Life in the Old West

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Irish entrepreneur brought education to early Colorado

Formal education came to Colorado to the town that would become Denver with a flourish and flair, with the arrival in October 1859 of “Professor” O.J. Goldrick — said to have come into town using a bullwhip to drive the oxen pulling his wagon, while cursing at the beasts in Latin.

When Goldrick arrived in the settlement along Cherry Creek that would be named Denver, according to one source, “he had $500, all of it tied up in fancy clothes, 50 cents in cash, and a very simple formula for success: settlers have children; children must be taught; I can teach; therefore, I will open a school.” (Source: a very wonderful book on Colorado’s early history — “The New Eldorado: The Story of Colorado’s Gold and Silver Rushes,” by Phyllis Flanders Dorset.)

Owen J. Goldrick was educated in languages, math, and philosophy — but no one was sure exactly where he got his education nor to what level he was educated. Rumors were that he was a graduate of two colleges in Ireland as well as Columbia University in the U.S. Goldrick did nothing to discourage those rumors, but I have been unable to find any verification as to his exact training and/or degrees or diplomas.

Surely, his attitude of self-confidence, even arrogance, captivated the rough and ready outlook of most of the miners and settlers in the fledgling Denver-Auraria settlements. He opened the first in the entire Pike Peaks region, starting in a rundown cabin with a seriously leaky roof and 15 or 16 young students. The students’ parents paid $3 a head per month with “no questions asked,” as one source put it. Within a year, Denver’s educational system had grown to the point that the Professor hired women
to assist him — and a second school was opened.

A few years later, during the 1870s-’80s, Goldrick’s teaching days had ended. After turning the schools over to others he turned his attention to his first love: journalism. He first worked as a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News newspaper and later founded and edited the Rocky Mountain Herald newspaper. Goldrick’s journalism was as arrogant and flamboyant as teaching career. His angry criticism of what he felt were crooked, underhanded dealings concerning a postal contract erupted into a feud with the local postmaster, Pat McClure. The Goldrick-McClure feud, before it was over, involved threats of violence and even a jailbreak. In her book (see above), writer Dorset suggests this incident was the last straw that led Denver’s citizenry to rise up and ultimately establish better and stable city government and law enforcement.

Goldrick’s presence and influence in Denver or Colorado history waned throughout the years, although on one notable occasion, he worked as the front man and local manager for P.T. Barnum’s lecture appearance in Georgetown’s opera house in 1874 and came away with a tidy profit. His journalistic career appears to have led to some years of heavy drinking on Goldrick’s part. However, at some point he met and married a middle-aged widow, settled down, and quit drinking. He died in November of 1882 and is buried in Denver’s historic Riverside Cemetery.

Goldrick’s role in Colorado’s educational history has not been forgotten. In 1953, the O.J. Goldrick Elementary School in Denver was named and dedicated in his honor.

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