In small towns, the collective memory is a living, breathing thing, almost separate from the people it grows from. A single bit of off-center behavior can embed itself in the recall of the community and define a person's personality for the rest of his life. For Helen Watrous, nee Petteys, that moment came when she stood up at a Brush basketball game, removed one of her shoes and hurled it at the referee.
The toss itself wasn't so harmful--she missed badly--but the incident struck people as a bit out of character. Helen Petteys was, after all, the dignified daughter of Alonzo Petteys, longtime president of the Farmers State Bank of Brush. When her brother, Jack, was killed in a flight-training exercise in 1943, the family set up the Jack Petteys Family Foundation. Now at nearly $4 million, the foundation is used to fund projects and scholarships exclusively within the community of Brush.
The trust--and the business of the bank--are still watched over closely by the Petteys family. Helen's husband, Warren "Doc" Watrous, who assumed the bank presidency after his father-in-law's death, is retired. But he still keeps a memorabilia-strewn office on the second floor of the Farmers Bank, where he can be found most mornings. Helen's office is next door. Next to that is the office of their daughter, Judy Gunnon. Judy's husband, Robert, the bank's current president, conducts business next to that.
This morning, Helen and Doc Watrous are sitting in Doc's emeritus office, a dark-paneled, plaid-carpeted room that is plastered with plaques of recognition and golf memorabilia in about equal numbers. Doc, who suffered a stroke recently, speaks slowly. But he still keeps his memories.
In fact, he is the one who has mentioned the shoe-tossing incident. "I don't even know why you brought that up," Helen says, irked. "That has nothing to do with what we're talking about." Doc just smiles slyly. He lifts his heavy black eyebrows slightly, crosses his hands over his lap and waits for his wife to explain.
What it was, Helen Watrous says, sighing, is that she had been making a more or less personal project of a Brush teenager who'd had difficulties--staying in school and the like. During the autumn, thanks to her efforts and others she'd recruited for the project, he'd made remarkable progress. Part of that was on the basketball team, where the teenager had demonstrated a gift.
It was the final game of the season, she continues, and a number of college scouts had shown up to observe the local talent--a huge opportunity for her project, in other words. To her mounting frustration, the referee kept calling him for traveling. "I saw my entire fall's worth of work going down the drain," she recalls.
At a loss and feeling hopeless, Helen Watrous, proper and impeccably dressed, did the only thing she could think of at the time. She stood up, pulled off her pump and chucked it at the offending official. "It's amazing," she concludes, shaking her head, "how you can work your whole life for certain things, and people will remember one silly incident."
She shrugs, reconciled to her feisty reputation, which, she is pleased to reveal, has been a fairly consistent trait of Brush all along. Yet she also acknowledges that the locals' cast-iron memories can get in the way of a good civic project. "It's silly," Helen Watrous says, shaking her head. "I don't understand it. It's no more people in Fort Morgan's fault than it is those in Brush. They're just not nice to each other. They don't cooperate like they should."
Doc perks up and nods in agreement. Just take the two country clubs, he says. As he remembers it, it was around 1955 when members of the Brush club approached Fort Morgan's club with the proposal that the two merge. A large farm between the towns had just come up for sale, and it seemed reasonable that the area needed only one exclusive golfing establishment.
For reasons that remain unclear to Doc, the idea quickly fell apart. "People just didn't seem to want to work together," he says.
It's hardly the only example of the two towns' egregious noncooperation that is still floating about in people's recollections. In fact, the civic friction seems to have made its way into nearly every dusty corner of Fort Morgan and Brush.
Take the airport proposal, for example. Stan Gray recalls his tenure as president of the chamber of commerce, about twenty years ago, when Brush's and Fort Morgan's chambers got together with the idea of combining the towns' two small airports--a seemingly sensible idea for two municipalities with a combined population then of less than 15,000. "We got a $10,000 grant to look at the idea of a new airport," he says. "But it died in the county commission. We broke down over where it ought to be located."