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The curious case of ‘Big Red’ and the perceived disparity between north and south Gillette
  • 7 min to read

For over a year, he stood watch over the north side of Gillette.

Every car that drove across the Gurley overpass and every ballplayer who stepped up to bat at the ’Riders Baseball Field fell under the watchful eye of the giant rusted metal horse statue positioned at the intersection of Gurley Avenue and Warlow Drive.

Until recently.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Nello Williams says he knows the city will eventually do something to beautify the eastern side of North Gurley Avenue, but is adamant in his efforts to remind them of the eyesore, including weeds and the removal of a 5,000-pound horse statue that used to sit alongside the ditch.

Through a complicated transaction involving the city, the cemetery district and the sculptor, the massive horse statue was relocated to Mount Pisgah Cemetery, where Nello Williams, a long time north side resident, said it can no longer look out at the views of Gillette it enjoyed for over a year.

“That poor horse, that horse, he counted the cars whenever they went by, he watched Legion baseball, he watched the Kwik Shop, made sure everybody was safe,” Williams said. “But we don’t have the horse now.”

With all of its ascribed anthropomorphic characteristics, Williams named the steed “Big Red,” after the legendary thoroughbred Secretariat. In a letter to the editor, he called the brown metal statue “Big Rusty.” Its artist named it “Clippity Clop.”

Maybe its name is less important.

Williams is more concerned with what the missing statue stands for, or, stood for, and what it says about the perceived disparity in Gillette between the north and south sides of the railroad tracks.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Local cowboy artist Jim Ford looks at the intricate detail of "Clippity Clop," a 5,000-pound horse statue, after it was moved into Mount Pisgah Cemetery for this year’s Sculpture Walk back in July.

‘The prettiest horseless slab in Campbell County’

Replacing the massive horse statue is not so simple. Not just because of its gigantic influence on north siders like Williams, but because of the physical void it left.

At 11 feet tall, 10 feet wide and 5,000 pounds, few, if any, statues to have passed through the Mayor’s Art Council Avenues of Art program can take that space, said Jennifer Toscana, the art council’s liaison.

Replacing the giant animal with a smaller statue, given the current concrete pad in place meant to house a much larger statue, could “look a little bit silly,” Toscana said.

Ultimately, whether it is replaced comes down to which submissions and selections the Mayor’s Art Council receives and decides on each year. The program has recently installed a secondary category for smaller statues, where the art council pays half of the regular $1,000 stipend to selected artists. Given the recent economic downturn, Toscana said the council’s budget for permanent purchases and loans has been reduced from what it once was.

“If we ended up with another very large piece submitted by an artist, we would be looking at that to replace the horse, because it’s such a large pad at this point,” Toscana said.

jgoodrick / Courtesy Photo/Nello Williams 

Nello Williams, with the help of some north side neighbors, replaced “Clippity Clop,” a 5,000-pound horse statue, with their own piece of interpretive art. Williams said the upside down mannequin statue was removed within a day or so.

While that new category could save money and increase opportunities for new art in the community, it is exclusive to smaller pieces, ones that are certainly too small to replace the big hoof prints of “Big Red.”

The statues acquired and displayed in Gillette through Avenues of Art are primarily focused on 4J Road and Gillette Avenue, with other small clusters and one-off locations around town. The placement is determined by the Mayor’s Art Council, in conjunction with the city streets division. The streets division advises on the practicality of the statue placement, based on mowing schedules, snow plowing and other civic needs, Toscana said.

The Avenues of Art concept began, as its name implies, as a single avenue filled with art. That road was 4J, but through the years, as more art was collected and loaned, Toscana said the Mayor’s Art Council began spreading the artwork to other parts of town.

In a sense, the reason there is any artwork on the north side, or other corners of Gillette, is a matter of surplus.

Although Williams said the north side is now home to the “prettiest horseless slab in Campbell County,” that’s not all the north side has.

The Children’s Memorial Walkway is north of town and hosts a significant collection of permanent statues.

Most of the artwork is in a few clusters south of the railroad tracks throughout the city, with the lion’s share placed on the east and west sides of 4J Road, between Sixth Street and Sinclair Street.

