He was eager for this Y in the road.
John Gamble didn't hesitate long before picking a direction.
The 61-year-old Durangoan is retiring. Great for him, but that means a change at the top in the system that houses and feeds many of the less fortunate among us.
After 24 years as the only division director that Southwest Colorado Volunteers of America has ever had, Gamble is calling it a career at the end of the month.
A retirement party in Gamble's honor will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Durango Arts Center.
"He has put a lot into it and created a wonderful program," says Pat Rustad, one of the first hires Gamble made in 1985. "I look at it as a great thing for John. I'm guessing that's much longer than he dreamed he'd be there."
Lon Erwin, formerly with Community Connections and now director of the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado, began his nonprofit career at the same time and has fought alongside Gamble for many causes.
"He's done a lot of good stuff, and he deserves to be recognized for that," Erwin says.
But more than fighters, Gamble and Erwin worked as educators, creating public awareness and support. That, Erwin says, is what made Gamble a successful director and the community a better place.
Gamble and his native Dutch wife, Suzanne Gamble, moved from Texas to Durango in 1983. John Gamble spent his first 1½ years as a construction worker, helping build the city's sewage-treatment plant.
"I had a master's degree in social work in my back pocket, but you know how you start sometimes," Gamble says during an interview at the Herald. "I've never been too proud to take any job."
Gamble entered Durango at a formative time, when needs had arisen but not yet the will to meet them.
Meanwhile, a decision elsewhere would alter his life. Volunteers of America's state office in Denver decided in 1984 there was a need in Southwest Colorado. The VOA advertised for a director for a domestic-violence shelter.
"I got it because the right woman didn't apply," Gamble jokes.
His first day was Jan. 15, 1985. By July, the shelter was ready for business.
"The first day we opened the doors, a woman and her two daughters moved in," Gamble says. "And I'm sad to report we've been busy ever since."
In 1989, the Durango community focused on its homeless problem. St. Mark's Episcopal Church opened its Parish Hall overnight to the homeless, but as Gamble says, it was a "noble but flawed effort." The residents on Third Avenue weren't universally happy.
But that got the ball rolling. The director of Housing Solutions - called Southwest Community Resources at the time - offered to construct a homeless building if the VOA would run it. The community shelter opened in February 1991. Eight years later, VOA unveiled its thrift store.
Gamble is simultaneously a dreamer and realist.
"I'd like to have us find more peace in our world. I'd like us to find ways to better care for our fellow citizens," he says.
But the human condition guarantees the problems will never go away. And Durango's high cost of living exacerbates those problems.
"We will always have challenged people," he says, noting drugs and alcohol, impaired intellectual capacity and mental illness. "Everybody will not be capable of full independence. We need systems in place."
There may be trepidation about Gamble's leaving. But he's confident in his successor, Sarada Leavenworth, who moved here from Portland, Ore., 2½ years ago to become program manager at the community shelter.
"It is with great relief that I know I'm leaving VOA in Durango in great hands," Gamble says. "She's going to do a great job. ... I'm quite confident."
Leavenworth says working with Gamble has been "a really powerful mentor relationship for me."
One of her biggest challenges, she says, will be reaching out to the broad base of supporters who think of Gamble and the VOA as one.
"They are very big shoes to fill," she says.
The Gambles, who have a son in Durango and daughter in Texas, plan on traveling and doing things for which they haven't had time. Still slim with a graying beard, John Gamble has a long list of retirement activities, including scuba diving; a summer in Sitka, Alaska; and maybe even writing a book. And after a winding-down period, he'll be back volunteering in the community.
A hero of Gamble's, former Durangoan Bill Mashaw, who died June 7 in Washington state at age 87, will serve as a role model for retirement. Mashaw helped create a bevy of programs to help struggling families.
"I want to stay involved in this town," Gamble says.
He refers to Durango, which he served as city councilor from 1999-2003, as "our beautiful little town."
"This place has a remarkable legacy of community involvement. I feel it. I see it. I believe it," he says. "Instead of saying what all we ought to do, I'll say we're doing a lot. ... We're doing pretty darn good."
And he's doing well personally. He has loved his job, has a great wife and good health, and lives in Durango. An exciting future awaits.
"The road is full of Y's. I don't know which one's are coming," he says, "and which ones I'll take."
[email protected] John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.