‘Friendly Chet’ Enstrom lived up to his nickname

“Friendly Chet” Enstrom didn’t get that nickname from the Colorado State Capitol press corps by accident.

A big, amiable, easy-going man, Grand Junction Republican state Sen. Chester Enstrom always seemed relaxed and unruffled, even under the most stringent circumstances. Such crises occurred often in the Colorado Legislature.

Early in his senatorial career from 1966 to 1974, Chet became famous for bringing Enstrom’s toffee over for distribution to the legislators at least once each session. But that wasn’t the only reason he lived up to his nickname. He just liked people, and he showed it.

As a first-term senator, when he was still a member of the governing board of Colorado State University, Chet and his wife, Vernie, had been invited to the CSU president’s home for dinner followed by a basketball game viewed from the presidential box. He impulsively invited the late Marietta Benge, a Senate page from Grand Junction, and me, a freshman reporter in the Legislature, to go along. He explained that the president had told him he could bring a couple of friends, and he had chosen us.

That’s why, when he walked out of the Republican Senate caucus a few years later, slammed the door behind him, and angrily stomped down the hallway, it seemed so out of character. This was before the days of the Open Records Law, and caucuses by both political parties were off-limits to reporters. We routinely gathered in the hall outside when a caucus was in session, hoping to learn something we didn’t know.

“Go after him, and I’ll grab the caucus chairman (as I recall, it was Sen. George Jackson of Colorado Springs). We’ll find out what happened,” advised respected Associated Press reporter Gordon Gauss. Gauss had been on the Capitol beat for more than 20 years and knew all the ins and outs of what was happening.

I raced down the hall after Chet, caught up with him, and learned that some of the GOP senators were balking at state funding for Mesa College, then a two-year institution. Since the Republicans controlled the House and Senate that year, their decisions on appropriations were the ones that counted.

Whether Chet was actually angry or whether the performance was a bit of strategy, I never did learn. After all, this was the man who took a candy business started in his basement and developed it into a product with a worldwide reputation. So he knew how to achieve a goal.

And that afternoon, he did achieve what he set out to do on the budget. When the Republican senators met again in caucus the next day, the funding was restored.

Chet’s helpful side came to the fore several years later, in spring 1974, shortly after a devastating fire had destroyed The Daily Sentinel’s presses. I had been called back to Grand Junction from Denver a few weeks earlier because we were short-staffed, but I was still trying to cover the Legislature by phone. It was near the end of the session, and the long bill — the annual appropriations bill, through which the Legislature funds various projects and institutions — was about to be released. Although I can’t remember what appropriations were intended for western Colorado, I do know that there were several that were of prime interest to residents of the area.

The Sentinel’s problem after the fire was that we had to write stories by midnight the night before, send them by truck to Glenwood Springs for a 3 a.m. press run, truck the newspapers back to Grand Junction, and distribute them early the next afternoon. This arrangement went on for six weeks, and trying to keep the news fresh was a major problem.

But I had a solution, and I needed Chet’s help. He was a member then of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, which puts together the Long Bill of state appropriations, so I called him. My request was simple (to me, anyway): The bill was to be completed late one day and presented to the Legislature the next day, with a late-morning deadline for press release.

I argued that, with our delivery timeline, the Sentinel couldn’t possibly beat the Denver newspapers and wire services if I got the information the night before, after the Joint Budget Committee had OKed the bill but before it was distributed to the press the next morning. I didn’t add that I knew the articles on the wire services and in Denver newspapers would be involved with statewide funding when they first got the bill and wouldn’t get to local funding until a day later, if at all.

Chet said he would see what he could do, and I waited beyond my usual departure time from the office, hoping that he would call. It was 6:30 or 7 p.m. that evening when Chet called, apologized for being so late, but said the final JBC meeting had gone longer than expected. He had a list of everything he thought I might want, read it to me, and accepted my thanks with typical “Friendly Chet” aplomb.

We were happy the next day that our story on Western Slope appropriations beat every other news outlet in the state.

Chet’s friendly approach to life didn’t cease when he resigned from the Senate and went back to private life. He had dabbled in painting in the past and now began to spend a lot more time with it. Friends were often surprised when Chet showed up to present them with an oil painting he had just finished.

I was one of the recipients, and I still have on my bedroom wall the painting of Grand Mesa at sunset that Chet presented to me as a retirement gift 25 years ago.

Mary Louise Giblin Henderson worked for The Daily Sentinel for more than 40 years, and was the newspaper’s political reporter for many of those years. She is retired and lives in California.


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