Monday, May 16, 2011

Decoding Skorman: Skorman's faith brings highs, lows


this is the first of a bunch of ten year old stuff


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Skorman's faith brings highs, lows

In government, business and life, Springs vice mayor has fallen prey to own idealism

Date: December 1, 2003 Publication: The Gazette Author: ED SEALOVER; THE GAZETTE

Richard Skorman can still picture the hitchhikers who nearly killed him.

It was 1976, and the book store owner was driving back from the Denver airport after reluctantly breaking up with his college sweetheart and watching her fly away.

As he passed the Hampden exit on Interstate 25, he picked up two scruffy hitchhikers. It wasn't smart to stop, but Skorman always let his heart trump his head when it came to helping people.

After an hour of conversation, the strangers asked for a place to stay. Skorman said he had none; the man in the back seat put a gun to his head.

For 45 minutes they drove around until Skorman found a dirt road in Black Forest and was ordered to get out and stay still or be shot. The thieves argued in the car before tying him up and leaving him gagged and bound under a bridge.

They didn't drive away. A few feet from where they stopped, the car idled for 10 minutes. Skorman knew the argument that was raging: Do we kill him or leave him there?

They left. Skorman slipped off his shoes, untied his legs and walked until a passing trucker stopped.

Now vice mayor of Colorado Springs, Skorman no longer picks up hitchhikers.

At 52, though, he hasn't shed the trait that nearly led to his death: the unshakable belief that people are good and should be given a hand.

It is that endless trust, that incredible faith in humanity, that is Skorman's greatest asset and his worst enemy.
Because of it, he has built an enormous circle of friends and succeeded with a City Council that's ideologically 180 degrees from him.

In fact, seven months after an election that left most observers predicting Skorman would be staring up from the short end of a lot of 8-1 votes, he's beginning to pull some sway.

But the desire to help hurt him in business, and it has cost him tens of thousands of dollars chasing a dream. He's given too much to the homeless, spent so much time looking to make the world better that he hasn't always been able to make a buck.

The man who introduced Colorado Springs to conversation- generating coffee shops, independent films and electable liberal politicians never has cared for money or conforming, though.

"I tend to look for the best in people and I want to help people," Skorman said. "It tends to be my nature to always want to help everybody. But I get in trouble."


There was no epiphany.

Skorman didn't wake up and decide, "I think I'll be a restaurateur/ cinema owner/author/environmental and gay-rights crusader/ politician."

Somehow it just happened.

Growing up in a Jewish family in Ohio that discussed menus more than current affairs, the dream of feeding people came first.

Six weeks into his freshman year at Colorado College, Skorman and a friend got fake doctor's notes so they could move off campus and get away from dorm food.

Pals would gather by the dozens in their apartment to scarf down Skorman's meals, many made with a new substance called tofu, friend Anthony Garrett said.

Before he could open a restaurant, Skorman owned Poor Richard's Used Books. He persuaded friends to donate books and stacked them on used ammunition cases from Surplus City.

In this setting he first showed remarkable trust by keeping the store open while he attended classes and leaving a note asking customers to take the change they needed. No one ripped him off, he said.

In 1977, two years after graduation, he moved the business downtown and added a restaurant, Poor Richard's Feed and Read. He held concerts to raise money for nuclear-freeze groups and oppressed Central Americans. In the back, he set up a projector and showed art- house films.

The young Richard Skorman was a hip name, and Newsweek published a photograph of his business as a representation of a new college hangout.

By 1986, though, Skorman was so burned out he sold the business, a victim of his own idealism.


Decades before, friends gathered constantly in the large house where Skorman and his two brothers grew up in Akron. The family was wealthy from the first-of-its-kind discount stores his father owned, and they took in people without asking anything in return.

At Colorado College, Skorman was one of the few kids with a credit card and a car, Garrett said. He shared both but never flaunted it.

"His family was very wealthy, but you never saw that over there," childhood friend Tim Remington said. "You wouldn't know if Richard had a dime or a thousand dollars in his pocket."

His sharing extended to a Jamaican family he and Garrett visited on trips to the island. They donated $200 each to the family, who used the money to hook up electricity to their home and set up a shop.

As a businessman, Skorman's inability to say "no" often backfired. Steve Handen, a former priest who presided at Skorman's wedding, can't recall when Skorman has not given food from his restaurant to poor people asking for it.

Looking back on the late 1970s and early 1980s, Skorman recalled how he allowed homeless and mentally ill people to hang out all day drinking coffee. He fed them and found them a place to sleep - sometimes in his basement - and even tried to put some to work.

But profits plummeted.

Skorman gave away so much he could not afford to pay his employees very much.

"The business struggled. I struggled," he said. "But I felt there was a mission I had to take care of people who couldn't take care of themselves."

