiny Paoli on the state's northeastern Plains.

February 11, 2012|By David Kelly, Los Angeles Times
  • Virgil Harms, 84, recently marked his 50th year as mayor of Paoli, Colo.
Virgil Harms, 84, recently marked his 50th year as mayor of Paoli, Colo. (Joe Amon, Denver Post )

In these increasingly partisan times, Mayor Virgil Harms, a lifelong Democrat in a sea of Republicans, recently celebrated half a century in office, a job he's won without spending a dime or sullying a reputation.

Having no opponent, of course, helps.

"I suppose if they didn't want me, they'd tell me," said the 84-year-old farmer and chief executive of Paoli, a tiny town near the Nebraska border. "If someone else wanted the job, I'd let them have it."

But no one else wants it, so Harms hasn't faced a challenger for 50 years, making him the longest-serving mayor in Colorado.

"He's a steady guy who got stuck with the job," said Councilman Bud Whiteis. "But I've learned that politicians can work together and get things done if they have Virgil's temperament."

Mayor Pro Tem James McBee called Harms the most even-tempered man he'd ever known. "Virgil never changes," he said.

Harms embodies the highest attributes of this rugged, rural landscape: He's calm, deliberate and uncommonly frugal. And with his trademark overalls, he looks the part as well.

"As long as there's no square dance, he never misses a meeting," said Marilyn Miller, who is both postmaster and town clerk.

The community of about 50 threw him a surprise party for his anniversary in December, and fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper sent a congratulatory letter, invoking the hero of "It's a Wonderful Life."

"You are the George Bailey of Paoli," he wrote. "And you've made the lives of so many people more wonderful for what you've given of yourself."

The mayor, clearly touched, keeps the letter by his book of John Deere tractor photos.

"The governor seems like a good sort," he said.

Paoli belongs to the "other" Colorado. Not the one of soaring mountain splendor — the flat one of few words, fading towns and apocalyptic hailstorms. The Eastern Plains makes up more than a third of the state but is home to only about 160,000 of its 5 million residents, according to recent census figures.

The towns are small, the politics conservative and the economies fragile. In 2005, a pickle plant shut in La Junta, costing 153 jobs. A bus factory closed in Lamar, eliminating 300 workers, and a prison in Las Animas may shut next month.

"Stagnant growth is a challenge, but we are working 24-7 to attract business," said Ken Lund, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

Last month, the governor announced plans for an annual three-day bike race in September called Pedal the Plains, open to all and aimed at "celebrating the agricultural roots and frontier heritage" of eastern Colorado.

But pedal too fast and they'll miss Paoli, barely a pause in the rolling grasslands that flow around it like water. The starkly white town hall stands across from towering grain elevators. A handful of houses and an empty Methodist church sit off the highway.

"We used to have a creamery, three grocery stores, three filling stations, a hotel and a hardware store," Harms said, watching a worker load corn into a truck. "It's hard to believe we had all of that."

Not that Paoli was ever bustling. In its heyday it counted about 80 people.

The mayor, who farms nearly 2,000 acres with his son, was born six miles away. He served in the Army during World War II and bought his house in 1947. He and his wife, Eloise, 85, have been in Paoli ever since, except for occasional road trips. About 12 years ago they visited Key West.

They had a lovely time, but thrifty Harms seemed most impressed by the room rate he wangled.

"We got a motel there for just $38 a night," he said. "Can you believe that?"

As mayor, his biggest battle was persuading the railroad to let the town run a water pipe under the tracks. Aside from that, when it comes to spending, Harms prefers to go without than go into debt.

He's often scandalized by today's prices.

"It used to cost $2,400 to oil a road," he said. "Now it's $89,000."

So the roads remain gravel, including his own, Harms Way, named by the town in his honor.

As Harms drove his pickup past a silo, he spotted Orville Tonsing, mayor of nearby Holyoke. It's the big city by Paoli standards, with more than 2,300 residents. Tonsing, 74, leaned into the truck.

"So how many eating places you have over there now?" Harms asked.

"Let's see," Tonsing said. "One, two, three, four, five, the Subway — that's six — seven, the Dairy King. That's what, eight?"

Harms thought a moment.

"The Dairy Mart sells sandwiches, so that's nine."

They said their goodbyes and Harms drove off, happily conceding that not much happens here.

And perhaps that explains his political longevity.

"We have no controversies, no school, no police, no fire department," he said. "When you don't have a lot to do, you just get along."

Kelly writes for The Times.

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