Gillette Avenue and the downtown area hosts the next largest collection. Another grouping is around the Fishing Lake in Dalbey Memorial Park. Similarly, artwork is sprinkled throughout the Gillette College campus, which of course coincides with the 4J parade of sculptures.

The Mayor’s Art Council had a $23,500 general fund budget for the last fiscal year. It also received $7,000 in private sponsorships , which were used for artist stipends for on-loan pieces, Toscana said.

The pieces of art allocated north of the railroad tracks include seven statues placed in the Children’s Memorial Walkway off of Warlow Drive. Otherwise, there are just a few standalone figures on the north side of town. Of course, with “Big Red” gone, there’s one less.

Through somewhat of an exchange deal with Mount Pisgah Cemetery, the 5,000-pound horse statue trotted south of the tracks behind the cemetery gates. Originally selected by the Mayor’s Art Council in 2019, the horse debuted in June of that year and was on loan from its artist, Dixie Jewett, for one year. Through conversations with the artist and an inability to sell the statue within town, Toscana said the council came to an agreement to hold on to the statue after the one-year lease ended, but did not officially have it on loan from the artist.

Since then, the Campbell County Cemetery District came to an agreement with the artist to lease the statue, which is how it made its way behind the cemetery gates.

“It’s complicated, it’s unfortunate it happened that way,” Toscana said. But the cost and the size of the statue prevented the city from hanging on to it. The statue’s price is listed at $65,000.

The cemetery district began its sculpture program in 2018. Since then, more statues have planted in the cemetery, mixing in an artistic aura between the headstones and cemetery foliage.

But like most facilities in Gillette, the cemetery is also south of the railroad tracks. Williams was careful not to blame the city or anyone in particular. Intentional or not, the disparity he sees in the north and south sides emerged over time. The missing horse is just his latest example.

“They know how I feel and a lot of the other residents out there feel the same way. I’m not just speaking for Nello, I’m speaking for a lot of the people around our part of town,” Williams said. “They wonder why isn’t our side beautified more than what it is … it’s just that’s how it’s got.”

This map shows the locations of the Mayor’s Art Council’s Avenues of Art locations throughout Gillette. Red dots show permanent loans, blue dots show new loans and green dots show privately owned statues. Most pieces are located along 4J Road and Gillette Avenue.

Beautifying both sides

As a south-sider, Kathy Kintz took issue with other beautification and artwork-related matters. She lives south of town, near Highway 50 and Force Road. Highway 50 is one of several highways that leads in and out of Gillette. Her point is that Gillette’s entryways could use some more beautification, including artwork displayed to greet visitors and passersby.

“I think my whole beef, I guess you would call it, would be the lack of beautification along the entryways into Gillette,” Kintz said.

Like Williams, Kintz also sees an issue in the broader beautification of the city, specifically with unseemly weeds and growth in eyeshot of major roadways. The removal of “Big Red” for Williams was just the tipping point. He has a list of complaints about the north side’s upkeep, from unmaintained sandboxes in neighborhood parks to rampant weeds along the Gurley overpass.

After airing his complaints before the City Council more than a month ago, he said he was pleased with the city’s interest and response to his complaints.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Nello Williams shows the weeds present along the ditch located at North Gurley Avenue Thursday afternoon.

“Is the city going to do anything? They will,” Williams said. “I have a lot of faith in them. They will.”

City Administrator Hyun Kim, newly on the job, went with Williams and City Councilman Billy Montgomery to the ditch near the Gurley overpass to see what his complaints were about. Sure enough, Kim sent a crew out there to clean up the weeds and address his concerns.

“How much the public has spent on that (north) side as well, it’s in the millions over the past decade,” Kim said. “I’m not concerned that there is a disparity. As far as all of the work on the south side, it’s the timing of it … the city has spent some significant dollars on beautifying the north side of town too.”

“Can we do better? Absolutely,” he added.

Williams could talk your ear off about the Canada thistles and wild licorice weeds sprouting near the overpass. As good as he’s become at identifying what sprouts there, he remains tired of having to look at it.

