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All of Polly's experiences as a Native American, a single woman and a volunteer with the poor and homeless, plus all of her training in law, banking and insurance seemed to lead her to the three-story yellow-brick building on the scraggly northeastern edge of the old Air Force base. It was there, her friends and family say, that she blossomed.
Polly was born on November 7, 1954, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the older of two girls. Her mother is Irish and her father is Muskogee Creek. When she was one, the family moved to Denver under a Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program.
As a child, Polly was teased relentlessly by schoolmates for being short, chubby and dark-skinned. But as she grew older, that ribbing only made her stronger. She was bookish and brainy but loved the Beatles, high school dances and Camaros. At college, she studied English and literature; after graduation, she worked as a reporter in Oklahoma before returning to Denver and the mountains she loved. She tried insurance and banking for a while, then returned to school, earning a master's degree, a paralegal certificate and finally a law degree from Arizona State University.
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"Keep a Light On,"
When the Denver Indian Center reviewed applications for the Lowry housing project it oversees, Polly was the natural choice. One of her first official duties was to convince corporate executives and government officials that a 43-bed, affordable-housing complex for Native Americans, as well as others who needed help, had a place among the custom homes, business centers, neighborhood parks and school campuses planned for the massive redevelopment. And much to the chagrin of the project's neighbors at Lowry, she did.
Polly dove into her work. She attended planning meetings, waded through zoning regulations, wrote grant proposals, developed legal contracts, hired architects, read blueprints, applied for permits, oversaw construction, screened applicants, recruited tenants and showed up on the weekends in jeans and a sweatshirt to pull weeds and paint the walls. She even named the renovated barracks after a crooked pine in the courtyard.
"She'd come home so dirty, she looked like she'd been playing in a sandlot," Shirley recalls. "She was proud of Crooked Tree. Real proud."
"I'm a registered professional engineer, and I still don't know how she did it," adds Lieurance. "It was just amazing."
By the time Crooked Tree opened in March 1998, Polly had already moved into an apartment on the second floor and proceeded to decorate it like the "nester" she was. Every available space was covered with paintings of outdoor scenes, Raggedy Ann dolls, little collectible items and inspirational signs that read "I'm Just a Raggedy Ann in a Barbie Doll Kind of World" and "Heal the Past. Dream the Future. Live the Present." All along the windowsill at the front of this little dollhouse apartment, Polly placed rows of miniature lighthouses that glowed like tiny beacons.
"To Christians, lighthouses are lights to the world," Shirley says. "I think Polly really liked that."
Although Polly didn't have to live at Crooked Tree, she wanted to: She thought it was important to set the tone from the inside. And from the beginning, she envisioned Crooked Tree as more than just another transitional housing complex for people one step away from homeless shelters, detox programs and prison cells. Polly wanted Crooked Tree to be a community. She wanted neighbors to feel comfortable walking across the hall for a cup of coffee, a video or a hug. She wanted Crooked Tree to be a home.
"She wanted to make it into something they would feel proud of," Shirley says. "She always thought poor people deserved a decent place to live."
Polly appointed a residents' council so tenants could learn to solve their own problems. She distributed information about food stamps, job placement, health care and home ownership. She encouraged tenants to start their own library and food bank. She kept a casserole in the oven for tenants who ran low on groceries at the end of the month. When one man arrived at Crooked Tree fresh from prison with no belongings, Polly gave him a blanket, a pillow and an alarm clock so he could report to a job interview on time.
"She thought that the people at Crooked Tree just needed a helping hand," Shirley recalls. "She always thought people deserved a second chance."
But Polly also had rules. No drugs. No loud music. No overnight guests. No leaving the outside doors open. And she enforced those rules. At four-foot-eleven, with her round face, bobbed hair and shy smile, Polly looked like a pushover. But those who challenged her soon discovered otherwise. She fired off memos, issued warnings and evicted tenants if necessary. When someone scrawled graffiti on a wall a month after Crooked Tree opened, Polly grabbed a paintbrush, rounded up tenants and told them to start repainting. And they did.
"If she thought she was in the right, she stood her ground," her mother remembers. "If anyone threw a candy wrapper or a paper cup out there, she made them pick it up. She thought that people ought to care about the place where they lived, and that if people lived in a dump, pretty soon they'd start acting like it."