Haverford School Alum John Hickenlooper Is Colorado’s Governor

The geologist turned brewpub trailblazer turned governor finds happiness in his every day life.

On a brutal 100-degree day, a group of middle-aged men decided it was a good idea to play baseball. The aging diamond warriors wouldn’t have cared if it was raining lava. They were playing.

The occasion was John Baird’s 50th birthday. To celebrate, the then head of Carolina Friends School had rented the Durham Bulls stadium. Once the kids had finished their fun, it was time for the “grownups” to take the field. It was a great day, and Baird remembers it fondly. “We played until they threw us out,” he recalls.

Once a high school catcher, Baird took his spot behind the plate for the game, happy to be reunited with his battery mate from their prep-school days at the Haverford School. Now a little heartier than the 6-foot-2, 160-pound drinking straw he was as a Ford, John Hickenlooper still boasted the menagerie of off-speed junk he used to confound Inter-Ac batters while a starter for the eventual league champions. 

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Hickenlooper’s arm was in pretty good shape. Of course, since he wasn’t a fireballer during his high school days, he wasn’t exactly bringing the cheddar that oppressive afternoon. “He hadn’t lost a thing,” Baird says, his chuckle suggesting that the hurler didn’t have much to lose in the first place.

At the time, Hickenlooper was campaigning to be mayor of Denver. To many, it seemed odd that a geologist-turned-brewpub-pioneer would move into politics. Baird saw no dissimilarity. The jobs may not have fit together, but they certainly fit Hickenlooper. “Every time I met up with him, from when he was in college at Wesleyan [University] on, he had some new hobby or kick,” Baird says. “He would either be mountain biking or making beer in his basement. He was always looking for the next thing.”

Hickenlooper ran for mayor because some people thought he might do a good job. He lasted most of two terms and left only because he was elected governor of Colorado in 2010. Now in his second term, he has a strong record, a relatively high level of popularity, and a pressing need to find something else to do in less than two years. “I think I have one or two more careers in me,” he says.

Hickenlooper has always enjoyed the journey more than the end. The constants have been his curiosity and his willingness to take a shot, even if things don’t always work out—like when the oil company he worked for laid him off. 

“He has a wonderful combination of warmth and personal magnetism,” says Baird, who is in his final year as head of Westtown School. “He’s very competitive, though, and when he sets out to do something, he wants to succeed. But he’s a regular guy. That’s also part of his appeal. It’s just who he is. He’s authentic.”

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The Dalai Lama has said, “I believe the purpose of life is to be happy.” 

Anne Hickenlooper was never confused with the bodhisattva of compassion, but she delivered a similar message to her son John when he was growing up. “She would say that you owe it to yourself to make yourself happy,” John Hickenlooper says of his mom. “Nobody else makes you happy. You maybe get a couple bad breaks, but nobody can help you but yourself.”

If anybody knew about bad breaks, it was Anne, who buried two husbands before John was 10 years old. She was part of the Morris family, and her ancestors landed in Philadelphia in the late 1600s. Anthony Morris I was the third mayor of the city, and the Morris Brewery was an early fixture on the local commercial scene. Some people can say they have beer in their blood. Hickenlooper means it. 

Main Line born and bred, Anne graduated from the Agnes Irwin School and earned a scholarship to Vassar College. Before her senior year at Vassar, Anne met and fell in love with Samuel Bowman Kennedy, another suburban Philadelphia product, who was at the University of North Carolina. “Bow”—as Hickenlooper refers to him in his book, The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics— ended up enlisting in the Air Force during World War II and flew 120 missions against the Nazis, including on D-Day. He was one of only two members from his squadron to survive. “He was just a badass fighter pilot,” Hickenlooper says, with awe.

The two married in 1942. Anne gave birth to a girl in October 1943 and a boy in January 1945. Later that year, Bow was stateside, waiting to be discharged, when he decided to fly from his base in Arkansas to Oklahoma to have dinner with friends. On his way home, the plane malfunctioned and crashed. Bow was killed, leaving Anne widowed.

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She remarried in 1948. John Wright Hickenlooper was an engineer from Cincinnati. Their son, John, was born three-and-a-half years later, and a daughter followed soon thereafter. When young John was only 6, his father was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.
On Feb. 17, 1960, “Hick” died. 

“No one ever talked about my dad,” Hickenlooper. “In some ways, it was a sad house. In other ways, I had a happy upbringing.”

Because a half brother had graduated from the Haverford School in 1963, Anne believed it was the right place for Hickenlooper. At Ardmore Junior High School, where he struggled to find a place, mostly due to his hypercompetitive and argumentative traits. 

