By the Book
by Dawne Belloise
It’s good to have a mayor with a sense of humor, but more important, it’s essential to have a sense of humor if you’re the mayor. Glenn Michel seems to have that significant qualifier.
Over the course of time, Glenn’s life has gone in several very different directions, but when he talks about his experiences, it makes sense that all those adventures would culminate in sitting in the mayor’s chair of Crested Butte’s Town Council.
Growing up in eastern Iowa as the youngest of four siblings, Glenn wasn’t into organized high school sports, yet from ninth grade he was traveling most weekends with a club from the University of Iowa, the Iowa Mountaineers, which he points out is quite the oxymoron. The club took trips throughout the western U.S., Canada and even Europe.
“We did things like rock climbing, hikes, and skiing. By the time I was in the eleventh grade, I was teaching rock climbing to university students and taught cross-country skiing at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, three hours away. During summers we went to places like the Grand Canyon and in the winters we went to other areas like Leadville, Colorado, for backcountry ski trips. The local ski shop sponsored our ski team…
“I sucked at skiing,” Glenn laughs. “I was never any good but it was always fun to hang out with the guys and ski. I was never around my high school much because I was having all these great adventures. No one in my school even knew what I was doing.” Glenn graduated in 1986 and enrolled at the University of Iowa.
“I started as an engineering major but I graduated in 1992 with two degrees, a BA in history and one in economics. By that time our outdoor recreation program had grown to be the largest program in the nation. Through the Iowa Mountaineers club we taught classes, like gym, and we’d take like 70 kids rock climbing. We did trips every weekend, still going to Devil’s Lake and the Canadian Rockies, Sawtooth in Idaho, and Devils Tower.”
After graduation, Glenn became the full-time trip and guide leader for the Iowa Mountaineers. “My title was just ‘Glenn, who was gonna run the trip,’” he grins. From month-long mountaineering trips, guiding climbers to the summits of Peru’s 17k peaks and to Kauai, where, Glenn recalls, “They shipped me over and told me to find the best beaches and bars to take clients to. People from Iowa wanted to go with a group. We’d arrange for them to do hikes on the Nepali coast and catamaran, boogie board and snorkel. I was the facilitator.”
Glenn also guided eight one-week trips into the Havasupai reservation, during the fall and spring.
In 1993, Crested Butte’s Dave Penny was contracted to be a guide with Glenn’s group. “He was a phenomenal climber and could get the rope up anywhere and Dave asked if I had ever been to Crested Butte, which I hadn’t, so he invited me,” Glenn remembers.
“I was on the road 200 days a year, in my tent, either guiding or climbing alone. If I had a break I’d have a friend come and we’d climb together.” That year he was heading to California to climb and decided to stop into Crested Butte to see Dave.
“I was going everywhere back then so I didn’t catch the Crested Butte bug at that time. I kept moving around. Whenever I needed a home I could always blast back to the Midwest and find a job doing temporary construction, painting or something. I was the classic dude. I had my little red Chevy pickup with a topper and everything I owned in the world in it—which wasn’t much.”
Back in 1987, when Glenn was a freshmen, during a spring break while guiding in the Grand Canyon he met this German girl named Gesa. “We dated for years on and off, even though she was in Germany. I’d fly over during breaks.” He was guiding for Cascade Alpine Guides when the industry changed so much that you needed insurance and permits. After guiding for multiple companies Glenn started his own, called Midwest Mountain Connection, in 1996.
“I was subcontracting, taking groups to Mt. Rainier, the Canadian Rockies, the Grand Canyon and private individual guiding since my client list had grown.” He and Gesa were traveling together in Seattle. “In the classic sense, we shared a tent, but she always had her own thing going on. We were best friends. We climbed northern Italy, southern Germany, where you’d climb hard and then have a hefenweizen [a Bavarian wheat beer]. We wanted to find a place to settle down and just ‘be,’ so we drove 39 hours to Crested Butte, mostly because they had a women’s ice hockey team and Gesa wanted to play hockey.
“She didn’t know how to skate,” he smiles, “but she was an NCAA field hockey national champ at the University of Iowa. I could be anywhere because I was guiding, and she got a job working at Crested Butte Mountain Resort,” in 1998.
