Sign of the Times

Friday, July 29, 2011 3:42 PM
Darla Sanders, Linley Leonard and Jim Halleck cover the old welcome sign July 21 while preparing it for a new memorial for veterans at Cortez Cemetery. For years, motorists entering Cortez from the east on U.S. Highway 160 may have wondered why Cortez had a welcome sign in its cemetery. After turning the sign into a memorial, the American Legion plans to dedicate the memorial at 11 a.m. Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
The city of Cortez worked to have a smaller welcome sign placed beside U.S. Highway 160 on the east side of town when city officials learned the welcome sign in the cemetery would be used for something else. The city has plans to construct a much larger, three-dimensional welcome feature on the east side of town, possibly near the Cortez Animal Shelter.

Welcome to Cortez.

A friendly community where gardeners push up the daisies, churchgoers meet their maker, irrigation farmers kick the bucket, chefs bite the dust, casino gamblers cash in their chips, archaeologists work six feet under, politicians join the great majority, foresters wear a pine overcoat and cowboys ride the pale horse.

Now that you’ve gone west, enjoy your stay here. Rest in peace. And if you get tired of Cortez, you can always go to a better place.

That’s the message some westbound U.S. Highway 160 travelers might have received for years as they drove into the outskirts of Cortez.

With the La Plata Mountains behind them, Mesa Verde to their left, Ute Mountain ahead in the distance, and the highway rushing beneath their tires, visitors to Cortez saw a sign welcoming them to this Southwest Colorado community.

Rustic, with wood planks set inside a stone frame, the sign read:



Visitors driving into Cortez can still see thick conifers shading a manicured lawn that spreads to the west and north away from the sign, along with hundreds of gravesites and colorful bouquets of natural and artificial flowers.

Many communities have something unique. Cortez has had a welcome sign in its cemetery.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise for the seat of Montezuma County, a 2,040-square-mile spread of sagebrush flats, ponderosa pine stands, dryland farms and sleepy communities with the second-highest known rate of premature death for any of Colorado’s 64 counties.

The story behind the grave introduction to this small, Southwest Colorado community nestled between Mesa Verde National Park and the Four Corners is no macabre tale from the Grim Reaper, however, and it’s about to change.

‘None Sacrificed Honor’

Meet Linley Leonard, a man old enough to have retired from the U.S. Navy and young enough to sell Chevrolets at the local dealership in Cortez.

Walls and shelves in Leonard’s office are filled with family photos, model cars, tributes to Ronald Reagan, military memorabilia, and more military memorabilia.

One image dominates Leonard’s office: a framed reproduction of the painting “Reflections” by Lee Teter. In the painting, a man, presumably a veteran, leans with one hand placed, palm outward, against the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The man’s reflection is shown as a black shadow on the wall. Visible on the wall itself, six soldiers wearing Vietnam-era combat uniforms look back at the man, as if they are the images of half a dozen of the 58,272 soldiers who died or went missing in action in the war and now have their names inscribed on the memorial wall. One of the soldiers is reaching up with his hand placed, palm outward, against the living veteran’s hand, as if to touch the survivor from beyond, from that place where soldiers go after they make the ultimate sacrifice.

The front of Leonard’s business card has a photo of a smiling man with a gray mustache, glasses, cap and plaid shirt. Flip the card over, and it reads, “Serving veterans and their families when America’s best are laid to rest.”

Knowing this, it’s no surprise the former Navy master chief petty officer wants to turn the old welcome-to-Cortez sign in the cemetery into a memorial for veterans. He and a handful of other American Legion Ute Mountain Post 75 members plan to dedicate a memorial sign at 11 a.m. Veterans Day, Nov. 11 — the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, of 2011.

“It will be stuccoed right away, and there will be reflective metal for this (east side) so it will cast a shadow and be seen from quite a way,” Leonard said about work on the sign, which started July 21 when Leonard and two other volunteers covered up the “WELCOME TO CORTEZ” wording.

The American Legion hasn’t finalized wording for the memorial’s east-facing side, which now reads Welcome to Cortez, but the new memorial’s east side could read:


“All Gave Some

“Some Gave All

“None Sacrificed Honor.”

As visitors leave Cortez, driving east on Highway 160 toward Mancos, they can read the welcome-to-Cortez sign’s opposite, west side:



For the memorial’s west side, the American Legion is considering a design that features the seal of each U.S. military branch: Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. The memorial also could have the POW/MIA seal, which includes the words “YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN.”

The memorial’s west side also might list either all military conflicts in which the United States has fought, or all conflicts in which veterans buried at Cortez Cemetery fought.

The new memorial will complement a smaller rock memorial on the west side of the cemetery with a plaque dated 1980 that reads: “IN MEMORY OF ALL VETERANS.” The plaque is from American Legion Post 75 and Disabled American Veterans Chapter 44.

Time of the signs

Visitors driving into Cortez probably wonder why a town would put a welcome sign in its cemetery.

