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Judge Neil V. Reynolds presides over America’s highest court

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Local character – September 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Neil V. Reynolds calls himself “a person of the nineteenth century.” But I think of him as a “Renaissance man,” a vanishing breed celebrated for preserving — and applying — vast stores of knowledge on a variety of subjects.

Reynolds is a complex combination of scholar, philosopher, musician, thespian, teacher, barrister, and community activist. He makes his living as a full-time faculty member at Colorado Mountain College, municipal court judge for Leadville and Buena Vista, and private-practice lawyer. But he lives his life according to the maxim, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

“I don’t think I made that up. I wish I had, but it probably came from someone else,” laughs Reynolds, reclining in a leather chair in his law office.

No matter. Reynolds, a fifth-generation Leadville native whose family began arriving in the upper Arkansas Valley in 1862, has plenty of original material. One example is his tongue-in-cheek proposal for a local tourism campaign virtually guaranteed to give Chamber of Commerce boosters a few sleepless nights.

“Leadville is authentic. It’s gritty. Leadville’s not like all those cookie-cutter towns,” Reynolds declares. “This is a place to come for unorganized recreation. Let the majority of people who like to have every minute of their vacations planned go somewhere else. This is the place to come if you don’t want to be bothered.

“That’s the advertising tack we ought to take. `Leadville: This place won’t bother you.'”

On a more serious note, Reynolds sees Leadville as a melting pot where diverse ethnic groups, from Slovenian and Irish to Hispanic and Italian, have joined to create a unique community. And he views his role in this medley as “trying to keep the old ways, the colorful ways, from dying.”

His passion for the “colorful ways” is especially evident during the St. Patrick’s Day Practice Parade and the Graveyard Tour of Evergreen Cemetery.

“It just happens to be at night, it just happens to be around Halloween, it just happens to be in a cemetery, but it’s not scary,” Reynolds says of the Graveyard Tour, during which he recounts tales of early Leadville residents whose remains now lie beneath markers of granite, metal and even petrified wood.

Among those interred in Evergreen is “Pony” Nelson, a prostitute who worked the local brothels, then nicknamed “riding academies.”

Despite her less-than-stellar career path, Pony was a kind woman whose headstone bears the legend, “Friend of the Friendless.”

Then there is the now-markerless grave of one John W. Booth, who claimed to be the cousin of the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. Reynolds ranks among those who suspect that John W. Booth and John Wilkes Booth may have been one and the same.

Standing among the headstones in his black top hat and long black cape, Reynolds epitomizes Victorian elegance and style. It’s a look eminently suited to a man whose standard attire is a three-piece suit accessorized by a meerschaum pipe, silver watch chain and, walking stick, a man who freely admits preferring the Victorian era over the free-for-all that is the late 20th century.

“I believe life may have been better back then. There was order, and people knew what was expected of them. People had a great sense of responsibility to themselves and to others.”

Nevertheless, Reynolds readily returns to the present to lead the annual St. Patrick’s Day Practice Parade.

Exchanging top hat and cape for a snappy green bowler and equally green jacket, Reynolds steps smartly onto Harrison Avenue at the head of this “uniquely Leadvillian” event, held each September since 1979. Reynolds created the Practice Parade (see Colorado Central, September, 1994, for a full treatment) for “no purpose, really,” other than to bring together a bunch of bagpipe bands and Blarney Stone kissers and have some fun.

Yet another hat change, this time a figurative one, and Reynolds is ready to preside over the Colorado History Group’s periodic public “retrials” of such famous-and infamous-Colorado figures as Leadville founder, l9th century silver baron and adulterer, H.A.W. Tabor, and Alferd Packer, the state’s infamous cannibal.

Reynolds, appropriately cast as the judge (he does, after all, preside over the highest court in the United States) in these well-researched, yet often hilarious productions, describes himself as a “technique,” as opposed to a “method,” actor. (“The technique is: You go out on stage, say the lines, get your money and go home.”)

In fact, he gets downright riled at the very idea of method acting, which requires an actor to have direct, personal experience of the emotion or event being portrayed. “How do you play murder scenes then?” Reynolds asks. “What about death scenes? It’s ridiculous.”

When not on stage or on the bench, Reynolds may be found on the grandstand announcing Boom Days events, playing the piano at the Delaware Hotel or the organ at Catholic church services, teaching summer Elderhostels, sitting on the Lake County Historic Preservation Advisory Board or chairing the Mayor’s Task Force on Economic Development. (Of the last, he quips, “If something develops, we’ll take credit for it.”)

The 43-year-old bachelor cites his Jesuit education and study of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle as the basis for his belief in the importance of active, service-oriented citizenship.

But Reynolds takes his contributions, and himself, with a big grain of salt. “Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that the secret to his success was that he learned, early in life, that he wasn’t God. I’d call those words to live by.”

Portraying the widow of Frank Miller, one of Alferd Packer’s victims, Lynda La Rocca will testify before Judge Reynolds on Sept. 17 at the Tabor Opera House.