Shirley Valentine's Family Has Lived in Swansea More Than a Century -- and She Plans to Stay

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Growing up, Shirley didn't always have everything she needed. Her father, Frank, drank daily, and drank a lot. He often spent his entire paycheck on booze, and Shirley and her mother would go without food. On a normal day, "he smoked ten cigars, took a can of Copenhagen, drank a quart of whiskey and two cases of beer," Shirley says. Despite his drinking, he maintained his job as a multigrapher at the Denver Post, preparing the paper for print. Sober, he loved his family; drunk, he beat them.

As their family grew, Catherine and Tom Valentine bought land and a shack where the Rocky Mountain Arsenal stands today. Their plan was to homestead it as an investment in the future, while Shirley, Frank and Minnie stayed at the house on Josephine. But during the Depression, Catherine and Thomas couldn't afford having both a city and a country home, so they sold the shack and returned to Swansea. Rules were rigid in that crowded household: Minnie barred her daughter from playing with other kids and did not allow her to keep pets at the house. Her father would not let her ride her bike to school, so she would walk two miles from her home to Annunciation Catholic School, where the Sisters of Charity taught her classes. "They were strict. Very strict. But we learned," Shirley says.

The Valentine men's tempers punctuated Shirley's childhood. She adored her father when he was sober, feared him when he was drunk. Frank and Uncle Thomas were both boxers and union organizers who drank to excess and let their rage flare, at home and on the streets. Thomas beat his wife. Once, he thought he killed her, so he stuffed her body behind the stove until he could figure out what to do with her corpse. Several hours later, she woke up and dragged herself out.

Thomas, a member of the carpenter's union, was working with a crew digging the underpass at 46th Avenue and York Street in 1936 when the union went on strike and scabs took over. Thomas drank too much and stormed to the work site, where he started yelling at the scabs. They brawled. Detectives who had been hired to police the railyards told him to go home. He started to, but instead of going down York, he headed down the railroad tracks. The detectives shouted for him to stop. He didn't, and the detectives shot him dead.

In 1945, Frank bought a house across the alley from the Valentine home, at 47th Avenue and Columbine Street, where Shirley lives today; her grandparents stayed on Josephine. The new home, with a large yard and a big garage, was an ideal spot for raising chickens; Frank kept fifty for eggs and meat. He hated to kill them, so he taught Shirley how to slaughter and dress a bird, and that became her job. Her routine was simple: Go to school, go home, do chores, and on weekends join the rest of the family for a hunting or fishing trip to the mountains.

After high school, Shirley married; her husband moved in with the Valentines. She had her first of four children at nineteen.

Frank continued working and drinking hard. In 1952, he tried to unionize the Denver Post, and tempers were high. Frank Copeland, a maintenance man, lost his cool and shot him in the elbow. Copeland was arrested and sent to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo. He wrote Frank and apologized for shooting him -- something he said he never would have done if he'd known that Frank had grandchildren.

Shirley attended a nursing program and began working the night shift; during the day she took care of her kids and her grandfather until he passed away. Her husband wasn't much help: He drank too much -- just like her father and grandfather. Shirley's daughter, JoAnn "Jody" Vail, vividly remembers her father's cruelty. As soon as she could talk, she began asking if she could move in with Shirley's parents to get away from her abusive father. Frank and Minnie liked the idea, and Shirley was okay with it, too: The house on Josephine Street didn't have enough space for Grandma Catherine and the four children to each have a room.

So Jody moved in with her grandparents. Both households shared supper each night; Frank often came home drunk. One night he started screaming at Minnie, then hit her. When things had simmered down, Jody climbed onto her grandfather's knee and told him, "I don't like it when you get this way. You've got to stop drinking beer." He looked her in the eye and replied, "Okay. Because you asked me to, I will stop drinking whiskey and beer."

"He quit that day, cold turkey," Jody remembers. "He never went to AA or anything like that."

Minnie continued to rule the home with an iron fist. Like Shirley before her, Jody was not permitted to leave the house -- and children from Swansea Elementary could not come inside. If Jody wanted to see neighborhood kids, they had to stay on the outside of the fence, and she stayed on the inside. The restrictions kept her from having friends, so she turned her affection toward pets.

Frank still had his chickens, goats and ducks. He crafted a pond out of an old horse trough and filled it with well water, goldfish and daylilies. In the early '50s, Denver passed an ordinance against urban livestock, and the family had to get rid of their beloved agricultural animals. Jody had dogs through most of her childhood, but they lived in the garage; she'd sneak in blankets during the cold winters.

Jody remembers when the construction started on I-70. The family was looking forward to faster drives on their weekend trips to the mountains. But as construction dragged on, it took the Valentines an hour just to navigate their way out of Swansea. The smell of construction added to the stench from the stockyards, the smelters, the train yards, the Purina plant and the Colorado Serum Company, which kept acres of horses, sheep and cattle that the company killed in order to produce vaccines for farm animals. And the odor only got worse after the roadwork was done and semis and cars began puffing smog into the sky.

The people who could afford to leave did. They sold their homes to newly arrived immigrants, most of them Spanish-speaking. The gap between English and Spanish speakers divided the community; it seemed like nobody was willing to learn a new language, Jody says. By the mid-'60s, Swansea was transforming, and over the next decade or so, white people would become the minority.

Once a year, the Valentine family would have a potato bake. They would gather fallen leaves, wrap up potatoes in aluminum foil, set the leaves on fire and cook the potatoes. The last year they did it, the fire department came and put out the fire. Jody remembers looking into the window of their new neighbors, a Latino family, and seeing a woman there smirking: She had called 911.

In 1965, Catherine died in a nursing home. Soon after, Shirley divorced her abusive husband. Nobody mourned his departure. She moved in with her parents and started taking care of them.

After high school, Jody married and had children. She went on to earn a master's degree in business administration and had a long career working for Lockheed Martin. She had the opportunity to buy the house on Josephine that Frank and Catherine Valentine had bought back in 1906, but her husband feared the neighborhood, the gangs, the Spanish speakers and the schools. Instead, Jody's family settled in Northglenn. She regrets not buying the house -- which is still standing, but is no longer in the family -- and wishes she still lived in Swansea. No matter how much it has changed, it is still home.

Continue for more about Shirley Valentine and Swansea, including additional photos.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris