PERRY: Pandemic takes a top Aurora ambassador, but it can’t take his legacy

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Gaurdie Banister was a perfect paradox.

He was the kind of person who exuded calculated calm but was simultaneously on to the next thing or, just looking for it.

Gaurdie, a community fixture for decades in Aurora, Denver and, yup, Wyoming, died April 6, just a couple of weeks shy of what would have been his 89th birthday.

His wife, Barbara Shannon Banister, also an Aurora icon, said it’s likely Gaurdie died from complications of the COVID-19 pandemic. He had been a resident at Juniper Village. The assisted living facility has recorded almost 50 tested cases of COVID-19 and eight deaths. One of them was Gaurdie, although it’s unclear if he was tested for the new coronavirus.

Gaurdie Banister

Barbara said services will come later, when the surrealism of pandemic life recedes. She and their children are asking the community to honor Gaurdie with donations to a local food program rather than sending flowers. Donations can be made to Macedonia Church in Denver to fund food programs in Gaurdie’s honor. Click here for information.

Gaurdie was well-known for his community activism benefiting a host of issues.

I met Gaurdie about 30 years ago at the Sentinel office. He was sitting at the top of a long flight of stairs, weighed down with bundles of Aurora Sentinels.

I asked if he needed a hand, unsure what he was doing. I was struck by the most genuine smile I’d ever seen flashed. He looked right at and through me when he said, “that would be helpful.”

We lugged papers out to his car and he explained that he was working with some local folks “down on their luck” to deliver papers for some extra cash. Seems that he ended up delivering most of them himself and turning any cash he made over to someone who desperately needed it.

I don’t know if anyone other than Barbara knew he did it. Gaurdie was the kind of man who spent more time getting things done than talking about it.

It wasn’t like he had all kinds of time on his hands. He was the president of the local NAACP. He was the first president of that chapter. He and Barbara had been instrumental in creating it. The group, and their activism, has been an important fixture in Aurora ever since.

Activism has always been a huge part of Gaurdie’s life. Born and raised in New Orleans in 1931, Gaurdie was first-hand witness to a South still begrudging the Civil War rather than moving on from it.

He brought his passion for equity, equality and supporting people out West in the 1960s. He and Barbara moved to Casper, Wyoming to start a family and a career in employment protection.

“I cried for days,” Barbara remembered. “Everybody asked us what we thought we were doing, heading to a place where they’re still hitching up horses.”

The culture shock from leaving a vibrant life in NOLA for the remote West was devastating, she said. But only for a while.

Gaurdie made a career working for state and federal employment protection offices, sticking up for people getting pushed around.

While there, he became involved in one the most notorious racist incidents in regional history, The Black 14.

In 1969, the University of Wyoming Cowboys football team was on fire, a three-time defending conference championship team. The 14 black football players were a large part of the Cowboy’s success. The previous year, players on the Brigham Young University team had taunted the black players with racial insults. The day before a rematch game, the black players donned black armbands and met with Coach Lloyd Eaton, asking for permission to wear the bands during the game in protest of BYU team-members’ racism. Eaton kicked them off the team. The incident became a national cause for discrimination suffered by blacks and especially black athletes. It spurred a federal free-speech case that took years to settle. Just last year, University of Wyoming staff formally apologized and honored the surviving members of the Black 14.

Gaurdie’s involvement in the incident became a personal danger as racial tensions soared during the controversy.

“They told us not to get on the highway, and to get out of town,” Barbara recalled.

They didn’t. Gaurdie stood his ground with the same quiet confidence he wielded in almost every situation.

When he moved to Aurora for a job, he was instrumental in creating the Key Community Response Team. The city agency was developed to tamp down racial tensions after incidents at local skating rinks and other venues in the early 1980s.

The agency still continues its work, finding ways to build on a cultural and racial acceptance in Aurora that has become one of the city’s most touted assets.

He played community ambassador during a papal visit to Aurora for World Youth Day. He led abortion protesters away from at-home protests, guiding them toward focusing on issues and not people.

But so like Gaurdie, however, high-profile work on KCRT and the NAACP was peppered with other, critical work.

He manned city phones, along with former state Rep. Debbie Stafford, all night on New Years Eve 2000 to help the worried in Aurora find their way safely past Y2K.

“I think they got two phone calls,” Barbara recalled with a laugh. “One was from somebody who wanted to know if she should unplug her refrigerator.”

And, Gaurdie delivered a few newspapers in between everything else.

Now he’s gone. I can’t imagine anything less than a virulent pandemic could bring an end to that much calm confidence.

Follow @EditorDavePerry on Twitter and Facebook or reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected]

NOTE: Arrangement for Gaurdie Banister are being handled by Pitkin Braswell. Information on donations is available by clicking here.