Whether you call him the epitome of the Greatest Generation or the man who would not give up, former Durango Mayor Frederick V. Kroeger, who died Saturday at 97, left a legacy for generations of Southwest Coloradans to come.
The most visible parts of that legacy? Lake Nighthorse, Kroeger Hall and the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College and the business he founded in 1967, Kroegers Ace Hardware, an expansion of his family’s Farmers Supply that dates back to 1921.
“When I was growing up as a kid, everybody knew Fred,” said Steve Short, chairman of the board of First National Bank of Durango and a trustee for FLC. “Loyal community members always shopped at his store. My earliest memories are of how active he was with 4-H, always supporting the livestock auction. I’m quite sure he purchased a few of my animals.”
Kroeger may be best known for his persistence, a trait he displayed in every cause he supported. He served on the boards of First National Bank for 50 years; La Plata Electric Association from 1977 to 1990; the Durango Water Commission for more than 60 years; the Southwest Water Conservation District for 55 years, 33 as chairman; and Colorado Water Conservation for 21 years.
“He had a huge talent for leadership and was always positive and forward-looking,” Short said, “He never gave up. When I think about all the support, rallying and lobbying he did for the (Animas-La Plata Project) ... he wasn’t going to stop until he saw it through.”
Water conservation and storage were key issues for Kroeger most of his life, in part because of his family’s connection to the agricultural sector through Farmers Supply and in part because extended family members lived in southwest La Plata County, where water is scarce. Kroeger made countless trips to Washington, D.C., and Denver to lobby federal and state agencies on behalf of Southwest Colorado.
“What more can I say? He’s one of the great figures in Colorado water history,” said former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs, who told the Herald in 2009 he’d been inspired by his Southern Colorado counterparts while serving as the counsel for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.
Kroeger was born to Frederick W. and Sabrina Venard Kroeger on Feb. 24, 1918, in Durango. He graduated from Durango High School in 1936 and attended the Old Fort Lewis College in Hesperus. While at FLC, he met Eleanor Towne. They both continued their education at Colorado Agricultural & Mechanical University, now Colorado State University, graduating in 1940. The couple married in Durango the summer after graduation.
During World War II, Kroeger was a member of the Army Air Corps, teaching mechanics to work on B-17s. He was stationed primarily in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Kroeger was also a founding member of the FLC Foundation and its Old Fort Lewis Endowment. He served on the foundation’s board for decades, and was a key player in the fundraising effort to build the concert hall, said Sheri Rochford Figgs, the executive director of the foundation at the time.
“He was so committed. We would meet at 6:30 a.m.,” Figgs said, “He recruited me to Kiwanis, and I have never worked as hard as I did on those Pancake Days.”
Many people remember his devotion to his wife, Eleanor, who struggled with Alzheimer’s disease for 12 years, and Kroeger’s care of his son, Stanley, who died at 37 from muscular dystrophy. When his wife needed more care than he and her caregivers could provide at home, he hired two caregivers to take care of her at Four Corners Health Care Center in addition to the staff on duty.
“I would walk into Kiwanis, and he would say so politely, ‘I’m going to have to end this conversation, Sheri, because I must go and kiss my bride,’” Figgs said.
Kroeger earned numerous awards and honors during his life, including receiving the Community Heritage Award from the La Plata County Historical Society in 2008; being named grand marshal of the 74th Fiesta Days Parade; and being named a Hometown Hero by the Kiwanis Club of Durango in 2010. He had been a stalwart member of Kiwanis since 1948.
His greatest honor, his family said, was being elected to the Board of Governors of the National Hardware Retail Association in 1966, serving for 13 years, including one year as president.
“He was from that Greatest Generation, and he did everything with the highest integrity and ethics,” Figgs said. “I admired all of them so much – Fred Kroeger, Robert Beers, Morley (Ballantine) – because if they said they were going to do something, they did it, and they did it with gusto and enthusiasm.”