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Park Hill Character: Alive & Well In Park Hill

Meet J.R. Ewing: Master Mason, Drive-By Storyteller

by Jack Farrar

All of us have people in our lives who we think of as characters, individuals who are memorable because they approach life from a quirky, eccentric point of view.

One of my favorite characters in Park Hill is J.R. Ewing, a master mason whose expertly assembled patios, walls, chimneys, fireplaces, planters and sidewalks can be seen in dozens of homes and commercial properties in the area.

My wife, Pam, and I first got to know him when we launched the Park Hill Alley Art Contest about 10 years ago. J.R. was one of the winners, with an installation on his back fence that showcases his masonry acumen and sense of humor. The presentation features several bas relief of the Kokopelli fertility deity, auto parts, drill bits, window-framed movie posters, and a large flagstone montage that defies gravity.

The moment Pam and I saw that installation, we knew that we would like the creator. We got to know J.R. better over the years, and eventually hired him to do a few masonry projects at our house, including tuck pointing and a tricky granite and stone sidewalk treatment at the foot of our porch. All of them were done expertly, on time, and with the bonus of J.R.’s colorful commentary.

J.R. lives in a modest bungalow on Hudson Street, with his son, Trapper, and daughter Jasmine. The home was originally occupied by his grandparents. We talked on his porch, where he can often be found. The porch is packed with an astonishing range of items, including, but not limited to, chairs, fixtures, rocks, bricks, tile, antlers, a large slab of flagstone, a grinding wheel that dates to the late 1880s, carpet samples, extension cords and rusty wrenches. There is a piece of flagstone, on which these words are engraved: “I clean my house every other day. This is the other day.”

“Am I a hoarder or a collector?” J.R. asks. I don’t answer.

Throughout a recent conversation J.R. periodically moaned and winced. He was hurting from a recent shoulder separation, one of more than a dozen he has suffered, via masonry and 13 years in an amateur adult hockey league. “My shoulders feel and sound like Rice Krispies,” he says. “Snap, crackle and pop.”

J.R. has been a mason for more than 45 years. He started in high school in Indiana as a hod carrier (one of the most exhausting and least glamorous jobs in construction), “at the princely sum of a buck-and-a-half an hour.”

He has also worked as a carpenter and framer. He has toiled on every imaginable type of project, ranging from small residential projects to epic edifices, such as the Nighthorse Campbell Native Health Building at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus.

Masonry is a tough way to earn a buck. “There is no other construction trade that requires as much weight lifting as mason,” says J.R. “A mason tender (assistant) can handle up to 1,500 bricks in one day and carry 95 pounds of mud at a time. You have to be in good shape.”

But there is always room for play. “We used to have contests during lunch hour or after work to see who could carry four buckets of mud the farthest. And we bet on who could stack the most bricks in a single column. I think the record was 150.”

I used to be under the impression that J.R. – born James Robert Ewing – started using just initials in a sort of homage to J.R. Ewing, the villain of the prime time TV series Dallas (imagine a Texan version of Downton Abby, except with bad writing and bad acting). Not so. J.R. started using J.R. so he wouldn’t be confused with three other Jim’s on a construction project.

I also used to think that his son was named after the character in the TV series M*A*S*H*. Again, wrong. Trapper was named after Trapper’s Lake, north of Glenwood Springs, where J.R. was once employed by a lodge to herd tourists.

Here’s a sampling of what J.R. thinks about a few things:

• Religion. “I believe in God, but I don’t know that you’d call me religious. I was an altar boy at St. Thomas. Does that count?”

• Politics. J.R. does not much like to discuss the topic, but offered the following about our nation’s chief executive: “Trump is a pumpkin-head with a possum hairpiece. He talks out of both sides of his mouth.”

• Immigration. Many masonry workers in the area are undocumented Mexican-Americans. J.R. worked for many years with assistant Sergio Diaz. “Immigration laws are stupid. Sergio was great, a hard worker and a good friend. He was deported to Mexico, where he makes eight bucks a day. That isn’t fair.”

• The Denver Broncos. “Peyton was a gift. Tony Romo? I don’t know. Too expensive.”

J.R.’s personality and his generosity have not gone unnoticed. On Aug. 3, 2008, he received a scroll from his neighbors on Hudson. He’s pictured holding it on page 1, and here it reads as follows:

“For outstanding neighborly

service to the 2200 block of Hudson Street

We hereby recognize J.R. Ewing,

King for the Day.

From walkways to walls to windows

and porches to crawl spaces to garden oasis

J.R.’s hands have shaped our places on the block.

Free shoveling snow and trimming yards.

Then with playful heart and stories to tell

he has opened up conversation with neighbors.

This chatter is what matters in
creating a community.

Thank you, J.R.”

When putting together this feature, I contacted a few folks who know J.R. Tom and Jeanne Powers note that he not only completed some great projects for them, he did so in a “highly entertaining fashion.”

George Tague, as skilled in metal work as J.R. is in masonry, calls J.R. a “neighborhood fixture, a drive-by storyteller and craftsman.”

“I remember one night when J.R. walked over to my house and presented me with a single flower,” says Nancy Berenato. “He just handed me the flower and left.”

That’s the kind of thing characters do.

Jack Farrar is a longtime Park Hill resident and board member of the nonprofit Park Hill Community Bookstore, at 23rd and Dexter. This is the first installment of a regular feature about people who help make Park Hill great.

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