Gene Cervi (1906–70) was an influential Denver newspaperman, publisher, and politician who published one of the first business weeklies in the western United States. Known for his probing insights, razor wit, and short temper, Cervi’s journalism and political activism shaped Denver’s economic and political landscape in the mid-1900s. Today, Cervi’s legacy lives on in the form of Denver’s hundreds of self-published weeklies.
Born September 20, 1906, in Centralia, Illinois, Eugene Sisto Cervi was the eldest of seven children fathered by a coal miner, Sisto Cervi, a migrant from Modena in northern Italy. Sisto left his job as a coal miner when Gene was nine and moved the family from Illinois to Colorado. Sisto worked in a mine at Larkspur and as a rancher. Gene’s mother, Catherine, also worked.
A story has it that young Gene ran away from home at this time and hid, without food, for three days in the Alexander Film Company’s building in Colorado Springs. He was put in the care of a Colorado Springs woman who gave him work and boarded him through high school, where he edited the student newspaper. Gene enrolled in Colorado College but soon dropped out, a move he came to regret. Forty years later, he reminisced, “I believe I really intended [after getting a law degree] to run for office and get in a few licks for the concept of social justice.”
Cervi Enters Journalism
Life went on, and Gene worked on crews building highways over Colorado’s Fremont and Tennessee passes. Next he labored in an Ohio steel mill and an auto assembly plant in Michigan. At last he surrendered to politics and writing. First, in 1929, as a copy boy at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, then as a reporter, writing obituaries and covering police matters. His skill at the position was apparent, and soon he was handling important stories. Among Cervi’s biggest accomplishments was when he scooped The Denver Post on the story of the death of the Post’s own publisher, Frederick G. Bonfils, in 1933. Bonfils was the most powerful publisher in the state; his death was worth an “extra” by both papers, but Cervi’s reporting enabled the News to hit the street twenty minutes before the Post.
In 1935, after six years with the News, Cervi moved to the larger Post, where he covered a variety of assignments. Denver newspapering was a wild and exciting place, a popular occupation for a young person. Cervi helped organize the Post unit of the Newspaper Guild, an editorial union much opposed by management. This was a tough fight, and Cervi formed firm friendships, especially with reporter Ralph Radetsky.
Cervi the Politician
Cervi suffered from asthma and did not face the military draft during World War II. However, following a pattern set by other Denver journalists, he went to work for the US Office of War Information. When the war ended, Cervi saw opportunities in Denver outside of daily journalism. He and Radetsky, who had also departed the Post, formed a small public relations firm in 1945. Still burning with publishing zeal, Cervi also started Cervi’s News Service, a newsletter capitalizing on his reporting experience. Democratic politics also captivated Cervi. In the 1930s, he had supported the causes of the Democratic US senator from Colorado, Edward P. Costigan, at the precinct level. In 1944 Cervi became chairman of the state’s Democratic Party.
Cervi drew on his newspaper background to give economic and political substance to his speeches. Yet he was already demonstrating a pugnacious temperament that bred enmities. Cervi and Radetsky found a promising bandwagon in 1947 when Quigg Newton, a returning war veteran, announced his candidacy for Denver mayor, challenging the entrenched regime of Ben Stapleton. Newton, a bright and articulate Yale man, appealed to younger voters. He attracted Cervi and Radetsky to his campaign with the prospect of joining his administration. Newton won, but the partners fell out; Radetsky joined city hall and Cervi appears to have felt slighted. Newton recalled, “They supported my 1947 campaign with a general understanding that Radetsky would join my administration and that Cervi would be part of our team as an adviser. It worked out for two or three months but Cervi became overbearing and made it very difficult for us to use him. We had to cut him off. From that moment on he treated me as an enemy.”
His bridge to city hall burned, Cervi did not give up on politics. He had been reelected state Democratic chairman in 1946, but in 1948 he resigned, announcing his candidacy for the US Senate, meaning a Democratic primary campaign against “Big Ed” Johnson. There was some logic in Cervi’s decision: Johnson had opposed many of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal measures and attacked FDR’s scheme to pack the Supreme Court. Also fresh in many minds was Johnson’s emotional campaign to “bring the boys home” when World War II ended, thus hampering US plans for an orderly occupation of the conquered lands.
Liberals applauded Cervi’s candidacy, but Colorado was not a liberal state. Cervi counted on young voters and he had the support of Palmer Hoyt, the new publisher of the Post, but he may have misread the Post’s intentions. As Alexis McKinney, then assistant editor at the Post, recalled, “we weren’t so much for Cervi as we were against Ed Johnson’s politics. We were sending Big Ed a message about his isolationism.” If Johnson was frightened, he did not show it. He campaigned hard and predicted he would carry all of Colorado’s sixty-three counties. He did just that, polling 45,565 votes to Cervi’s 16,955.
Return to Publishing
Cervi did not like losing, and Johnson’s snide comments in the press after the election stung his pride. Cervi was slow to realize there were not enough liberal Democrats to unseat a popular and entrenched conservative Democrat. Cervi quit active politics, and his years with the newsletter in 1949 became a springboard for a new project: a full-fledged business weekly called Cervi’s Rocky Mountain Journal. By 1955 the journal had a circulation of 4,458, but it was passed from hand to hand and often read by thousands more than its paid subscribers. On Cervi’s caustic editorial page, readers knew he would savage the money-grasping bankers and the executives and corporations he believed to be vulnerable. One early editorial, under the headline “Comes the Revolution,” seemed to give the money-grubbers a warning. “What is this stupid thing called success if its hallmark is making more money?” Cervi wrote. “The cold and brutal dollar can’t think, feel, smell, taste, hear, or see!”
In addition to his jabs at big money, Cervi also took aim at journalists themselves, lambasting members of the Colorado Press Association for accepting parties, meals, and other freebees from utility companies. He once admonished the association’s editors that “the least [you] can do is to refuse cheap handouts from people seeking a friendly press for self-interest.” With Cervi as the watchdog, many journalists quit the practice.
Long before his death in 1970, Cervi was in poor health. His daughter, Clé, pitched in during frequent visits from New York as she pursued both acting and journalism careers after college. With the prospect of marriage and a family, she was not keen on taking over the newspaper, but in January 1966, her father placed the keys to the Journal in her hand and announced, “your mother and I are leaving in the morning for a tour of Asia. Good luck!” Clé took the job reluctantly; she knew the hellish task of running the Journal required pulling together, with limited resources, the work of twenty-nine employees to create a significant, articulate publication fifty-two weeks a year. Eventually, two Denver attorneys, Dan Lynch and Bruce MacIntosh, bought the Journal for $125,000. In 1998 the paper celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, and it is still being published today by New York–based Advance Publications.
Cervi’s firebrand style of writing and management earned him as much enmity as it did respect, but it was driven by his core belief that “[t]he essence of a good newspaper is human spirit, not materialism.” Comments like this earned scholarships in his memory and a place among Colorado’s editing luminaries.
Adapted from Lee Olson, “The Annoying Gene Cervi: The Terror of Colorado Journalism,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 20, no. 3 (2000).