Former Colorado lawmaker Ken Kester passes away in Arizona
Author: Marianne Goodland - February 20, 2018 - Updated: February 20, 2018
Former Colorado state lawmaker Ken Kester of Las Animas passed away on Feb. 17 at his home in Arizona. Kester served in the Colorado House from 1998 to 2002 and in the state Senate from 2003 to 2010. Services will be held at 10 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 26, at the Las Animas Community Center.
Kester was born March 16, 1936, at the family ranch in southeastern Colorado.
An 18-year old Dick Wadhams served on Kester’s first campaign, a run for Bent County Commissioner, in 1974. He told Colorado Politics that Kester “was a natural candidate. He had a very successful GM dealership in Las Animas and sold cars all over the state. He was very popular with the public and involved in community activities. Everybody knew Ken Kester and respected him.”
From a bio written by his adult children in 2010 (edited for length and by permission):
The Life and Times of Ken Kester
“His oldest memory is of waking up from his nap and the dust on the pillow formed the shape of his head. The other lasting memory was of the rattlesnakes in the backyard. Surprisingly, he didn’t remember the wind on the ranch between Lamar and Springfield, CO.
His father’s small grocery store chain forced a move to Scott City, KS after a few years after he was born. And, about eight years old, on to Cañon City, CO where a glorified fruit stand supported the family, primarily through the efforts of his mother, Maurine.
Maurine’s maiden name was Hooker and the source for Ken’s middle name. The Hooker family included Civil War general, ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker, the source of much rumor and story whose statue is at the Maryland statehouse. Robert E. Lee whipped Joe at Chancellorsville but he came back via strong administration and elevated troop morale with The Battle of Lookout Mountain. He served five months as the Commander of the Union Army until just days before Gettysburg, when Lincoln relieved him with Hooker’s protégé George Meade. Ken’s son, Ed, once had a shirt made that said, ‘My Grandma was a Hooker’.
Ken was always active in sports. Still is, actually, although he doesn’t always hit off the tee, anymore, if someone else has a good drive. He likes to tell the story about how, when he was in the 4th grade, he was in a track meet wearing overalls when everyone else had shorts on. He won three of four races. The only reason he didn’t win the 4th was because he tripped on his overalls. He still got up and finished 3rd. This story is not corroborated.
He played football and baseball in high school. But, his major sport, by far, was basketball. Until a few years ago, one of his high school basketball records was still standing after almost 50 years. He was a deadeye shot. None of his sons ever beat him at H-O-R-S-E. He only had about a 5 inch vertical leap but if you left him alone, especially in the corner, you may as well go ahead and count it. He would lift his knee, shoot from the lower chest and wait for the swish. His last remaining record was for consecutive free throws, 23 or so in a row. As a senior, he never scored more than 30 points in a game, but never less than 20. This was in the era when one Colorado high school championship game was won 2-0. He received a basketball scholarship to Denver University. But, decided to stay in Cañon City and work at Howard’s Chevrolet as a grease monkey.
In high school, he started dating Virginia Smith. He says that he was dating one girl named Virginia and Virginia Smith was dating another guy. He told the other guy that they were going to switch Virginias. Apparently, there was not much disagreement, even though Ken weighed about 120 at the time and might not have been able to back up his offer if there had been one.
Ken and Virginia dated for a couple of years and were married in May, 1956. [They had three sons: Dan, Mike and Ed.]
He continued at Howard’s Chevrolet until he became sales manager. At 29, he decided to buy a General Motors dealership in Las Animas. Borrowing money from family and friends, he became the youngest dealership owner in the state of Colorado. Signing the contract in Denver in the midst of the famous flood of 1965, he had to be airlifted out after the bridges in front of him and behind him were washed out. He says that he was the last one taken to safety and had to argue to get the seat that was being saved for someone’s dog. Again, no survivors have ever corroborated the story. The car he was driving was never found.
He soon became involved in local organizations such as JayCees, Lions Club, continued playing town team softball and basketball, took up hunting jackrabbits and playing poker every Tuesday night. All of these activities fell by the wayside, except for poker playing, which he continued for over 30 years.
He was appointed to the Hospital Board and, in 1974, he and Virginia built the only home that they would own in Las Animas. It was a new pre-fab home and was ready to move in to within weeks. That same summer, a young politico named Richard (now Dick) Wadhams, talked him into running for County Commissioner against the Republican incumbent. Filing papers, they discovered that he was not affiliated with a political party (something he always, inexplicably, blamed on Virginia).
To get on the general election ballot, he and Richard had to get 500 signatures from registered voters in the county that did not vote in the primary. In a small county with high primary election participation, this was not easy. Many people did not vote in the primary so they could sign his petition. Even then, there were only about 550 possible signers in the entire county. Dick tells of going in to someone’s bedroom to wake them up to sign the petition. Once, a whole page of signatures had beer spilled on it at the VFW lounge and had to be redone.
The effort was successful and Ken’s name was placed on the general election ballot. In a three-way race, against the incumbent, Ken won over 50% of the vote, becoming the first independent candidate to win in Bent County. Election night, the dealership was turned into Independent Headquarters. Once people started showing up, it was determined that food needed to be acquired. Since the stores were closed, Richard and Dan went to the Republican Headquarters to see if there were any pies left to purchase. It was the Watergate election and the Republicans were not in a happy mood. But, they graciously gave away their pies to the new upstart.
Ken (or Virginia) soon got him registered with the Republican Party. He ran for re-election twice after that. Both times, he ran unopposed. He decided not to re-run in 1986.
The dealership continued. Ken always said that he needed to treat people right, because in a small town, you needed repeat business. A sign hung in the garage that said ‘Do the Job Right the First Time’. His sons worked various jobs at the dealership. After a few summers of wrecking cars, falling off the roof and selling pickup toppers for under cost, Ken suggested to Dan that maybe, he ‘could work for someone else.’ Mike and Ed, however, were considered ‘eligible for rehire’.
Over his legislative career, he got close to 200 bills passed, 38 in one session alone. He had a very strong record of getting his bills through the legislature and took a lot of pride in that. He has supported a diverse set of legislative agendas: health, education, small business, saving Piñon Canyon, environmental, the hearing impaired, keeping Gitmo prisoners out of his district, judicial, corrections and horse racing, among others. Once, he secured funds through lotto proceeds to build three new schools in his district. In one year, he was the Legislator of the Year for both credit unions and banks….no small feat!
He often exasperated his Republican Party, more than a few times being the only R to vote with all the Ds.
He has maintained a reputation as someone who always keeps his constituents at the top of the list when making up his mind on how to vote. One former colleague said that he kept in touch with the people of his district better than anyone he had ever seen. And, he did it all without e-mail or the internet. When the state gave him a laptop, it was considered one of the biggest waste of state funds seen in a long time.
Ken Kester never lost a race. And, he did it with clean campaigns and a lot of handshaking and one-on-one communications. He won over opponents and everyone else with his quick wit and friendly manner. He was well-liked by both parties, legislative staff and lobbyists. One lobbyist once commented that he never voted with their firm but they liked to take him to Nuggets, Avs, Bronco and Rockies games because he was ‘fun’.
In 2010, he received the prestigious Chenowith award (and, a ‘standing ovation’ he likes to point out) from Las Animas County, a county that all the Republicans could fit in the high school gymnasium…..he says, ‘a phone booth’.
He seems to be of the special breed of political leaders….a public servant who is not abusing his office, who listens to his constituents and doesn’t spend his time vying for higher office.”
Kester’s wife, Virginia, died in February, 1995. He is survived by his three sons and numerous grandchildren.