When Skorman first ran for the council, rumors abounded that it was common for people to buy drugs out of Poor Richard's basement. He vehemently denied he was involved in the drug trade in a recent interview.

He said he hasn't "seriously done drugs for 25 years" but admitted he let his employees run wild enough that it's conceivable they could have dealt drugs.

When he decided to sell the restaurant, he didn't just get out of a business. He got out of the state, journeying to New York to look for a new start.


A love for movies did not come to Skorman as early as the passion for food.

He took every college class on film that he could, and by 1982, he set up Poor Richard's Cinema and was reviewing movies for the Colorado Springs Sun.

Skorman favored independent films, those that couldn't find their way into the major theaters or were too controversial.

In 1986, he contacted a friend working in a publishing house and pitched the idea for "Off-Hollywood Movies," a book that would spotlight independent films as they were just coming out on video. He got a $10,000 advance.

Skorman spent the next year watching and reviewing three movies a day. Someone in the publishing house forgot about the book, though, and it sat two years before it was printed, rendering it somewhat irrelevant and dashing Skorman's dreams of reviewing movies for a big- city newspaper.

Something else was happening. He watched many of the movies with a friend of a friend, Patricia Seator. After several months, they realized they were in love.

"I grasped when I first knew Richard . . . how he was not on the ordinary track in life," said Seator, who married him in 1994. "He sees possibilities, and he creates something viable from those possibilities."

After working two years as a consultant to organizations wanting to stage film festivals, Skorman returned to Colorado Springs.

He came back energized, purposeful. Now, he didn't just want to save humanity, he wanted to save the world.

And he wanted to do it through movies.


Skorman will tell you the U.S. Environmental Film Festival was a grand success. It attracted big stars, showcased important documentaries and influenced environmental law.

Financially, it was a big flop.

Ticket sales never met expectations, and Skorman lost $29,000 - more money than most Americans made a year at that time.

Stars such as Olivia Newton-John and Ed Begley Jr. attended the 1990 premiere, where they saw more than 100 films on issues such as dolphin slaughter and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Some movies got national press.

But the festival moved from Colorado Springs to Santa Monica, Calif., for its second year, and crowds plummeted. By this time, Skorman was deep into debt.

He closed the event and bought back his restaurant.

He remained a crusader, turning his attention to saving open space on the local level.

Skorman was a leader of the citizen group that tried unsuccessfully to pass a 0.1-cent tax for trails, parks and open space in 1995.

Undaunted, he was at the forefront when the group came back in 1997 and passed a TOPS tax that is so popular it was extended by more than a 2-to-1 margin this year.

Then he led a private effort to raise $1.5 million that would match a $4.4 million city donation to preserve the Stratton Open Space. Critics said the group could not do it in the six month time frame it'd been given; the group ended up pitching in $1.6 million.

"Richard clearly was one of the fathers of open space . . . here in the Springs," said Kent Obee, chairman of the Trails, Open Space and Parks working committee. "I think there have been other key players, but I don't think there's been anybody that's been more key than Richard."

This experience gave him the mainstream credibility to run for City Council.

But while Colorado Springs voters liked open-space advocates in 1999, they were still leery of gay-rights activists - a description that fit Skorman.


Skorman was not born an advocate for homosexuals. When Skorman's best friend and roommate came out of the closet while they were in college, Skorman looked at him nervously and asked, "Will you try to attack me?"
"I was judgmental of his life until I really understood it," he said, three decades later.

"Through Steven, I realized how horrible it was to be gay." Skorman watched family and friends ostracize Steven Brunner.

He watched him find a partner for life, only to see that partner die of AIDS. Then he watched Brunner die of AIDS, passing away as Skorman held him.

By the time the anti-gay rights Amendment 2 proposal surfaced in Colorado in 1992, Skorman was tired of watching.

He became de facto spokesman of the forces against the statewide amendment that proposed denying legal protection against discrimination to gays and lesbians.

He debated Amendment 2 author Will Perkins and refused to tell interviewers whether he was gay. Through it, he got threatening phone calls and found swastikas in his restaurant bathroom.

Someone broke the glass out of the front door of the business and then called to say it was done because Poor Richard's had several gay employees.

The amendment passed in 1992, but the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned it four years later. By the time he decided to run for council in 1999, Skorman's campaign advisers told him not to talk about the issue.

But he wouldn't keep quiet.

After winning one of four at large positions on the council, Skorman took stands when he could.

The biggest came backing health benefits for same-sex partners of city workers. The measure passed in November 2002.

It then was overturned by a new council in April, with only Skorman voting against the change. He termed it his toughest defeat.

