Colorado Politics reporter John C. Ensslin was found dead in his Denver apartment Monday.
Ensslin joined the staff of Colorado Politics in March, focusing on Denver politics. But his heralded career in Colorado goes back decades. He has been a member of the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame since 2007 and was a past president of that institution.
He was a man of uncommon compassion and good cheer, agree those of us who knew and loved him. He liked East Coast diners, Quentin Tarantino films and everything to do with journalism, training himself in multimedia journalism in the latter years of his career.
He hoped to work a couple of more years with Colorado Politics and then travel with his beloved wife, Denise, and perhaps settle in Pennsylvania, he said over a late-night breakfast at Tom’s Diner two Saturdays ago.
He returned to Colorado because he wasn’t ready to give up journalism, and he would wait on his wife, Denise, to retire from her job training special education teachers in New Jersey.
He reported for the past eight years for The Record in Woodland Park, N.J., where he covered the state legislature, Bergen County politics and government, and Paterson City Hall.
He worked for other newspapers in New York and New Jersey before making a name for himself at the Rocky Mountain News for 25 years.
After the Rocky Mountain News closed in 2009, Ensslin worked for a couple of years at the Colorado Springs Gazette. He returned to New Jersey to help his sister care for their mother until she died.
“I was able to be there and have a few good years with her at the end,” he said over eggs and toast. “I’m glad I did that.”
He said he jumped at the chance to return to Denver and work for Colorado Politics. “I felt like I still had some more left in me, I still have something to give.”
Ensslin, 65, admired big city reporters such as Jimmy Breslin, and he liked to hang out in diners and talk about friendships with vice cops. He talked about his rambunctious youth in New York City while he was getting an English degree from Columbia University, watching the rise of punk rock and seeing a lot of the pioneering bands at CBGB in the East Village.
An extended conversation with Ensslin might unfold like a tattered paperback novel, with laugh lines scattered along the trail.
He would want to be remembered as a great journalist, but he will be remembered by other journalists as that and much more.
John Temple, who worked at the Rocky for 17 years and was its editor when it closed in 2009, remembered Ensslin as a humble presence in the newsroom who was supportive and kind to his coworkers.
But Ensslin was a giant in the journalism community, Temple remembered, the main driver behind the Denver Press Club, the annual Damon Runyon Awards that attract top national journalists to the city, and he constantly was inviting top speakers to come there the rest of the year.
Ensslin is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“John wanted a journalism community, and he almost single-handedly created it,” Temple said. “He was so active in creating a journalism culture here, that in many ways that might have been his greatest contribution. He created a sense of pride around journalism, that this was something — that the people were to be appreciated and that they were special.
“And he was very modest, and he didn’t try to attract attention to himself, but he wanted to celebrate other people. And he just quietly went about his work.”
When Temple arrived at the Rocky, Ensslin was a cop reporter, and an excellent one, his editor recalled.
The next year, the Rocky Mountain News hired a reporter to cover night cops. Her name was Lynn Bartels, and she went on to be another Denver Press Club Hall of Fame inductee who now writes a column for Colorado Politics.
“He worked the day shift, and I came on at 1 p.m.,” she remembered. “It was the so-called Summer of Violence and, man, were we busy.
“I was thrilled when John returned to Colorado to work at Colorado Politics.”
She recalled Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s campaign asking her what John was like as he began covering the re-election campaign.
“Here’s the bad news ... John’s old school,” she told them. “He’s going to ask tough questions. And if he thinks the answer is BS, he will say so.
“Here’s the good news: John’s old school. His goal is about providing information to Denver residents. He’s not looking to get more clicks or get the next big job. He’s about journalism.”
Jim Trotter, now associate editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, worked with Ensslin at the Rocky Mountain News from 2000 to 2009.
“John was a rock solid reporter and one of those journalists who formed the backbone of our newsroom at the Rocky Mountain News,” Trotter said. “He was tough, but he was also a kind and gentle person. It’s a tragedy that he has passed.”
Vince Bzdek, editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, spoke of that terrible death.
“When John returned to Denver recently to work for Colorado Politics, the journalism community welcomed him home like a conquering hero,” he said. “That’s because he helped build that very community and sustain it for many years as president of the press club and national president of the Society of Professional journalists. He was one of the princes of our profession.”
Another longtime colleague, Gazette weekend editor Joel Millman, said Ensslin didn’t really need the job when he came back to Colorado, but he did need to remain a journalist. “We all define ourselves as different things: husband, wife, mother, father, our work, our hobbies, our accomplishments. John was always a journalist first. Baseball fan was a close second.”
Gazette Managing Editor John Boogert worked with Ensslin for many years at the Rocky Mountain News.
“John was one of the best reporters I ever worked with, particularly when it came to crime coverage,” Boogert said. “I often had John tell me the story of how he found and talked to suspect James King at his home in Golden before the police showed up after the Father’s Day Massacre in 1991 at United Bank in downtown Denver.”
Mark Harden, managing editor of Colorado Politics, also remembered Ensslin fondly.
“I only got to work with John for a few months, but what a privilege it was,” Harden said. “He was a legend in Colorado and New Jersey journalism, and he relished the challenge of helping us launch our Denver coverage at CoPo.
“And what a sweet, gentlemanly guy he was. But he was also tough when he had to be. I’m heartsick about losing him, and I know the readers he kept informed for decades will dearly miss his reporting.”
Temple saw one ray of light in the passing of such a kind friend to journalists and journalism.
“This is terrible to say, but I’ll say it anyway,” he concluded. “I’m glad he was able to be a journalist to his dying day. He loved his work, and he never would have wanted to stop.”