For most of us, it’s hard to say where you got on the road to becoming the person you are.
John Suthers, the mayor of Colorado Springs and a living legend in state politics, didn’t have to think about it, even if he would only talk about it so far.
He was 15 when his father, William Suthers, died from a heart attack.
“It was clearly the most traumatic event in my life, even today,” the mayor told me on the phone. “That really shook me to the core.”
Suthers was born to a single mother in Denver in 1951. William and Marguerite Suthers adopted him and took him home to Colorado Springs a month later.
“I never said, ‘Someday I want to be U.S attorney or attorney general or mayor,' or that sort of thing,” Suthers said. “I just wanted to do something that would make my dad proud — and my natural mom, but that gets into some psychological stuff.”
Any debt of validation he ever owed was settled up, however, the day he became an assistant prosecutor in El Paso County in 1977, the same year he finished law school at the University of Colorado. Including a degree from Notre Dame, magna cum laude, his education was financed with hard work and scholarships.
That would be enough, but his service to community and state etched the name Suthers into Colorado history, more than his father could have dreamed of when he adopted this child.
Not surprisingly, Suthers is the first choice when the Colorado Municipal League executive board handed out the first award for good governance named for another state political legend, Sam Mamet, who retired last year as CML's executive director after almost 40 years in service to big cities and small towns.
“I was touched,” Suthers told me, explaining his long friendship with Mamet. "He’s been around a long time. He’s seen a lot of good government, and he’s seen a lot of bad government in his day.”
Mamet put in almost four decades with the league before he called it a career last year. He spends more time at his mountain place in Crested Butte, and he busies himself on the boards of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Center for the American West, plus a few side projects to occupy his time, he said.
When his days as attorney general were winding down, Suthers asked Mamet if he should run for mayor.
"I told him he’d be a natural at it, and it would be the best job he ever had," Mamet recalled. "He asked me why, and I said because you’ll be able to see the immediate results of your work.
“People aren’t shy about telling their local public officials what they think, but he’s been very successful in the Springs and generated a great amount of goodwill in the community, and I think that's because he's straightforward. He has a long view on things. He’s steady at the wheel, and I’ve always admired that about him. Plus, he’s just a nice guy to be around.”
I asked Suthers how he's lasted so long in the fickle arena of politics. He had to think a second, then stumbled over his words.
“Ask my wife,” he said. “She told me one time, ‘John, I can’t believe you’ve won six out of the seven elections, because there’s no charisma, no good looks, no nothing.’ And that's my wife talking.”
The only race he ever lost was for attorney general in 1998, losing to Democrat Ken Salazar. When Salazar was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, he recommended Republican Gov. Bill Owens appoint Suthers to the seat.
Rachel Beck is the vice president of government affairs for the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, and she's a good friend to Suthers and to me. I asked her if she had any scoops about the mayor.
She worked on two campaigns with him, one on stormwater drainage and one opposing collective bargaining for city firefighters.
She admires the way he’s willing to fully commit when he thinks something is right, politics be damned.
“Political courage seems to be in short supply these days, but John has it in spades,” she told me.
There’s nothing sexy about fixing the city's plumbing, she pointed out, while raising taxes can be a temperamental stick of dynamite. Suthers took it on and got it done.
He’s eight-for-eight on ballot issues he’s supported or opposed as mayor.
“Throughout his time as our mayor, John has systematically worked to rebuild our community’s neglected infrastructure by proposing focused, straightforward programs to voters and backing them with the currency of his word,” Beck said. “There’s no doubt that he will leave this city better than he found it."
When Suthers shuffles off this mortal coil someday, it’s hard to guess what will be first in his obituary. He has been the chief executive of his cherished hometown since 2015, after he served 2½ terms as Colorado attorney general, following four years as the U.S. attorney for Colorado, a stint as Gov. Bill Owens' prison chief and eight years as El Paso County district attorney. He has resisted Republican Party pleas to run for governor and U.S. Senate.
To suit him, you could just could just say he was the good son who did his best.