For the last year, my father Dr. Francis Visconti of Trinidad, Colorado has been in the care of Springs Ranch Memory Care in Colorado Springs. For two months prior, he was in the care of Mt. San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad. I start this way, because I want to thank the people who made his last time on this Earth as comfortable as possible and with amazing care and love.
I also give credit to my mother, who cared for him for eight to 10 years of his Alzheimer’s degradation. How she did this for so long is only a testament to her strength and conviction. I also owe a great debt of gratitude to my wife, my family, Dr. Stephen MacKerrow (Jenny and staff), Dr. Daniel Ward, and Compassus Hospice, without which I highly doubt my father would have been alive for the last six to seven years.
In mid-September, my father turned 96 years old. The weather in Colorado Springs was good; he seemed happy, enjoyed walking outside and having the sun on his face with my wife and both of my brothers in one place at the same time. That was a very good day.
My father was a survivor. Maybe a lot more, he was a “thriver.” He survived diving into a dock on the Hudson River at 9 years old. He survived hunger and the Great Depression. He survived combat: six tours during WWII as a 50-cal machine gunner, which in itself is amazing. He survived organized crime in New Jersey and Colorado. He survived three pain-in-the-ass sons and all their headstrong convictions.
And through it all, he always looked for possibilities, taught lessons and brought the most positive aspects to almost any affliction or situation.
Not to say he wasn’t a pain-in-the-ass, too. He was just as adept at working you like a dog with a wickedly capable vocabulary and vernacular born of his New Jersey upbringing, or possibly throwing a left hook into your shoulder if he couldn’t verbalize a disagreement. However, he was even more adept at throwing a kind and knowledgeable word and a hug.
For the last 12-plus years, he has survived through all the issues and complications of Alzheimer’s, except for one. There was memory loss, not recognizing patients/friends, but he never really became angry or combative. Not until the very last few weeks and that wasn’t so bad.
And as my brother Alex can attest, on this most recent birthday, he didn’t lose his taste for sweets. When Alex pulled out fresh chocolate chip cookies on that recent September day, I haven’t seen my father move that fast in years!
Both my mother and father are Army veterans. He was in WWII at the beginning of our involvement from North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany. As a 50-cal gunner in the 995 F.A., his unit has six combat campaigns, over 400 consecutive days of combat, and over 600 total days in combat.
He contracted Malaria and his only time away from combat was rest-leave, or when a phosphorus shell hit his position. When he recuperated from his burns and a broken leg, he didn’t go home. He went AWOL with another soldier to return to their respective units. That’s guts, man — and anyone that knew him — knew he had plenty to spare.
In the early 1970s, my parents, Raymond Lutz, Joseph Lasavio, Harold “Hal” Haddon, and several decent law officers, and many brave citizens of Las Animas County, were instrumental in the CBI investigation and grand jury in southern Colorado; fighting corruption, organized crime, and drug trafficking.
He, my mother, their amazing nursing and office staff continually provided care to Trinidad and the surrounding communities. When they closed their office in 2004, after 37 years in private practice, they amassed and gladly wrote off a significant number of unpaid bills without a further concern. They also provided free medical care to young people and students at Drop City during the 1960s and early 1970s, surrounded by a community that was not so accepting and tolerant of those times.
He was also a recipient of the highest award from the University of Colorado Medical School, the Silver and Gold Award for 1997 and was in the Colorado and New Mexico Medical Societies for decades.
As a 1950 Western State Mountaineer “Bus Rider,” my father was instrumental starting and supporting the Bus Rider’s Scholarship. Due to disparity, my parents started and currently support a scholarship at Western State that provides full assistance to a female athlete. They also supported nearly 40 students through Trinidad State Junior College through the 1970s and 1980s.
Without question, he led a mostly quiet, but exemplary life and did it unconditionally. He never asked for anything in return, ever.
Dad was also a very funny person. He and my Uncle Sam purchased some property in Wet Canyon with the best of intentions. His credo was cast on day one: “We are here to have fun, we quit when we want to and there will be no yelling.” That credo was violated in many forms on day two. Totally and utterly obliterated on day three. Was only said in jest on day four and any time afterward.
He called 12-hour days “half days,” but mostly he like us to work “full” days.
He enjoyed riding his tractors, while watching his three sons pick up rocks and carry them across fields. That isn’t to say he couldn’t do it himself. At 80 years old, he could still pick up a railroad tie on his shoulder and walk with it, even if a truck was available. Another Francis Visconti credo, “Never do anything the easy way.”
He taught me how to ski, water ski, ride a motorcycle, saddle a horse, about vehicle control. He even taught me how to counter-punch and not “telegraph” a left hook.