Gay rights was a fight Skorman never sought, but he is not stopping. This year he was appointed to the board of the Gill Foundation, the state's largest pro-gay group, and was named Ally of the Year by the Pikes Peak Community Gay and Lesbian Center.

"When you're an elected official, of course it feels good to be on the winning side of the issue. But being on the minority side of the issue is very important," said former Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, now director of the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado. "It doesn't necessarily change people's opinions, but it makes them think. And Richard definitely makes them think."


Skorman is known today mostly by his title: vice mayor.

In his first four-year term on the council, from 1999 to 2003, he built a reputation as a fighter for the disadvantaged. He pushed for creation of a homeless care center, stopped proposed cuts to public transit and became an ally of Makepeace and liberal-leaning council members Judy Noyes and Jim Null.

On April 2, Skorman woke up to a sobering reality.

Although he was re-elected, the voters, in filling six other seats, chose a slate of conservative candidates promising to scale back government.

Suddenly he seemed very alone.

He flew solo on the same sex benefits votes. He and Councilwoman Margaret Radford were trounced in their attempt to protect the view from the Pioneers Museum to Pikes Peak.

Skorman ignored the negatives and reached out to find the best in his colleagues. He was chosen by the council to serve as the No. 2 man in city government and, recently, his views appear to be gaining support.

He may have made the biggest difference when the council balanced the 2004 budget last month. Members saved Otis Park Community Center, five bus routes and several parks positions proposed for elimination - measures backed by Skorman.

Council members may disagree politically with Skorman, but no one has a bad word to say about him personally.

Larry Small said his arguments add a needed and different perspective to discussions, and Radford said he cares about fellow council members as well as issues.

"Richard brings a compassion - an open, unabashed, unafraid-to- express compassion - that I think makes other people realize it's OK to display that," Radford said.

Although Skorman has earned officials' praises, there are many instances in which he is not winning their votes. Councilman Jerry Heimlicher couldn't name an issue for which Skorman's arguments have swayed a vote, and Small, asked to do the same, put forth only an issue on which his vote came down differently than Skorman's.

Still, he is lauded for his style of pitching ideas to colleagues. While others might demand their fellow council members vote for their bill, Skorman gently questions whether people want to consider his point of view.

"Even though we've differed on some of the major votes, I still have a tremendous amount of respect for the man because he doesn't do anything he doesn't believe in," Heimlicher said. "I don't think he can be bought and I don't think he can be influenced, no matter how many calls he gets."


People who know Skorman only from his political work can take heart. He is the same impassioned man in private.

Skorman and Seator live a quiet life.

They hike every day, cook for each other and share their home with Seator's niece, who works for Skorman and will start at Pikes Peak Community College in January.

Skorman has no kids, but he once thought he did.

In the mid-1990s, a teenage girl he never had met showed up on his doorstep claiming to be his daughter.
Skorman learned the mother was an old girlfriend, did the math and realized she was the right age to verify her claim.

But when the mother sued for paternity nine months later, Skorman took a DNA test that showed he was not the father.

Still, he talks frequently with the girl and celebrates holidays, birthdays and Hanukkah with her.

The "Renaissance Man" - as Garrett refers to him - will answer every question about his past, his motives and the reason he ended up where he did in life.

There is one question he can't answer: Where he is going.

His mother, Gladys Skorman, wants him to run for higher political office because he's honest.

Skorman, however, said he doesn't see much chance for that in this conservative region.

If his life in politics ends in 31/2 years, Skorman will be OK. There are other challenges that await him, just like there always have been.

"I think I've evolved into the kind of life I enjoy. I don't know if I'd gotten to here if I hadn't gone through the kind of life I had," he said.

"There's probably 30 things that drive me. . . . I want to do good in my life. I want to have a purpose in terms of helping people or the environment. And I want to have an interesting life."


1952: Richard Allan Skorman born in Akron, Ohio.
Late 1960s: Begins attending anti-war protests while in high school.
1975: Opens Poor Richard's Used Paperbacks just before graduating from Colorado College.
1977: Expands business to include restaurant - Poor Richard's Feed and Read.
1982: Begins showing independent films at cinema at back of restaurant.
1986: Sells restaurant and moves to New York to write a book, "Off- Hollywood Movies".
1989: Returns to Colorado Springs, begins work on U.S. Environmental Film Festival, which runs in 1990 and 1991.
1992: Buys back restaurant and becomes outspoken opponent of Amendment 2.
1994: Marries Patricia Seator, whom he met in New York.
1995: Becomes leader in failed attempt to pass Trails, Open Space and Parks tax. With him at the helm again, the tax passes on its second try in 1997.
1999: Elected as at-large Colorado Springs city councilman after breaking spending records for a council race.
2003: Re-elected despite voters' turn toward conservative candidates and chosen by colleagues as vice mayor.

Copyright 2009 The Gazette

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