I say that, because when I was a youngster working there in the ‘70s and ‘80s, all sorts of characters would show up about 9:30 every morning. One of the most memorable was Don Ripley.
Ripley was a tall man, prone then to wearing bibbed overalls and a stark white goatee. He reminded me of Burl Ives, with a similar look, voice and demeanor as the Sam the Snowman narrator in “Rudolph, The Red-nosed Reindeer.“
Aside from the favorite Christmas program link, Ripley was memorable for other reasons. Signs, signs, everywhere a sign, all those signs became trademarks for him.
“Donald Gilbert Ripley, the first National Park Service ranger assigned to Hovenweep National Monument and the woodworker who designed the original signs for Mesa Verde National Park, died of respiratory failure May 7 at the Vista Grande Nursing Home in Cortez. He was 92 years old,” read his obituary by Claire Martin in the Denver Post on Sunday, May 18, 2003.
“Don was the chief ranger, the maintenance director, the caretaker and basically Hovenweep’s entire staff of one for many years,” the Post’s story quoted retired park ranger Bill Wade, whose father was the chief ranger at Mesa Verde National Park.
Wade recalled Ripley using a router to cut grooves for lettering and squeeze bottle filled with orange paint to tidily fill in the letters.
“When I think of him, the memory of those signs comes back immediately. They had a distinctive pattern that he designed, and he also made a kind of thing that went on top of the sign. You know designs you see on Navajo woven blankets? That zigzag thing? It resembled that. These were roadside sign and there were a lot of ‘em up there,” Martin quoted Wade.
With his attention to detail and respect for native culture, Ripley won friends and influenced people from the many walks he traveled in his life. In addition to his Park Ranger duties at Hovenweep and Mesa Verde, he worked at other parks including as superintendent of Salinas National Monument in New Mexico from the fall of 1965 to the fall of 1967. It seemed he always returned to his home in Dolores.
Utes, Navajos, and Crow all called him friend and the University of Colorado, through the Cortez Cultural Center, honored him as well for his archaeological work in 1992, according to the Cortez Journal.
“The Crow Tribe made Ripley an honorary brother, a tribute that he considered one of the highest complements of his life,” according to the Denver Post. “When Ripley finally finished his house in Dolores in 1958, he like to tell guests that he had asked for the blessing of Old Coyote, the sly, legendary medicine man. Old Coyote, Ripley often said, was his brother.”
At the hardware store back then Don, and occasionally his wife Bessie, whom he married in 1939 in Victor, would come in and grab a small item like sand paper or hinges for his woodworking “Jones” and would then put it in his own personal charge book for Taylor’s, without needing help from any store employee. Occasionally, owner Merton Taylor would convince him to make some sort of sign for a local service club that the two of them were involved in. Rotary, American Legion, NRA, CU Foundation, or maybe the Dolores Public Library Board would be the usual suspects.
Throughout my life, as I have traveled the west in California, Wyoming, New Mexico, and the four points of the compass in Colorado, I often would run into folks that knew, respected and enjoyed Don Ripley during his lifetime. I shared that respect and enjoyment.
One regret, I guess however, is that I didn’t seek more from such a memorable character as he sipped his coffee, and fished out a flat bastard file (or some other item) from the cabinet up front and scrawled it in the book marked “Don Ripley” every morning in hardware store, all those years ago.