Built in December 1981, the welcome-to-Cortez sign originally did not appear to stand inside the cemetery, Leonard said. Back then, a group of community supporters donated time, money and/or materials to erect a sign on the outskirts of Cortez that would welcome people.

That group included Jo Berger, Animas Aggregates, Asa Welders Supply, Belt Salvage Co., Ed Berger, Boise Cascade Building Materials, Chris Brubaker, Brubaker Equipment, Bru’s House of Color, Johnny Burris, Caun Co., Concrete Construction Specialist, Cortez Cemetery District, Cortez Downtown Association, Cortez Newspapers, Crow Canyon School, Hugh and Goldie Fowler, Jim Graham, Horace Greer, Leander and James Gridley, Halliburton Co., Joe Keck, Donald Lyon, Bill Mealing, Steve Miles, Nielson’s Inc., Jeff Post, Mike Preston, Jim Ramsey, Slavens Inc., Ken Wilson and Wildihal Inc.

“When the welcome sign was put there it was fine because it had lights and it was sitting down there all by itself,” said June Head, a historian with the Montezuma County Historical Society and a former Cortez Cemetery District board member. “But then the cemetery became part of the sign, or the sign became part of the cemetery.”

Cortez Cemetery covers about 33 acres, and about 15.5 acres contain graves now, said Head, who volunteered for years to work on cemetery records.

With about 17 undeveloped acres, the cemetery has room to grow on the north. It also has room to grow on the east, along Highway 160, which means gravesites will completely surround the sign that has welcomed people to Cortez.

In 2008, the Cortez Cemetery District informed the city of Cortez that the district wanted to find some other use for the welcome-to-Cortez sign, said city Manager Jay Harrington.

The city hired local designer Brad Reed, who designed a small, metal, welcome sign that now stands about 100 feet in front of the old welcome sign, between the highway and the cemetery’s chain-link fence. The newer sign, a burnt-orange desert color with white lettering, says:


“elevation 6,200 ft.”

The smaller welcome sign looks more like a Colorado Department of Transportation traffic sign than the large welcome signs that communities like to build, but no daisies are blooming at its base.

Grave sign for visitors

Between 6,000 and 11,000 vehicles drive past the sign in Cortez’s cemetery each day. That’s the average daily traffic along Highway 160 between Mesa Verde National Park and the intersection with Colorado Highway 145.

For local tourism official Lynn Dyer, that’s thousands of people who might have driven into Cortez on any given day and wondered why on Earth this community had a welcome sign in its cemetery.

Those visitors include tourists — guests who spend money on restaurants, hotels, gasoline, groceries, souvenirs, outdoor recreation and other vacation goods.

If visitors arrive in Cortez from the east, the welcome sign in the cemetery might be the first thing they see, and, well, first impressions can mean everything.

As director of Mesa Verde Country, an organization that promotes local tourism, Dyer might have a different goal for visitors’ first, and last, impression of the Cortez area. Picture this description from Mesa Verde Country’s travel planner:

“Welcome to Mesa Verde Country, cradle of ancient civilizations. Our landscape — rolling sage plains rimmed by towering mountains and mesas — has inspired and nurtured people for thousands of years. Like a richly textured Navajo rug, the threads of our histories weave together around these canyons and cliffs to create a living history of Native peoples, Spanish explorers, modern ranchers, archaeologists, and outdoor adventurers. Through the centuries, we have wandered the same paths and trails, we have wondered at the same endless skies.Join us — explore ancient villages and western towns, browse through trading posts and galleries, experience the agricultural bounty of the area, hike and bike and ski through silent forests and stunning canyons.”

Notice there’s no mention of visitors cashing in their chips at a casino or riding the pale horse at a dude ranch in Mesa Verde Country’s idyllic description of Southwest Colorado.

The small welcome sign the city of Cortez erected most recently helps, but the old sign still remains in the cemetery, Dyer said.

“When I saw that (new) one out there I thought: ‘Oh, good. Can we please get rid of the one in the cemetery?’” she said. “Because it’s kind of strange to have a welcome sign in the cemetery.”

Welcome to the future

The city of Cortez plans to erect a large welcome sign on the east side of town, Harrington said.

“We have a design,” the city manager said. “It’s pretty elaborate. …It’s more like a welcome feature than a welcome sign. …It’s got all kinds of features on the concept.”

An architectural drawing of the proposed welcome “sign” shows it’s really a three-dimensional roadside feature, not a two-dimensional sign.

The welcome feature integrates designs from Ancestral Puebloan dwellings; historic, irrigation flumes; 1940s construction material; agricultural stock tanks; oil and gas pump jacks; and farm equipment.

If the city erects the proposed welcome feature, water will flow down a flume and into a miniature stock tank, then circulate back through the flume. Photovoltaic panels will power the flume’s pump and area lighting. Hanging from the top of the large, three-dimensional feature, a two-dimensional sign will read, “WELCOME TO CORTEZ COLORADO.”

