Jerry Kopel

Tom Ferril 2008


By Jerry Kopel

Feb. 14, 2008

Just about the time the State Capitol Building was fully occupied (but still not completely finished) Thomas Hornsby Ferril was born.

Forty-four years later, the capitol rotunda was covered with his poetry. His words over decades led poet Carl Sandburg to write of Ferril "You have the great poet of the West in your midst. He is the poet of the Rockies. And someday he will be recognized as one of the great poets of America."

Legislators often walk unseeing through the rotunda of the state capitol. After all, how many times have you walked by a neighbor's house without really seeing it? But tourists often stop to view the murals surrounding the rotunda, the artistry and the poetry.

Ferril was born Feb. 25th, 1896 and died Oct. 27, 1988, while a revival of the play "Ferril, Etc" was being presented at the Germinal Stage Denver from Oct. 9 through Nov. 27th by a quintet of actors. They recited Ferril's poetry in synchronized choral movements to a rave review from the Denver Post drama critic, four stars out of four stars.

Tom lived his life from age four at 2123 Downing Street in Denver, which house is a Landmark Preservation site containing Ferril's life work.

We can thank now-deceased Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole, longtime friend of Ferril, for writing the story of how the murals and poetry came about.

There was a party the evening of June 8, 1935 to celebrate the new studio of artist Allen True. This was an all-night party with lots of drinks, and knife throwing with finesse at the studio door by Ferril and the other guests.

Along towards sunrise (said Ferril) we bogged down in a harangue about art, everyone arguing and nobody listening."

Needing food, Allen True sent his son out for hamburgers. Ferril "salvaged the greasy paper bag the hamburgers came in."

Ferril told the nearly somnolent group why "water was the great theme of the West. Only True was listening..."

Then "Ferril began drawing pictures on the hamburger sack telling True to make murals of them." True "saved the sack and painted eight a greenhouse at City Park finishing by 1938".

Ferril had agreed to write the poetic texts, but that didn't happen until the murals were ready. Ferril told Amole "I got up early one morning and wrote all the poems at one sitting."

So True painted the murals, Ferril wrote the poetry, and Pascal Quackenbush did the lettering.

Government money for the project ran out and the Claude Boettcher family provided an additional $4,000 to $9,000. In return, the last panel is in gratitude to Claude Boettcher, ensuring his immortality as long as the murals last. "The job" wrote Amole "was completed in 1940".

The first panel is a 14 line introductory sonnet which begins "Here is a land where life is written in water". This is followed by eight murals, each above more Ferril poetry, ending with

"Beyond the sundown is tomorrow's wisdom,
Today is going to be long, long ago."

Tom Ferril's bones contained the history of the United States down to the marrow.

Robert Richards, a University of Denver professor of English, and author of the Dictionary of American Literature, traced Ferril's history back to Jonathan Ferril, Tom's great, great, great grandfather.

Jonathan Ferril emigrated from Virginia to Kentucky during the Revolutionary War and was killed by Shawnees in 1779. His wife and son John , 16, escaped through a nearby forest.

Emigration, war, religion, writing, art, were all part of Tom's poetic history. John's son William served as chaplain with the Missouri Militia. William's son Thomas served as chaplain of the 16th Kansas Cavalry during and after the Civil War.

Thomas' son Will became curator of the Colorado Historical Society, a Colorado National Guard soldier, publisher of the Rocky Mountain Herald, and city editor of the Rocky Mountain News (RMN). His work diaries, including sketches, are in the state archives.

Will's son, Thomas, served as a second lieutenant in World War I, and wrote six books of poetry beginning in 1926 through 1983.

My wife, Dolores, and I first met Tom and his wife, Hellie, at the Rocky Mountain News in 1952 when all of us watched the Republican National Convention in the RMN "TV Room". I was a copy editor and Tom had been a police reporter and drama critic for the RMN before he went to work for the Great Western Sugar Company for 42 years as their "press agent" a term he liked better than "public relations director".

Often honored nationally (his essay "Football Fever According to Freud" may still be required reading in collegiate English courses) Ferril refused to play the literary political games necessary for national recognition.

Poets from Carl Sandburg to Robert Frost to John Ciardi, to many others, recognized him as a great national poet.

My favorite Ferril poem was the first one I ever read, entitled "Magenta", a conversation with a dressmaker's dummy in a Gilpin County ghost town deep in the mountains. It is about the men who came to find the gold and the women who came with them because they loved their husbands.

There is a passage that will always stay with me about how a miner would bury his wife:

"A miner would dig a grave with a pick and shovel
Often a little deeper than necessary,
And poising every shovelful of earth
An instant longer than if he were digging a grave,
And never complaining when he struck a rock;
Then he would finish, glad to have found no color."

Gilpin County? The State Planning Commission 1965 Yearbook stated: "Little Gilpin County led the world in gold production for many years and was called 'the richest square mile on earth'".

It would be a mistake to write about Tom Ferril without mentioning Helen Ray who became Helen Ferril in 1921. Their marriage lasted until her death 57 years later in 1978. Tom's greatest works were, in my opinion, certainly touched and strengthened by this marriage.

Helen Ferril, a talented satirical writer of a number of books, and editor of the Herald and their daughter, Anne Ferril Folsom, noted writer and illustrator, earned their own recognition.

Hopefully the genes of parents and daughter have extended to some of their progeny, and that there will be other poets and artists in our future.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House and owns five of the six poetry books written by Tom Ferril.)

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