Mowing duties are split between the city parks department, which mows irrigated grass and the streets division, which mows non-irrigated grass. The streets division uses a book of locations for its mowing patterns, starting each spring. The department goes through the list in order then starts back at the top.

Depending on weather and other mitigating factors, some years, more mowing is done than in others. But in any case, Streets Manager Troy Tyrrell said there is no preferential treatment between parts of the city.

“Not one side or the other gets favoritism,” Tyrrell said.

Because of the dry, hot weather of this past summer, Red Flag fire warnings cut down on the number of days the city could send crews out to mow. They only made it through the list two and a half times, meaning some of the streets division’s parts of the city got mowed either two or three times this summer.

So while the perceived disparity between the north and south sides of the tracks may not be the city’s doing, Williams stands by his eye test results showing a difference between the city’s upper and lower parallels.

Kintz agreed.

“They have said that for years,” she said of the difference between north and south Gillette.

“My brother lives on the north side of town and he always says, ‘I’m from the wrong side of the tracks.’ People refer to themselves as that because it does seem like the south side is favored just a little bit more. Even in upkeep.”

Having too much artwork displayed in a community could be deemed a good issue to have. Like just about any city, Gillette has its pretty parts and its less pretty parts. Hearing Williams talk about it, nobody is to blame. But for it to change, he said the city and community need to acknowledge the difference and fix it.

“I just hope they do it right. Gillette’s not known to do things half. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right,” Williams said. “Then as we drive down the overpass, to the right, to the left, it will look pretty. It will look nice. But as of now, that doesn’t exist.”

“It is what it is. Nobody did it on purpose, it’s just how it ended up.”

Offensive linemen run through drills during the Mustangs’ football camp at Energy Capital Sports Complex last season.

Campbell County High School band students Hanna Hendershot, from left, Adrianna Ruiz and Mason Miranda speak about how they can improve their upcoming state marching band performance Thursday afternoon at CCHS.

Student Leona Matheson learns how to trim Crombie’s nails as Thunder Basin High School agriculture teacher Kristi Holum leads a presentation on dog grooming during class Tuesday morning.

top story
Hospital board fires Heeter, seeks new permanent CEO
Trustees said that they wanted to go a different direction without Colleen Heeter

Campbell County Health is searching for a new CEO after its board fired Colleen Heeter on Thursday night

Hospital trustees voted unanimously to remove Heeter from her role as CEO.

Jerry Klein, who had been the chief operating officer, was named interim CEO while trustees search for a permanent CEO to lead the organization.

The decision ends her service with CCH and UCHealth. Heeter became a UCHealth employee when the affiliation between the two health care systems became official last month. Although she transitioned into UCHealth employment, Heeter continued to be in charge of CCH while answering to its hospital board.

Heeter became a contracted UCHealth employee when the organizations affiliated in September. Although she was a UCHealth employee, she continued to be paid by CCH and answer to its board of trustees. Any severance package will be worked out with UCHealth and paid for by CCH, said Adrian Gerrits, hospital board chairman.

Gerrits said there was no one incident or reason for the firing, rather an accumulation of things over time combined with the desire to lead the organization in a different direction.

“There’s nothing that led to this other than we just feel like we need a change of leadership and we need to head in a new direction, given the things that have happened in the community and are happening in the community,” Gerrits said.

As interim CEO, Gerrits said Klein will remain a CCH employee and not become a UCHealth employee.

“He’s been very clear that he just wants the interim role,” Gerrits said.

The search for a permanent CEO, with the guidance of new affiliate UCHealth, will begin immediately. Finding the next permanent CEO could take six to nine months, Gerrits said, or even longer.

“Our goal is to make the best decision for what we think the community needs or wants,” Gerrits said.

He said UCHealth was supportive of the board’s decision and will be helpful in the recruiting process for a new CEO. The hunt for a CEO could cost six figures, Gerrits said. But the hope is that UCHealth’s existing networks will help find better candidates to recruit and cut the cost of finding a new CEO.

“I think UCHealth is supportive of ... what the local board decides. As they told us, if we’re not happy they’re not happy. I don’t know if they felt they had enough time to give input one way or the other,” Gerrits said. “It was one of those things that we had to make a decision regardless of we had just affiliated and she had become their employee.”

