GREENE: The sad death of the happiest man in Denver
How could someone who seemed so connected to so many people, so faithful and upbeat, carry so much hurt so quietly?
I’ve been struggling to write about Sylvester Tally for three weeks now.
With each interview I’ve done since his Nov. 28th suicide, I’ve heard about the Tally I knew – the affable, inquisitive and perpetually upbeat fixture at Denver’s city and county buildings who was extraordinarily talented at making friends.
But few could help explain the rest of the story: How could a man who knew so many and whom so many thought they knew so well have died, in some way a stranger, alone with his painful secret?
“That’s the question we’re all asking ourselves,” says Denver Elections Division spokesman Alton Dillard who counted Tally as one of his best friends.
I met Tally the way scores of other Denverites did: getting coffee. He owned and ran a business called Coffee Etcetera, which started as a cart in the old City Hall on Bannock Street, moved into the atrium of the Wellington Webb Building and later expanded to a space at the south end of Denver’s Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse.
People called him “Mr. Coffee,” “Mr. Deacon,” “Deacon Tally,” “Sly,” “Syl,” or his childhood nickname, “Butterball.”
Tally, 58, was a remarkably close observer. Not only would he remember what size and kind of drink you preferred and whether you wanted room for cream, but he’d also notice if you’d trimmed your hair, lost some weight or showed even the earliest signs of a baby bump. He’d catch what others didn’t: a spring in your step or something weighing you down. And he wouldn’t let you go until you caught him up on your life.
“How are you? I mean, how are you, really?” he’d ask, drawing that last word out so long and looking at you so directly that you felt compelled to answer.
“You’d make a great reporter,” I once told him – a comment that prompted him to tell me, memorably, that, “I only report to God.”
That conversation 15 or more years ago was one of my first with Tally, who said he’d considered a reporting career as a kid but lost interest when he realized as an adult that the “why” among the fundamental questions of journalism – who, what, when, where, how and why – often eludes even the closest observers. Why was the juiciest question of all, he told me, and only God could answer it.
Nearly every time I’d see him, he’d ask what news story I was working on and I’d ask what he’d been thinking about lately. His answers were intriguing. Like at the courthouse recently, when he said he’d been wondering why judges have witnesses swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” when a simple promise to tell the truth should do the trick. Or, one sunny day years ago, when I saw Tally sitting on a bench at Civic Center looking up at the sky. I asked what he was doing. He said he was reminding himself of his own smallness.
Tally’s wonder was infectious. He made you feel good. And, at least in the estimation of the two dozen people I’ve interviewed for this story, he seemed to draw enormous joy out of life and possess an even more enormous ability to spread it.
“He was pretty much the Mayor – or at least the very best ambassador – of Denver, the man everyone loved best at the city and really looked forward to seeing when they came to City Hall,” says Joyce Foster, a former city councilwoman and state representative whom Sylvester called “Joycie.”
Foster, a rabbi’s wife, says Tally touched her with his warmth and empathy. Everyone who knew him, she says, “was drawn to his light.” That’s why she worked hard to persuade city officials to let Tally upgrade from a coffee cart at the old city and county building to a coffee stand at the Webb building when it opened – a contract that helped him expand into a more permanent space at the new justice center.
“He made every single person in that courthouse smile,” says Rob Barlow, a deputy Denver district attorney who struck up a friendship with the city’s best-known barista.
Michael Martinez, chief Denver District judge, says his friendship grew out of his habit for Americanos and lattes. He was struck early on by Tally’s devotion to his customers. He’d notice him giving free coffee to people who forgot their wallets or couldn’t afford it, or putting an extra dollop of cream in their drinks to sweeten their day.
“He was a positive, a real positive cat,” Martinez says. “Here’s a guy with just the most effervescent personality whom I saw personally impact so, so many people.”
Tally was twice married and twice divorced, with a son named Brandon Clark, who worked on and off for his dad’s coffee business. Friends talk about Tally’s love of mountain climbing, skiing and tooling around Cherry Creek Reservoir on his jet ski. They remember his long hugs, the Bible on his coffee counter and the gospel tunes playing in the background. He’d counsel kids to stay out of the kind of trouble that landed him with a four-year, drug-related jail sentence as a young man in Nebraska. He’d give job advice, personal guidance and spiritual counsel whether you asked for it or not. He’d tell you you’re good and worthy and blessed.
When a speaker at his Dec. 10th memorial service asked who considered Tally their best friend, at least seven people raised their hands.
“He had a way of seeing you, really seeing you,” Foster says.
