John Scalzo: Rifle’s Contrary Visionary
The Western Slope is changing faster than spring weather these days, and small rural towns like Rifle are losing their original character. Time is marching on, too, for many of the old-timers who shaped Rifle’s colorful past, and they are passing away unnoticed in the hurricane of growth.
One of Rifle’s city fathers is 84-year-old Rifle native John Scalzo. He has spent a lifetime trying to make Rifle “the best little town in the West,” and in that pursuit, he found he has championed many dead-end causes — like the time he promoted building the world’s largest working gun to aim at Glenwood Springs, Rifle’s economic rival. Although he has had many frustrations in his life, Scalzo claims he is not an angry man.During the Great Depression in the 1930s, John Scalzo grew up in Rifle, which at the time was a livestock rail-shipping hub for northwest Colorado. The town had only 1,000 residents. “I knew everyone, where they lived, and what cars they owned,” he recollected. He dropped out of high school to go into the Merchant Marine and then served in the Army during the Korean War. After that stint, he moved back to Rifle to marry his school sweetheart, Mary. Their marriage lasted over 50 years, until her death last year.
Scalzo had a checkered career path. “I worked in insurance for several years but got mad at the district manager and quit. Then I sold liquor from Steamboat to Delta but got mad when the company cut my route, so I quit. Then, I managed the Elks Club for a while but left over a dispute about cleaning the men’s restroom after drunkard midnight poker games,” Scalzo said.
A history of disagreeing with management had nothing to do with anger, Scalzo insisted. “I had good reasons to quit.” When he thought he was unfairly treated, he moved on. He eventually owned a liquor store and a car wash, but he added that it was fortunate his wife had a good job with the phone company.
Scalzo can’t remember all the activities and boards he served on, but some of them included stints as Rifle mayor and council member; Exulted Ruler at the local Elks Club; volunteer firefighter; and president of the Chamber of Commerce board. His volunteer record looks a lot like his work history.
Scalzo’s long association with the local chamber of commerce ended over a conflict with the chamber manager. “I think I’m the only volunteer who’s ever gotten fired,” he said. Scalzo also became disgruntled with the fire department after 20 years and left that abruptly, too.
“John’s not what I would describe as an angry man,” said Scalzo’s long-time friend Gil Frontella. “Well, OK, he does get angry — it’s usually because no one will listen to his suggestions. He wants to make things better for Rifle. After 50 years, yeah, John’s disappointed that his ideas haven’t gained much traction,” Frontella said. “But I don’t think he’s mad at the world for his failures.”
“I get frustrated with authority,” Scalzo admitted. “But instead of getting too worked up about things, I just go on to other causes or committees.”
One of Scalzo’s long-term crusades has been against elm trees. Scalzo wants them exterminated from Rifle. “They are trash trees, messy, diseased and destructive, and it costs our citizens a lot of money when tree roots grow into sewer lines,” Scalzo noted. Yet, despite countless pleas to the city councils over the years, Scalzo has been unsuccessful garnering much support in his fight. “Everytime the city has to clean tree roots out of the main sewer lines in my neighborhood, I call to remind them about my elm tree eradication plan.”
Former Rifle high school teacher Harriet Slagowski, 90, has known Scalzo for over 50 years. She characterized him as a person who had to be in the middle of everything happening in Rifle. “And he always had a bone to chew.”
Slagowski was quick to add that she likes Scalzo and they chat occasionally at the senior facility where she lives. Did she recall his elm tree war? “Oh, yes. That’s a good example about the crazy ideas John has backed,” Slawgoski said.
Another one of Scalzo’s lost causes was building the world’s biggest rifle as a tourist attraction for Rifle. It was during the oil shale bust of the 1980s and Rifle was scrambling to survive. Rifle citizens were amused over the idea of having a huge rifle at the entryway into town, but because of difficult economic times, the gun committee Scalzo headed couldn’t raise the thousands of dollars to build it. In addition, there was the added expense of making it a functional firearm.
“We proposed to shoot it off at noon everyday in the direction of Glenwood Springs,” Scalzo said. “Unfortunately, the project never got off the ground.”
When the county proposed to build a new jail a few years ago, Scalzo petitioned the commissioners to build it in Rifle. “Since it’s warmer here than Glenwood Springs, it would have saved the county money in heating bills,” Scalzo insisted. That idea didn’t fly either.
Through Scalzo’s efforts about 20 years ago, a Rifle city council term-limitation resolution (pre-Tabor days) and a unique ordinance that forced the city manager to run for election after his fifth year in employ were passed.
“At the next election, I happened to be in the hospital, so some people campaigned and got those rules reversed,” Scalzo said. “That was pretty sneaky to wait until I wasn’t around to fight them.”
Scalzo does not dwell much on state or national issues. He thinks immigrants should be given a fair shake to make a living and that Gov. Bill Ritter should seed clouds to make more water and build more dams to hold it, but that’s the extent of his interest outside of Rifle.
“I’ve been a life-long Democrat; I’m pragmatic when it comes to keeping government costs down, yet I’m sympathetic to those who need an extra hand to get back on their feet,” Scalzo noted.
Slagowski was surprised to learn that Scalzo was a Democrat. She had been active in the local Democratic Party for years and said she never remembered him at a political event. “The way he talked, I always thought he was a Republican.”
Scalzo keeps an ornate box with his wife’s ashes on the coffee table in his living room. “My wife wanted her ashes in her rose garden by the house, but I asked her, ‘How about if the next owner wants to put in rocks?’ So, instead she will be buried with me.”
Scalzo complained a little about the price of the cemetery plot in Rifle these days as well as the location his wife chose for them before she passed away. The plot lies under an elm tree.
Photos: John Scalzo. Second photo: Scalzo points to the elm trees that dot Rifle’s landscape. By Leslie Robinson