Sopris 1945

— Ed. note: Writer Doc Leonetti is covering some of the stories of Sopris, Colorado, ahead of the former town’s 50th anniversary of the first reunion held in the Sopris Gym in 1970. Here he recounts the story of former Sopris resident Lillian Gutierrez.

Camilo and Elena Helen (Garcia) Roys settled in the quaint hamlet of Sopris Plaza (Laveses) soon after they married. In this quiet, satellite community, near the Purgatoire River Bridge that connected this small congenial place to Sopris proper, the Roys family resided for several years. It was here, and other Sopris locales, where the couple nurtured seven children.  

Their eldest, Lillian, contracted poliomyelitis, a devastating disease that destroys nerve cells in the spinal cord and induces muscle wasting and paralysis just short of her second birthday. Polio, almost non-existent today thanks to the work of Dr. Jonas Salk, who discovered the vaccine in 1955, contrived a medical miracle that would prevent the contracting of the disabling disorder by millions of others.

It was too late for Lillian to be saved by the vaccination, but her young parents were not deterred by her disability. They were determined that she and her future siblings would get a good education. Lillian attended St. Thomas School in the first and second grade. Even as a child, a good education was a top priority for her, too. With sheer, unmatched determination and tenacity, Elena would carry her oldest daughter on her back to school, a distance of two miles each way, five days a week, for her first and second grade years at St. Thomas Elementary School.

Meanwhile, Camilo was building his original home for his young family in Sopris Plaza.

While constructing his new home they lived in a two room jackal (duplex) on property owned by her grandmother Julianita Suazo Garcia. Grandma lived in two contiguous small rooms in the duplex. They left their new home because her mother could no longer carry her to school. Camilo left his job in the Valdez CF&I coal mine and they moved to Boncarbo where they rented a company house. Lillian, now with close proximity to the bus stop for students at Holy Trinity, could walk to the pickup spot to go to school where, she noted, “I could now ‘walk’ to the stop to go to school. Norbie Shew and John Rino were my classmates.” When the Bon Carbo mine closed, the family moved back home to Sopris Plaza

Meanwhile, the reflective Lillian reminisced about her first two years at St.Thomas.  “There was no bus system to transport the children in the St. Thomas school district in the Plaza at that time,” explained Lillian. “When I was in the second grade, Dad decided there was no way Mother was going to carry me anymore. Dad quit his job in Valdez and took a job in the Bon Carbo Mine where we lived in one of the company houses. We left home for here (Sopris Plaza) during my late second and third grade years after the mine closed in Boncarbo. Again, I could walk to the bus stop where I rode the bus to school at Holy Trinity in Trinidad.”

Eventually, the family moved back to their original home at which time Lillian’s father ran for the school board and was elected. As a full-fledged board member, he fought hard and was successful in obtaining buses for the kids, a much needed service for the children who lived far distances from the schools attendance jurisdiction. Lillian had found, with Dad’s help, a sustaining means of getting back to school in St. Thomas.   

As a child, Lillian overcame insurmountable odds, and now, at the sagacious age of 82, is a living legacy of strength and determination of the natives of the Sopris community. She graduated from Lincoln High School in Sopris in 1956. Following graduation, she obtained her A.A. degree from Trinidad State Jr. College and taught at the elementary school in Sopris. The young lady with braces then began her post A.A. education, working diligently to earn a B.A. degree from Adams State University (1958-1962) by attending summer school and enrolling in evening classes. She earned her B.A. at Adams State in 1962, and an M.A. degree from the University of Northern Colorado soon followed.  

Eventually she moved to Westminster, a thriving suburb of Denver, and taught at Baker Elementary School in her new hometown for 12 years. Lillian was selected as Denver’s District 50’s first Bilingual Coordinator, serving in this position with distinction for four years. She worked for the United States Department of Education as an investigator in the Office for Civil Rights for 27 years, with administrative duties in the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. She was selected Regional Director and served in this capacity until she retired in January, 2006.  

Lillian was awarded an honorary doctorate from Metropolitan State University in Denver in 1985. She was honored by Congressman David Skaggs with a ‘Perceptual Scholarship’ in 1984.  Skaggs, a member of the Colorado House of Representatives, donated his raise that year for a scholarship to the University of Colorado in her name. To this day, Lillian volunteers her time and expertise to the Westminister Education Foundation. Said Lillian, “I’ve served on many county and state boards and continue to work with the Foundation because I believe every child is entitled to an education.”

Lillian married Trinidad native Manuel Gutierrez in 1961. Manuel sported a B.A. from Regis College in Denver. Little sister Marlene Roys Flannigan, whom she considers to be her own daughter, currently resides with her. Martin is her only son, and she has granddaughter Camille to cheer her up.  

“All my kids are teachers,” concluded Lillian with tongue in cheek. “And my granddaughter is a principal. I tried to encourage them to pursue better paying jobs, but all to no avail. I’m proud of all of them.”

The life and times of Lillian Roys Gutierrez is only a single example of the resilience and determination of the ‘People of Sopris.’ She is true pioneer, a leader by example.  Numerous others from the small coal mining camp would follow her lead, working hard to overcome their poverty and hardships with humility and strength.  Lillian, unquestionably, personifies the character and spirit of the once proud community of Sopris.

The resilience and determination of the ‘people of Sopris’ will once again be demonstrated by their 50th annual five-year reunion to be held at Trinidad Lake on July 3-4, 2020.  

Anyone interested in contributing stories, photos, or any documents related to the Sopris community should contact: Judy (Martorano) at: judymangino57@gmail.com, or Trish (Martorano) Gagnon at: trishmartorano@comcast.net.  Deadline for submission of materials is March 30, 2020.

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