In his book, Hickenlooper writes about being bullied at Haverford, but he eventually softened his edges and began to make friends. He felt at a home on both the soccer and baseball teams. “I couldn’t even get on the JV at Ardmore Junior High, but Haverford was so small,” Hickenlooper says. “I was a right halfback on the soccer team as a senior, and we beat Lower Merion, 1-0. A lot of big-school kids don’t get a chance to find out what they can do.”

Blue Bell-based real estate developer David Groverman, a former classmate, describes Hickenlooper as “right up there with the top guys” at Haverford. Another, John Horan, remembers him as “kind of shy,” and he is somewhat surprised that Hickenlooper thrived in the political world. “If you took a poll our senior year of which guy in the class was going to be a successful politician, I don’t think many of us would have picked John,” Horan says.

Wanting to be a writer, Hickenlooper majored in English at Wesleyan. “It turned out that I wasn’t too good at it,” he says—though his book is a smooth, engaging read. 

He found a master’s program for people with non-science backgrounds and earned a postgraduate degree in geology in 1980. He landed a job with Buckhorn Petroleum and spent six years in the business, before the downturn in the industry made him a casualty. Hickenlooper toyed with the idea of starting his own oil company, but ultimately decided to pursue the sale of another vital liquid: beer. A night at Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse in Berkeley, Calif., changed his life. “I thought to myself, ‘I would’ve driven 20 minutes out of my way and paid 50 cents extra a glass for this,’” he says. 

In 1988, there was no craft-beer craze, and brewpubs were alien to all but a select group of foamheads. There was nothing like the Triple Rock in Denver, so Hickenlooper and friend Jerry Williams decided to open a version in town. Funding for the endeavor didn’t come easily. Hickenlooper’s mother wouldn’t even invest. But on opening night of the first brewery in Denver since Prohibition, the beer flowed at 25 cents a throw. Wynkoop Brewery—named for the street on which its headquarters was located—sold 6,000 cups that first evening, so many that Hickenlooper had to go to the supermarket for reinforcements.

But it was a tough ride. The first month was a bonanza. In the summer, business fell by 15 percent, and the week of July 4, Wynkoop couldn’t make payroll. But Hickenlooper and Williams persevered. They bought a building in a part of town that nobody considered a prime location and turned it into an upscale spot that became a sensation. At one point, the partners were operating 14 different restaurants. “I was used to being very frugal, but all of a sudden, things just took off,” says Hickenlooper.

Gov. Hickenlooper in front of the Colorado State House

Gov. Hickenlooper in front of the Colorado State House  

John Hickenlooper never even ran for student council, but he did serve on some local boards, including one to keep the Denver Broncos’ home named Mile High Stadium. “We did a study, and it revealed that the name ‘Mile High’ was worth $120 million,” Hickenlooper says. 

He was asked to run for mayor and obliged, winning with a campaign that included no negative ads and focused on linking the city with its suburbs. He immediately tackled Denver’s budget crisis. He named Michael Bennet, who worked for a local venture-capital firm, as his chief of staff. 

When Hickenlooper ran for reelection, he won with 88 percent of the vote. “Working for John was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” says Bennet, now a U.S. senator for Colorado. “John was able to attract an incredibly talented group of people.”

Hickenlooper was able to reverse Denver’s economic downturn, fund a light-rail system that included a train to the airport and increase regional collaboration. Instead of merely running the city like a business, Hickenlooper took a more “nuanced” approach. “He knew he needed people to want to come along,” says Bennet. “He had town meetings at the beginning of his tenure to show people where he was headed.”

In 2011, Hickenlooper was headed to the governor’s mansion as the first Denver mayor elected governor in 150 years. “Most people in rural Colorado hate Denver,” he says. “They view it as Sodom and Gomorrah, and as decadent and rock ’n’ roll.” 

Hickenlooper has been active in helping the homeless, crafting sensible gun-control laws, suspending capital punishment in the state, and creating jobs. He was against the passage of marijuana legalization, but he has strived to make it as job-friendly as possible. 

“We’ve really tried to look at how to get people to believe in government again,” he says about his tenure. 

Hickenlooper spends as much time as he can with Teddy, the son from his first marriage to writer Helen Thorpe. Last year, he wed Robin Pringle, a moment he describes in his book as “the day the rest of my life began.” He doesn’t speculate on what the future holds. That would be silly. After all, he never expected to be a brewmaster, a restaurateur or a politician. 

“When I came out here as a geologist, I thought I’d be a geologist the rest of my life,” he says.    

But that thirst for life kept coming.

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