by Dawne Belloise
In the far corner of Crested Butte’s oldest saloon, Dr. Duane Vandenbusche holds court over a gaggle of long-time regulars. Peppered among the normal banter about work, wives, and spectacular bike trails is the trivia that ranges from sports to local history and its celebrities, prepared especially for the Kochevar’s brood for the Friday end-of-week happy hour celebration.
The graying gang is particularly adept at calling out the correct answers to the broad smile of Dr. Vandenbusche. Some of them were once his students during his 53-year tenure as history professor at Western State College (WSC), now Western State Colorado University (WSCU). A prolific writer, Dr. Vandenbusche is fluent in so many eras and aspects of history, particularly of the Gunnison Country, he’s written ten books, with another on the way this winter.
Born in the Motor City (that would be Detroit), when he was a young child his dad built tanks in a defense plant during WWII in Milwaukee where, according to Dr. Vandenbusche, six men on his block alone died in that war.
“When you shipped out you never knew if you were going to make it back. In 1944 when my grandmother died, my dad took over the family dairy farm in the upper peninsula of Michigan in the town of St. Nicholas. It was a Belgian farming community where everyone’s name started with a ‘V,’” he says. His father emigrated from Antwerp, Belgium in 1920, with grandparents and siblings arriving the following year. His mother hailed from Wisconsin, the so-called cheese capital of the nation. With dairy farming in his genes, he remembers, “I milked cows every morning and evening until I went off to college at age 18.”
Vandenbusche recalls the rigor of Michigan farm life: “I took my showers in the Escanaba River which bordered our property and empties into Lake Michigan. We didn’t have any indoor plumbing and we heated the water on the old wood cook stove, using a big tin washtub for baths in the winter.”
Growing up, he played all the sports in high school—track, football, basketball and baseball. Because of all that variety he developed into a pretty good athlete, plus, “The only way you got anywhere was to walk or ride your bike.” He graduated fourth in his class but laughingly adds that there were only 12 in his entire graduating class of 1955.
“I loved growing up and being on the farm but I wasn’t very good at being a farmer,” Vandenbusche admits. “I wasn’t very mechanically minded.” In his farming community, he was only the second kid to go to college, attending Northern Michigan University on Lake Superior, where he spent “many a day studying by the river,” until he graduated in 1959 with a bachelor of arts degree in history.
Although he was a decent student, Vandenbusche claims he barely knew what grad school was and had set his goals for teaching high school until Oklahoma State University offered him a full scholarship to continue his education. He earned his master of arts degree and Ph.D. in history there.
With the baby boomer generation coming of age and the Korean War veterans returning, there was a tremendous demand for teachers in 1962. “We students who were finishing our degrees would get called out of the classroom for phone calls for jobs. I could have gone anywhere,” Vandenbusche says. When a friend turned down a job at WSC because the college wouldn’t hire his wife as well, Vandenbusche put his name into the applicant hat.
The WSC interview was conducted by an Oklahoma State University faculty member since Vandenbusche was still finishing up his dissertation there, and since he didn’t have a phone, Vandenbusche gave the WSC review board the number for the student union public phone booth so they could call with their decision. They chose well and sent him a contract in the mail that week.
Signed, sealed and delivered, he got into his 1965 two-tone Ford pick-up and cruised Highway 66 to Springfield, driving on to Colorado Springs and west. “As I went over Monarch I was doing 25 mph and hugging the far side of the road, away from the edge!” he says of his first trip over a real mountain pass. (Now he skis Crested Butte’s challenging back bowls and the vertical plunge of Red Lady Bowl and Cottonwood Pass, and still hikes long, high trails to Aspen).
When he got to Gunnison, he rented a room on South Main Street in Mrs. Georgia Andrews’ rooming house and started his career teaching history at WSC in the fall of 1962. He’s been there ever since and when classes resume in the fall, he’ll begin his 54th year. “I go year to year,” says the robust professor. “As long as I feel good, I’ll keep teaching.”