He often said, “don’t take any s--t,” but also taught us how to practice dialogue and understanding of another’s conditions first. More so, he taught not to judge and to find happiness and not follow pretention and only money. Of his most common verses I remember: “Don’t judge a person until you walk a mile in their moccasins,” and “I don’t care if you want to shine shoes the rest of your life, as long as you are happy,” and “If you want to be with a certain kind of person, well then you need to be a certain type of man.”
Those always come to mind.
I know he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. He probably wanted all three of his sons to do so, but he never professed or pushed it. My desires were elsewhere, and he absolutely encouraged it. I hung out with his friends that could teach hand craftsmanship, wood working, machining, welding, fabrication, even racing and motorsports. We were with people that worked the fields, the mines, the cattle runs from the time they were children and fought against discrimination, or adversity: those were common themes.
He hardly ever talked about the war, but told me about Cassino and told me not to judge soldiers that walked away from the fight. He also talked about finding a Nazi death camp, the atrocities and making the local German population come bury the dead.
He talked about his, then, anger at humanity and also about the reasons he stayed in Germany after the war to help a local population that was totally devastated and without men to even help chop and deliver wood.
I learned about him talking down to officers that tried to segregate troops in his division. As he said, if they were going to start doing it to the Blacks (remember this is 1940s), it wouldn’t be long before they got to the Irish and Italians.
Another story was about pulling an injured New Zealand Mauri soldier from a burning tank, then being reprimanded by a “Southern” officer. I was a young kid, but remember his words with clarity, “F--- you! He’s fighting the same war I am.”
I learned when he lived in North Carolina in the late 1950s, he would only ride in the backs of buses, attended black churches and sang in their choirs. When he was in Denver in the early 1960s, he lived near Five-points because he loved the neighborhood and dance halls. Many afternoons were spent in Bill Seal’s tire shop and they would talk about adversity, but also about acceptance and friendship.
When I was about 7-years-old, as a family, we took the train to Los Angeles. After the 24-hour ride, we walked around Olvera Street, near Union Station. He took me in his hand at what I now believe were Main or Temple Streets. We walked down it and he was addressed and started talking with a couple of homeless men leaning against a wall. He addressed them as “sir,” “yes sir,” and “no sir” and had a short, polite conversation. Walking away, I remember the feel of my hand in his. I was a little nervous, he was very confident. He said something to effect, “Every person is deserving of respect.”
About seven to eight years ago, while his long-term memory was mostly still in-tact, I asked him why he did all this? I knew why, but I wanted his words, not mine. We were driving back from one of our farm trips, coming up Capitol Hill to my parent’s house. “Of course I did it and I did it for good reason!” That was all. He knew I got “it.” Explanation accepted.
I also never saw anyone with a greater work ethic, or one that created more joy out of life. For a person that would continually do 70 to 80-plus hour weeks, he found time for the outdoors and other adventures and at an age that it wouldn’t be so common.
I remember Denver Broncos donkey basketball in Donnelly Gymnasium and a fast-pitch softball championship in his 50s. Then there were numerous Dutch Nogel football practices and dragging infields, preparing diamonds and baseball practices at Central Park.
He played his last Western State alumni football game at 59… and was called for a late hit. Yea — like that was a surprise.
He could meet me for the first lift and ski all day with only a 15-minute lunch break in his 60s and 70s. That was after he drove for four to five hours, uphill, both ways. He was still able to “lake start” on a single ski until he was until 82. He competed in Nastar ski racing until age 86.
For his 80th birthday, we rode motorcycles to New Jersey and New York for a family reunion and he challenged me to a 100-yard foot race. He was very upset when my Uncle Ray told him I held up a bit so he could win. For his 87th we were accepted and tried to race at Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb. For his 90th, he did a running lap around Western State football field.
Yes, he was a teacher. Maybe not the most patient one, but probably one of my best and I hope that I can carry those lessons onto my children. In all fairness, it wasn’t a one-way street. I tried to teach him about drinking better non-peated whiskey, better coffee, how to adjust a carburetor and that yes, there “are” big rocks and trees whizzing by at Pikes Peak and that a six-way dozer blade lever has more settings than just “on-and-off.” And I’m fairly sure that hole in the barn roof was already there. And I’m fairly sure that dent in the van fender was already there and springs, crossmembers and frames on trucks that jump cattle guards do tend to break and that weld broke many, many, many times. Yep. Even-steven. No regrets.
In closing, I want to say that he loved all his family, whomever and wherever they were.
He also loved his many patients and friendships and the places in Colorado and New Mexico he called home. He definitely got as much out of Las Animas and Colfax Counties as he gave to them. He was truly a better person for being here. We all are better people, for the long friendships, the guidance and support from these communities that mean so very much to this family.
“Golden moments” were when he would pick up a picture to recall a time that was years in the past. Even in his last act, on his death, he asked us to donate his body to the institution he loved and respected: the University of Colorado Medical School.
Tough, determined, selfless, loving and kind. All the way to the end. Job well done.