Trustee reactions

Heeter dealt with her share of challenges in her time as chief operating officer and CEO. Before becoming CEO, she led the organization in response to the cyberattack that crippled the hospital in 2019 because then CEO Andy Fitzgerald was out of town. She became CEO in July 2020, during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic and helped affiliate the organization with UCHealth in recent months.

“It was a very difficult conversation and decision,” Gerrits said during the meeting. “I want to thank all the board members for carefully considering this and supporting each other in making this incredibly difficult decision. It’s something that we all lose a little bit of sleep over … I think she’s going to continue to do great things in her professional life.”

During her tenure, CCH received criticism from some members of the public for matters regarding its handling of the closure of Close to Home Hospice Hospitality House and questions about the number of physicians leaving the organization and community.

Heeter was paid a $450,000 salary and received a $62,635 bonus in August based on benchmarks in her contract with CCH.

Gerrits said the community perception regarding her salary and bonus was not a factor in her firing and is expected for almost any hospital CEO they hire. But as elected officials, the hospital board does weigh public input in its decision making, he said.

“I think community perception certainly (is a factor). Our job as board members is to take in opinions from everybody and kind of sift through those and make a decision,” Gerrits said. “There’s no doubt that perception in the community on the job that the hospital is doing and the direction it’s going play a role in our decision making.”

During the meeting Thursday, trustees expressed thankfulness for Heeter’s time there. Newly elected trustees Kristina Leslie and Tom Murphy said Heeter was helpful and welcoming as they learned the ins and outs of the health care system.

“I like Colleen and spending time with her, but at the end of the day, I think that we need to change a little bit. ... I think that we need to make the best decision for our community,” said trustee Lisa Harry. “I wish her the best of luck.”

Passing the torch

Klein, the newly appointed interim CEO, has extensive experience in health care leadership. Prior to joining CCH, his most recent stint leading an organization ended tumultuously.

Heeter brought on Klein as chief operating officer last August, several years removed from his time as CEO of Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County in Rock Springs.

In early 2017, his time in Rock Springs ended with a series of resignations and removals that included accusations of financial management and an alleged downward trend in the hospital’s finances.

According to court documents, Klein claimed wrongful termination and was countersued by the hospital, which accused Klein of mismanaging the hospital’s finances, resulting in a severe loss of days cash on hand and other investment revenues, among other allegations.

Klein denied the allegations and the case was ultimately settled out of court.

Prior to his time in Rock Springs, Klein served as the CEO of Bucyrus Community Hospital in Ohio for about 10 years. He was fired from that position shortly before the hospital filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was eventually sold, becoming a part of another health care system, according to Becker’s Hospital Review, a health care industry publication.

“A change in leadership is never easy,” Klein said in an email. “I appreciate Colleen, and all of her dedication to CCH as our CEO. Right now, I want the community and the staff to know that we are going to continue to focus on providing the highest level of care for our patients. We are going to continue supporting our staff so they know that we need each and every one of them. It is a tough day, but we must go forward.”

CCH Chief Financial Officer Mary Lou Tate shared her support for Klein and surprise at the decision.

“I think the news came as a shock to our organization,” Tate said in an email. “Colleen had a tough job and was put in a position to make difficult decisions. I thank her for her time, hard work, and leadership. Naturally, Jerry is the right person to fill in as our interim. We are still in the midst of a pandemic and we need to focus on the patients, and our staff, and going forward as an organization.”

Gerrits said he is confident in Klein leading the organization going forward.

“He’s a very calm, collected, even-keeled man that can, I think, keep us running in the right direction until we find a new leader,” Gerrits said.

Trustee Alan Stuber said that ultimately, it comes down to the organization wanting to change direction. Which direction it is now headed, he said, may be discussed more at the organization’s upcoming October retreat.

“It’s seven elected board members,” Stuber said. “Everyone has their idea on where they want to see the organization. At the end of the day, we wanted to take the organization in another direction.”

Heeter did not return phone calls seeking comment.