Vandenbusche tells the story of how, in 1971, colleague Ernie Degutis was the reluctant track coach. “They asked me to come out and hold a watch, to time the men’s track team. A couple of weeks later they asked me to come with them to a Greeley track meet to help, so I started going to the track meets. Ernie loved this because he had someone doing his job and he didn’t have to do it.”
Vandenbusche didn’t get paid for doing the coach’s job for the first few years but eventually Tracy Borah, who was (in Vandenbusche’s words) the crusty old athletic director, called him in and said, “Dammit Vandenbusche, you’re doing all the work. You are the coach.” And so it was that he became the official coach of the men’s cross country track and field.
It was a rough start for the program and Vandenbusche admits, “Our program was terribly bad at the time. We didn’t have an indoor track and the outdoor track was cinder. We were starting from the bottom up. But I was a relentless recruiter. By 1981, we had won our first Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship and we were on our way. I went to see Dr. Mellon, our college president, telling him that Title 9 has arrived, giving women equal opportunity with men in sports so we can be dragged into the 20th century kicking and screaming or we can establish a women’s cross country track program and look good.
“Dr. Mellon agreed but said we also needed a women’s alpine and Nordic program.” Vandenbusche recruited and organized both the ski and track women’s programs. “We hired a women’s coach and we were onward and upward in the women’s ski program. We were 13th in the nation our first year, seventh in the nation the second year, and from that time on we were fourth or better. Eventually the women won four national championships and the men won seven nationals.
“Also, we had four Olympic runners come out of the track and field team, three men and one woman.” He retired his coaching position 37 years later in 2007.
History is still Vandenbusche’s passion and people flock to his presentations. “I’ve always been interested in the past and how it might affect the present and future. I read every novel of Zane Gray. My favorite aspect of history is the West, some of the problems they had in the past are still the same problems they have today—water, use of public lands, environment and the fact that 35 percent of Colorado is owned by the federal government and 79 percent of the Gunnison country is owned by the federal government. It has a big impact in this area, like ranchers who are grazing on public lands, ski areas because permits are required and Blue Mesa and its three dams are federally owned. It has an impact because it’s responsible for recreation every year, so in terms of all this, the federal government has had a big impact on the West and the Gunnison country. Anytime anyone owns 79 percent of anything it has a big impact.”
With an early interest in the history of mining, railroads and ranching, Vandenbusche loaded up his Bronco with his fishing rod, sleeping bag, and food and visited practically everywhere in the wilderness. “I’d spend two or three nights camping and just walking out and exploring. I got to learn the backcountry, and I’d read all the Gunnison newspapers from 1880 to 1975.”
Growing up in an ethnic Belgian community where everyone spoke Flemish, and English with a heavy accent, Vandenbusche felt right at home when he first came to Crested Butte. “Most of the people came from the old country and were first-generation. They spoke a foreign language or with a clipped accent. It felt like home. The people were basically the same, my kind of people.” He remembers, “The greatest polka place in the world was Frank and Gal’s,” a local saloon long gone. “I learned to polka in the dance halls and wedding dances in upper Michigan and I spent a lot of time with the old timers here.”
He’s gathered the stories of the original Crested Butte mining families—Panion, Saya, Sedmak, Hidgson, McNeil, Gallowich, Sporcich, Mihelich, Starika. “Those were the days, my friend,” he smiles.
“I never plan to leave here. It’s the best place I’ve ever been. I ski all the good runs, the back bowls. Of course I still do the extremes, I just don’t jump off of cliffs or anything like that,” he laughs, but you’re not sure you believe him because he’s in remarkable form.
“The Gunnison country has done much more for me than I have for it,” Vandenbusche modestly adds with sincere devotion. “I love it. Why wouldn’t anyone want to be in the best fishing, skiing, mountain climbing and biking places, and one of the most beautiful areas in the world? It’s been a love affair for the past 53 years.”