Our Stories: Jim Colwell
By Wynn Montgomery
Jim Colwell lives in Boulder, roughly 100 miles from his birthplace near Brush, Colorado. But don’t think that Jim hasn’t moved very far geographically in his 94 years. His long and distinguished career in education has taken him to more countries than can be listed here; he says he hasn’t gone around the world only because he has never been to India. Not bad for a man who was raised on a farm in Morgan County, Colorado, and whose education began at the Colwell School, a two-room schoolhouse (grades 1-8) between Brush and Hillrose on land donated by his grandfather (hence the name).
Jim dropped out of high school after two years because he was “tired of being poor” and did manual labor including time in the local sugar beet factory. He soon moved to Denver, where he worked briefly grinding limestone, before small loans from two aunts allowed him to go to Utah, where he was a warehouseman at Hill Army Air Field. He was working, but not getting paid because of “red tape.” To keep from starving, he took a second job washing pots and pans and for a while survived by eating the food scraps left in those pots. Jim was also a homesick teenager, but it was 1943 and his job which was considered crucial to the war effort. It took a letter from his father saying that he was needed on the family farm to allow him to return home.
Jim returned to Brush High School for his junior year and enlisted in the Army Air Force Reserve, which made him exempt from the draft. A year later (1945) he was called to active duty and assigned to Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi. He was promoted to corporal and later served at bases in Arizona and Illinois, but never received the flight training for which he enlisted. He graduated “in absentia” from high school, re-enlisted, and enrolled at Colorado A&M (now CSU), supplementing his GI Bill benefits by selling ladies’ shoes and reading for a blind veteran. When that veteran transferred to the University of Denver, Jim did the same and changed his major from agronomy to journalism. In 1948, after a semester abroad in Mexico City, Jim graduated from DU (having earned Phi Beta Kappa honors) and took a job with the local newspaper in Sterling, CO.
Having found newspaper work to involve “long hours and dull stuff,” Jim took a temporary mid-year temporary position as a high school English teacher and found that he liked teaching. He taught at Sterling High for three years while earning his Master’s degree from Northern Colorado University.
With the US back at war (in Korea this time), Jim was back in the Air Force and was assigned to Japan as a Civilian Education Advisor. His time overseas allowed him to study at The Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Heidelberg, where he met Claudia Alsleben. She was his German tutor, who had fled her Soviet-occupied hometown of Zeitz during WWII, had become an elementary school teacher, and was continuing her education at the University. After a whirlwind courtship, Jim and Claudia were married in Goettingen in 1957 and moved immediately to New Haven, CT where both pursued graduate degrees at Yale.
After Jim earned his PhD, the Colwells (and their son) returned to Heidelberg, where Jim was an Assistant Director of the European Division of the University of Maryland for four years before returning to Colorado in 1965 to join the faculty of CU-Boulder as Associate Professor of English and Director of the Office of International Education. The Colwell family now included a daughter born in Germany, and they stayed in Boulder for seven years (the longest Jim had remained in one place since he was a teenager). In 1972, Jim was recruited by a former CU President to become Dean of Arts and Education at the University of Texas in Odessa. After five years in that position, Jim had suffered through a serious illness that required hospitalization in Dallas. He recovered and returned to Odessa, where he stayed until 1987, when he and Claudia retire and returned to Boulder and moved into the house where Jim now lives alone after Claudia passed away a year ago.
Jim, who was raised in the Presbyterian church, first learned of Unitarianism from a newspaper article while he was studying at Yale, but did not begin to attend UU services until his first tenure in Boulder, when he and Claudia joined UUCB. They also found a UU congregation in Odessa. Upon their return to Boulder, they visited UUCB once, but soon decided that BVUUF was a better fit for them.
Jim remained active in the Air Force Reserve for more than 38 years until he reached the mandatory retirement age a few years ago and appreciates the retirement benefits. His early interest in agronomy is a help as he tries to maintain the flowers and trees that Claudia planted. Both children live on the East Coast (Chevy Chase, MD and Montpelier, VT) and maintain contact via e-mail and Zoom. At their request, he has begun to write his memoirs, which (as you can see) may take a while. Fortunately, Jim has vivid memories of his adventures, and he assured me that “most of them actually happened.”