“People would come by the coffee stand and knew if they had a problem, he’d help work it out,” adds Tally’s girlfriend, Cheri Mattocks.
It was she who found his body Nov. 28th at his Aurora home with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his chest.
“It came as a total surprise to me, to everybody” she says, sobbing. “He was the last person that anybody would think would do anything like this.”
Almost everyone I interviewed agrees that the words Sylvester and suicide don’t fit. Weeks after his death, many of his friends – even those who attended his memorial service – weren’t aware that he left a short note before shooting himself.
“Tired of dealing with my lifelong mental health struggles. God knows my heart,” he wrote.
Tally’s smile was so bright and his wit so quick that he was able to keep his struggles a secret, as do many of the nearly half million Coloradans with mental health problems. African-Americans and Latinos are less likely than most to receive help from a mental health professional. Just 7 to 8 percent of people of color seek counseling compared with 13 percent of Colorado’s white population.
This is especially troubling in a state that’s growing increasingly diverse and already has with one of the nation’s highest suicide rates: 19.4 suicides per 100,000 Colorado residents, up from 16.5 per 100,000 residents in 2007. Like Tally, many of the dead managed to mask their symptoms – especially men, who outnumber women in suicides by 4 to 1.
The solution, says state suicide prevention coordinator Sarah Brummett, is teaching people to ask for help and working “to break down barriers that keep them from acknowledging they’re struggling.”
Dillard says there were no such barriers between Tally and their group of African-American men who prided themselves on the depth of their conversations about divorce, relationships, their children, aging, and the value they put on strong, close male friendships.
“We had a very open dialogue, and the last several times I talked to him, he sounded fine. He didn’t mention anything about any particular struggle or anything. I didn’t catch any kind of indicators or signs,” Dillard said, and then paused.
“Maybe that’s the thing when somebody’s always trying to keep everybody else propped up. He would mine deep down into people’s stuff. But maybe – well, actually, more than maybe, as we know now – he was less forthcoming about his own stuff.”
Barlow said Tally didn’t mention mental health troubles during their talks at the courthouse nor on their trek up the 14,000-foot Mount Sherman. Asked if he knew about the psychological pain Tally was experiencing, Barlow said, “No. Um. No.”
“He was a good actor who sort of kept everything inside. He’d lead everybody to believe everything was great, not wanting to burden anyone,” Mattocks told me. “But he was dealing with some stuff. He was dealing with some issues, for sure.”
Those issues, as Tally’s son tells it, included some financial troubles. “There was a long history of mental illness in the family, as well.”
“But for my dad, nothing was ever diagnosed. He was real good at not letting others in on his problems. That’s why it blew so many people away, how he died,” Clark says. “A lot of people have told me that he was the happiest person they knew. They really genuinely believed it wasn’t a façade.”
Pastor Reginald C. Holmes, whose social activism takes him to the city building and courthouse fairly frequently, knew Tally and saw “the jovial, loving spirit” everyone else did. But, he says, “I wasn’t stunned when I heard the news.”
“There was a sense I got when talking to him that something else was going on his life besides the ‘Praise the Lord’ and ‘I’m blessed’ that he was always talking about,” said Holmes, co-pastor at New Covenant/Alpha Omega Ministries in Denver and also a member of The Independent’s board of directors.
“A lot of folks use language like that as a way to conceal things. A lot of people who are Christian have to face up to the fact that those clichés, those fillers and blockers don’t necessarily get us through the hardest times and the toughest issues. Especially in the African-American community, … people think that if you believe in God you shouldn’t have those issues. They don’t think you can believe in Jesus and also be depressed. ‘Just believe,’ they tell you. ‘Stand on the Word.’
“That’s just a bunch of gobbledygook,” Holmes continued. “We all need to talk and deal with our stuff, and invest in working through it. The church needs to make that a much bigger part of the Christian experience.”
Holmes’ explanation came as close to a plausible why as I could find in reporting about Tally’s death. But, as Tally himself would likely see it, that question may not be ours to answer.
His suicide has, in the three weeks since, triggered soul searching among his friends and acquaintances, and prompted their “should-haves,” “would-haves” and “could-haves.”
“I’m kicking myself because I feel like I should have known or could have helped,” Joyce Foster told me.
“Maybe we should have spent more time patting him on the back. Maybe nobody did for him what he did for all of us,” said one city worker to a group of others attending Tally’s memorial service.
I’ve had my own thoughts along those lines. Maybe more of us should have asked Tally the same questions he asked us: “How are you? I mean, how are you, really?” Maybe we should start asking each other. And maybe we should unplug our ear buds, step away from our deadlines and stop long enough to hear – really hear – the answer.
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