“When you guide it becomes tremendously lonely,” Glenn confesses. “Every week there are new clients, new people, and then they just go away. You’re giving your heart and soul and risking your life for these people. You end up being their psychiatrist (which helps me in politics), just dealing with people’s emotions and issues. So many people who want to climb difficult routes are running from something or looking for something else. You’re taking something you love and selling it and it really dilutes the personal enjoyment of it. I was getting older and considering the costs of insurance and permits and that it’s tremendously risky and pay was really low and Gesa got pregnant—so I became a carpenter. It’s a Crested Butte story,” he laughs, recounting the chronology of logic that led him into banging a hammer. “We were just naïve enough to think we could buy a piece of land in town and build a house. And I did. I designed it myself, built it with the help of friends sporadically helping out. We were one of the first to break ground in the Verzuh annexation.
“So, the reason I inadvertently got into politics is because I had to go before BOZAR to get my solar panels approved, and they were reluctant to approve them. We saw there was going to be a battle… we asked the town to give it the thumbs up, which they did, but after all this grief with Town Council and BOZAR, when it was all said and done, we won Project of the Year.
“At that time, our design had the most environmental points. It’s a tremendously green house,” he says proudly, and it was the impetus that pushed him into local politics.
In addition, Molly Minneman asked him to join the BOZAR crew, because, he grins, “She was desperate for someone. It’s hard to find folks to do it. But I knew the guidelines real well by then and also the zoning codes.” He stayed on with BOZAR for five years, two of them as chairperson.
“You make a lot of individuals mad,” he notes, “when you uphold the guidelines. The thing is, the town looks good, we have a great built environment and we have the world’s greatest dumbed-down western Victorian architecture. This town tells one of the greatest American stories architecturally, so in the week-in/week-out daily battles, you just look toward the future of what the town’s going to be.
“Frankly, the town is now at a turning point.” Glenn reflects on the many changes and phases Crested Butte has endured. “People really value what the town is. Just look at Elk Avenue—it’s tremendous. In American society, free market capitalism won’t give us Elk Ave. It took 40 years of effort, of BOZAR being consistent and having these hard conversations to create the great sense of place we have today. I think because we’ve done such a great job of preserving our sense of place, people are buying these historic mining cabins and wanting to restore them historically. They’re now willing to put big money into these historical structures. The simple truth is that they can’t tear them down anyway—they’re protected.”
Glenn admits that he’s very much a “rules” person, and with his training in economics and politics, he’s pretty strict on following those rules.
Twenty years after his initial college degrees, in 2009 he went back to Western State College to get his third BA, this time in politics and government, graduating in 2013.
“It was during the recession here when I didn’t have enough work as a carpenter. It was pretty grim. I don’t think people realized how challenging it was for local carpenters, how desperate it was. So that’s why I went back to school, to up my education base. The world changes a lot when you have a mortgage, a wife and two kids,” Glenn says. Their boys are Vincent, now 15 and Yvon, 12. “The world itself changed—computers, phones, 9/11,” adds Glenn.
In 2011, Glenn was elected to the Town Council, on which he served until this November when he was elected town mayor.
“There’s no office of the mayor at the Town Hall. When I first moved to town and went in to talk to the town manager, I remember thinking, wow, if this is the town manager’s office I bet the mayor’s office must be amazing.
“As mayor, I now know that my office is my cell phone and kitchen table. People don’t recognize that the mayoral position is a part-time gig.”
Glenn says there’s a lot more responsibility to being mayor than people realize, with the various boards and committees he’s on, all the special events to be handled, and individual citizens’ needs. “You’re always talking to people, always communicating, always listening to people. To govern effectively you have to have good listening skills and the ability to collaboratively work with people. It’s the idea that you go from the ‘I’ to the ‘we,’” he says but also admits, “Life’s cruel, capitalism stinks and I can’t change that. I can’t make life perfect for everyone.”
Glenn has a joie de vivre, a deep respect and admiration for the community. “It’s the lifestyle, the people—I can be myself and I’m accepted. I have a great life, I can come and go when I want, I’m self-employed, I work in my shop [he also makes furniture], I can ski when I want. It’s pretty choice.”