It was the party of the century Saturday, when more than 200 Durango residents gathered for Harry Jarrell’s almost-100th birthday party.
Jarrell won’t officially mark his centennial until the end of November, but his family held the party in the summer, when the weather’s better for a large outdoor party, and when it’s not Thanksgiving.
Steve Calahan met Jarrell, who was born in 1915 in Delagua, Colorado, more than two decades ago when Jarrell was the oldest active member of Colorado’s oldest law-enforcement agency, the Mounted Rangers (founded in 1861).
Calahan said that for a near centenarian, Jarrell is beguilingly popular.
“He knows a million people out there, and a million people know him,” he said.
Every year, Calahan said, Jarrell manages to sell the most tickets for La Plata County Mounted Patrol’s annual fundraiser.
Jarrell winkingly acknowledged his status as a local mover and shaker during an interview Friday at his Durango home when he was still 99, handsome and sharply dressed in suspenders.
“It’s not tough to sell tickets,” said Jarrell, with a clear twinkle in his eye.
Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management, said “Harry’s an incredible man, first of all, because of his knowledge, and – also, obviously, being 100 years old because of his experience. He’s a joy to be around,” he said.
Knowlton said he first got to know Jarrell as an “avid supporter of Colorado Mounted Patrol and the La Plata County Mounted Rangers. He was always available, always there, when there were people in need, ready to mount up and join his people in the organization and go out and perform whatever service was necessary.”
These days, Jarrell’s social capital in Durango – amassed through years of doggedly volunteering for rescue missions and assiduously preparing food for the hungry – is indisputable. Yet, fame didn’t come to him quickly.
In fact, Jarrell began making age-related headlines in 1995, when Jarrell, who volunteered at Manna Soup Kitchen and served on its board of directors, told The Durango Herald he was looking forward to attending his surprise 80th birthday party.
Then, as an 89-year-old, Jarrell gained more media attention as the oldest active Colorado Mounted Ranger, an organization he joined as a spry 70-year-old and stuck with until it splintered, at which point he threw himself into the La Plata County Mounted Patrol.
“I was their oldest ranger for 30 years,” he said.
The last time he rode a horse was when he was 95, when he was the Grand Marshall of the Fiesta Days Parade in Durango.
Though he misses riding horses, Jarrell said life is otherwise very good. With the exception of bad knees, Jarrell said his health couldn’t be better.
“I stay active; it keeps me going,” he said.
His vision is excellent; almost every day, he cooks himself a first meal of bacon and eggs, does his own dishes and takes showers without help.
He keeps a robust social schedule, dining weekly at CJ’s Diner with a breakfast club and eating meals at the senior center, where he often converses with a woman who is three months older than he is.
“She makes me feel like a youngster,” he said.
Jarrell grew up during the Great Depression and vividly remembers casting his first vote in a presidential election at 21 for Franklin D. Roosevelt. As a young man, he spent 2½ years in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal initiative, living in a camp in Colorado Springs where he earned 40 cents a day trying to prevent soil erosion in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl.
Since then, times have changed, he said. Now, he has an iPad and a smartphone.
“Back then, women were old maids if they weren’t wives by 18. I married my wife when she was 16. If I did that today, I’d be in the pen!” he said.
After 74 years of marriage, Jarrell’s wife, Dorothy, died four years ago at 92.
“It was a long marriage. I have no regrets,” he said.
The Bar D Wranglers played at Jarrell’s 100th birthday, and Jarrell said at this point, he has no firm plans for how he’ll celebrate his actual birthday in November.
“But by taking things one day at a time, I’m trying to beat my grandpa,” he said. “He was 105 when he died and took his first airplane ride at 102.”
Jarrell said he didn’t have anything so significant on his bucket list, and he didn’t want any presents for his birthday – beyond the company of all the people invited.
Knowlton hopes Jarrell gets one gift: “continued good health.”