“It’s a fairly pricey project,” Harrington said.

With the economy in poor shape, the city has chosen not to construct the sign now, Harrington said. It could be located basically across Highway 160 from the existing welcome sign, near the Cortez Animal Shelter.

Harrington said he’s glad the American Legion plans to turn the old welcome-to-Cortez sign into a veterans memorial.

“I think that was rather a common comment to some of the elected officials that some people might have seen it kind of ironic that the welcome sign was in the cemetery,” he said.

Taking veterans into account

Leonard said he contacted most of the people and businesses that supported the welcome sign built in 1981. Everyone he could reach said they’d support changing the structure from a welcome sign into a memorial for veterans.

“They said, ‘We’ll donate when you do this,’” he said.

Cortez Veterans, an operating branch of the American Legion, has established an account at Dolores State Bank for any person or business that would like to donate to the veterans memorial, Leonard said. To donate, go to Dolores State Bank and ask to make a donation to the Cortez Veterans Monument-Memorial Fund.

People working with Leonard to create the memorial include Jim Halleck and Darla Sanders.

For more information about the veterans memorial, contact Linley Leonard at 560-4350.

Sources: June Head, Montezuma County Historical Society; Linley Leonard, American Legion; Colorado Department of Transportation; 2011 County Health Rankings, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Wikipedia.

Reach Russell Smyth at 564-6030 or

Vets rest at cemetery

Back in the late 1800s, the Cortez Cemetery Association bought five acres of apple orchard from George Todd to start a cemetery for the young community.
“It was businessmen in Cortez, and businesswomen, that thought they had to have one (cemetery),” said June Head, a historian with the Montezuma County Historical Society and a former Cortez Cemetery District board member.
On Dec. 29, 1890, folks buried Rev. Joel Harper, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Cortez. That was the first burial in Cortez Cemetery.
Now, the cemetery holds more than 7,000 graves. About 400 Americans who died during or after their military service are buried in that stretch of Colorado dirt on the east side of town, and their history dates back to the Civil War.
“The first ones that I could find out … were the Civil War veterans,” Head said about historical research she has conducted on the cemetery. “Then there was some from the Indian Wars. Now the Indian Wars could either be before the Civil War or after the Civil War. It was any Indian conflict before 1890. There’s only three out there (from conflicts with Native Americans). I think all three belong to the Colorado Cavalry.”
The bones of three soldiers from the 1898 Spanish-American War — George Richards, Albert Smith and Otis Duncan — lay at Cortez Cemetery.
“Then there’s of course World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq,” Head said. “We have one from Iraq: Mr. George Geer.”
U.S. Army Spc. Geer died Jan. 17, 2005, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his position in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. The Army specialist from Cortez was 27 when he died. He received the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, Good Conduct Medal and Infantryman’s Badge.
A memorial service was held Dec. 6, 2008, at Cortez Cemetery to honor U.S. Army Cpl. John Albert Spruell, who died in battle Dec. 6, 1950, at Chosin Reservoir near Hagaru, North Korea. Spruell’s body was never found, and he was presumed dead at the age of 19. More than 100 people attended the 2008 memorial.
Spruell was awarded the Purple Heart, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, Korean Presidential Unit Citation and Republic of Korea War Service Medal, according to the Korean Honor Roll. His name was inscribed at the National Monument for the Missing in Action, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and on the National Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“On Dec. 6, 1950, (John Spruell) left us, his community and his nation. ... He still and ever will be remembered in our prayers,” Linley Leonard, who served as chaplain at the 2008 ceremony, said during the event. A member of the American Legion, Leonard is working now to convert the old welcome-to-Cortez sign in Cortez Cemetery to a memorial for veterans.
Jimmie Hobday, a Cortez high school graduate who died serving as a U.S. Air Force tail gunner in a B-29 bombing raid over Korea in 1952, also was honored during the 2008 ceremony at Cortez Cemetery. Hobday received a memorial service and headstone at Arlington National Cemetery on July 23, 2009.
Placed near the old welcome-to-Cortez sign that will honor veterans when it’s completed, a memorial to Spruell reads:
“AUG 4 1931 DEC 6 1950.”
Other nearby gravestones honor some of the many veterans already buried at the cemetery: Manuel D. Neves II, SP5, U.S. Army, April 25, 1937, Nov. 14, 2010; Robert E. Murrish, MMI, U.S. Navy, World War II, Jan. 31, 1922, March 8, 2010, USS Helena, USS Polk; Gerald E. McNeel, U.S. Navy, Korea, March 5, 1933, July 19, 2008; and Valois J. Espinoza, U.S. Army, Vietnam, Dec. 31, 1946, July 2, 2004.
The American Legion has an area at the cemetery near the welcome-to-Cortez sign with more than 100 spaces designated for future burials of veterans, Head said.
If history can predict the future, some of those sites eventually will get filled.

Sources: Cortez Journal archives; June Head, Montezuma County Historical Society;;

Reach Russell Smyth at 564-6030 or