Bob Rawlings and Chris Woodka set a high standard for water reporting in Colorado

Bob Rawlings via the High Country News
Bob Rawlings via the High Country News

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Looking back at the past five decades, it is clear that most major events in Southern Colorado have been in some way influenced by Robert Hoag Rawlings, publisher and editor of The Pueblo Chieftain.

Water wars, military expansion or base closures, economic development, colleges and universities, retention of state facilities in the region and community amenities such as libraries all have been passions of the man from L.A. — that’s Las Animas to the uninitiated, as he would almost certainly let you know.

Rawlings turns 90 years old today [August 2], and is still hard at work protecting his vision of Southeastern Colorado.

The Chieftain staff and community threw him a surprise birthday party Friday, and don’t think that’s easy for a man whose finger has been on the pulse of the community all these years. Praise for Rawlings and the work of The Chieftain has come from many corners over the years.

In 1994, when he won the state’s top business award for the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, then-Gov. Roy Romer declared: “He is one of the greatest human beings we have in this state.”

Rawlings’ donation of $4 million to the city library that bears his name today was lauded by architect Antoine Predock, who observed that The Chieftain publisher never stopped dreaming of a better Pueblo.

“The aspiration to the sky that the building represents is a symbol of that attitude,” Predock told donors to the library at a fundraiser in 2001.

Rawlings was born in Pueblo on Aug. 3, 1924.

The son of John and Dorothy Hoag Rawlings, he was reared in Las Animas, where his father was a banker, and graduated from Bent County High School in 1942.

Those early years formed the basis of his fierce defense of the Arkansas Valley’s water. He explained this in an opinion piece he authored on Dec. 12, 2004:

“My particular story started in the 1930s,” Rawlings wrote. “The Arkansas Valley was experiencing the most severe drought in recorded times, resulting in horrific weather conditions we called the Dust Bowl. These conditions lasted nearly 10 years. Hundreds of people in the Valley lost their jobs and the farmers, while laboring valiantly to raise a crop without adequate water, found market prices so low it wouldn’t even pay them to harvest the meager crop they had. School teachers were let go. . . .

“The storms were frightening. A virtual wall of dirt moved relentlessly toward us. Propelled by fierce winds, they picked up tons of topsoil, tumbleweeds, trash, parts of building materials, whirling all this in a scary wall some 2,000 to 3,000 feet high.”

Rawlings spent years trying to convince others to share his alarm at the sale of water from farm ground in the Arkansas Valley, and was never one to hold his tongue when he perceived that position to be compromised. He concluded that particular op-ed with this statement, one he often repeated:

“The sad fact is that many of our local water officials still can’t seem to comprehend that to continue to pursue these unwise agreements with Colorado Springs and Aurora is to further assure that the entire Lower Arkansas Valley will become another Crowley County.

“How shortsighted can we be?”

If there is anything that motivates Rawlings more than water, it is patriotism.

“This stirring memorial will be a tribute to Pueblo’s four Medal of Honor recipients and also to all those heroes who contributed so gallantly to ensure the freedoms we enjoy in this wonderful country,” he said during the 1998 unveiling of bronze statues outside the Pueblo Convention Center.

He chaired the committee that erected the statues.

Two years later, Rawlings was a major sponsor for the national Medal of Honor Society convention.

He continues to advocate for the return of the USS Pueblo to the United States. The ship was seized by the North Korean government in 1968.

The publisher set a standard for all daily newspapers in publishing a full-page American flag in the newspaper on national holidays.

There is more than symbolism to his activities, however, including his ringing support for the Armed Forces and its activities in this part of the state. Of particular concern over the years has been maintaining activities at Fort Carson and finding new uses for the Pueblo Chemical Depot.

There also has been the wise counsel against further destruction of ranch land that would come with the expansion of Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site south of Pueblo.

That fervor also goes back to episodes from his own life.

Rawlings enrolled at Colorado College in Colorado Springs in the fall of 1942 and in December of that year enlisted in the United States Navy V-12 at the college. The following year he was transferred to the Navy ROTC unit at University of Colorado in Boulder where he subsequently received a commission as an ensign in the Navy.

He spent a year and a half in the South Pacific as supply officer and later executive officer of the Subchaser 648, serving in Leyte Gulf, Mindanao, Subic Bay and Manila in the Philippine Islands, and in Brunei Bay in the province of Sarawak, Borneo. When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, he helped liberate from a Japanese prisoner of war camp near Kuching, Sarawak, more than 100 British and Dutch officers who had been imprisoned by the Japanese for five years.

He received an honorable discharge from the Navy in July 1946 and returned to Colorado College to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1947.

That launched his career later that year as a reporter for The Chieftain and The Pueblo Star-Journal.

In 1951 he became an advertising salesman for the two newspapers; in 1962 he was named general manager; and in January 1980 he was appointed publisher and editor; in 1984 he was elected president of The Star-Journal Publishing Corporation.

The career has been personally rewarding.

Rawlings is a past chairman of the board of the Colorado Press Association; he was president of the association in 1985-86. He is a member and past-chairman of the Colorado Bar-Press Committee; past president of Rocky Mountain Ad Manager’s Association and past president of The Colorado Associated Press.

More importantly, Rawlings has given back to the community in numerous ways.

He was instrumental in helping to form the Pueblo Economic Development Corp., which sought to bring new industry here after massive layoffs at CF&I Steel in 1982.

Rawlings has tirelessly advocated for the city’s half-cent sales tax, and continues to protect it from those who would use it for purposes other than creating primary jobs.

To name a few of his other activities: He is past-chairman of the advisory board of Colorado National Bank-Pueblo (now US Bank); a member of the Air Force Academy Foundation and the University of Southern Colorado Foundation. He is president of The Robert Hoag Rawlings Foundation and the Southern Colorado Community Foundation.

His work has not gone unnoticed in the community.

In 1994, Rawlings was awarded the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year award, which recognized his all-out plunge into philanthropy through his business, professional, political and personal activities.

Abel Tapia spoke for the community when he said at the time:

“Even with these outstanding gifts to the community, one of the substantial benefits to the community has been the continued professional management of The Chieftain and the use of the newspaper to work for improvements which enhance the lives of all the citizens of Pueblo and Southeastern Colorado.”

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.

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