By Samantha Tisdel Wright
Richard Ezra Fowler, aka “Mr. Dick,” was an iconic Ouray character, spanning the old and the new as effortlessly as he spun tales from his stool of honor at the Buen Tiempo. The former operator of Ouray’s historic hydro plant passed away last week. He was 67.
As this paper reaches readers’ hands, Fowler’s memorial service at the Ouray Ice Park will have taken place – it was set for Thursday evening. And surely many a margarita will have been lifted afterward in his honor at the Buen, where his barstool has been temporarily retired. And just as surely, many a “Mr. Dick” story will have been told.
How Fowler ended up in Ouray in the early 1990s is a story worth telling in itself, and is best done so by Fowler’s former employer and good friend Eric Jacobsen, owner of the Ouray Hydro Plant.
“Dick and I go back to the late ’80s when he had a Jeep repair garage in Grand Junction,” recalled Jacobsen, who also owns the famous Bridal Veil hydroelectric plant near Telluride, accessed via Imogene Pass. “We used old Jeeps for doing all the work (at the Bridal Veil plant),” Jacobsen said. “Dick had a little shop with a wood stove. We’d drag our Jeeps in, in the fall, and he’d spend the winter fixing them for us.”
At that time, Jacobsen was in the process of getting his bid together to buy the Ouray Hydro Plant from Colorado Ute, a regional utility which eventually went bankrupt. He got the plant for $10 because he was the only pre-qualified bidder. But that’s another story.
Over that winter, Fowler got word of Jacobsen’s new acquisition. “He showed up with his toolbox in hand and said he’d decided he wanted to be a hydro plant operator,” Jacobsen laughed. “He said he’d sure be glad if I hired him, but if I didn’t, he’d work for free.”
Fowler was hired, and moved right in. “He’s basically lived there ever since and has been very intimately involved in every aspect of the operation,” Jacobsen said.
Fowler came by his technical know-how by way of two hitches served in the U.S. Army, starting when he was only 18. He was stationed on the border of East and West Germany, where during formative years, he was in charge of a big truck maintenance garage.
The experience shaped the way he saw the world and lived his life. “He always had a very military viewpoint toward his work at the hydro plant,” Jacobsen said. “His idea was to keep the lieutenant happy but kick him out the door as soon as you can. I was always the lieutenant … Dick was the master surgeon.”
Fowler applied his military mentality to his hydro plant employees, too, including his right hand man, and in Jacobsen’s words “heavy lifter” of many years, Jimmy Pew. “Jimmy, unfortunately, was the private,” Jacobsen joked. “Either they loved Dick or they hated Dick, but he used his military structure on those guys; that’s how Dick ran the power plant.”
Jacobsen was happy to leave the running of the plant largely in Fowler’s hands, and like a good lieutenant, gave him plenty of space to do just that. ”I literally had not been in his apartment since he moved up there in 1992,” he said. “That was Dick’s world.”
Fowler retired from his position at the hydro plant about 18 months ago. New operator Chris Babbins now keeps things the old thing spinning. But it wasn’t long after Fowler stepped down from his operator position that he found his way back, this time as caretaker, doing maintenance work on an hourly basis.
“I think Dick frankly got tired of being retired,” Jacobsen chuckled.
Fowler’s boots at the plant will be hard to fill. “He was totally into old equipment,“ Jacobsen said. “He had the perfect personality to keep the hydro plant running. Dick would complain loudly when we had occasion to upgrade old equipment. He liked mechanical things and was very suspicious of anything electronic.”
Now, as for Fowler’s famous story-telling ability… “He had all sorts of funny stories,” Jacobsen said. “He had a way of making anything sound funny. It’s hard to do that.”
But interestingly, Fowler talked very rarely about his family.
“Funny stories and mishaps with machinery were more Dick’s thing,” Jacobsen said. “He was a good storyteller, so you didn’t mind if he’d recycle a story every few months. There’s all sorts of funny stories Dick had about daily life, and he never was the hero in any of them. His stories were always very complimentary of some other person for having patience and humility; listening to him was kind of like having zen lessons. He was very self-effacing. He just loved Ouray and the people here.”
And not surprisingly, Fowler had a knack for tapping into what makes the town tick. In addition to his work at the hydro plant and his estimable position at the Buen Tiempo, he was also a “de facto” member of the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team. To this group, Fowler’s snow-cat maintaining skills proved invaluable.
“He hung out with the young rock climber group and took the Ice Park very seriously,” Jacobsen said, adding that Fowler helped build the very first catwalk at the Ice Park in the early 1990s. “He had really, really good friends in Ouray – young, old and everywhere in between. He was a very happy, warm Ouray character.”
Fowler was born on a farm in Salida, the town where his mother and sister still live. He is also survived by a brother in Loveland, and his companion of many years, Mary White, who resides in Fruita. (White has bequeathed Fowler’s beloved old Jeep to Jacobsen.)
Prior to his stint as a mechanic in Grand Junction and his long-term gig in Ouray, Jacobsen said that Fowler worked in construction and as a truck driver.
“I think he always wandered a little bit until he found his way to Ouray,” Jacobson speculated. “Once he found the hydro plant, I think that that’s what he considered he wanted to do for the rest of his life.”