Former state Republican Party leader John Dendahl was remembered at a memorial service Friday for his incisive intelligence and biting wit, his competitive spirit and – above all – his prowess on skis.
“Feisty, competitive, honest and fair” was how childhood friend and former ski team colleague John Kinsolving summed up Dendahl, who died Nov. 9 at age 75.
Dendahl led the University of Colorado ski team to a national championship in 1959 and competed in the 1960 Olympics, all while juggling a young marriage and a new baby, reminisced his daughter Debra Hadley, who was born the year her father achieved national prominence on the slopes.
One-time political rival and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson recalled Dendahl as “the real competition” during the 1994 Republican primary, which Johnson won.
“Everything he said made perfect sense, so the only way to compete was to agree,” said Johnson, adding that he characterized himself, among Republican insiders at the time, as “the electable John Dendahl.”
Dendahl went on to serve as Republican Party chairman for nearly 10 years, and is credited with strengthening the party and its representation in the state Legislature.
“Imagine Don Quixote as a practical, articulate and intelligent person with real windmills to fight,” said Albuquerque attorney Pat Rogers. “He had the power of ideas in action.”
Rogers called Dendahl “fearless and profoundly courageous” in his commitment to his political principles, and lauded him, as party chairman, for fighting for every “Republican underdog.”
“He flew best and easiest in a hurricane,” said Rogers of Dendahl’s relish for political battles.
Others recalled Dendahl’s love of physical risk. He became proficient in ski jumping in a single season, despite never having jumped before in his life; he once showed up late for a dinner party covered with bruises and cuts from a mishap while kayaking on the Rio Grande.
“I think he liked to take risks because those knocks prepared him for what happened to him politically,” said longtime family friend Don Campbell.
In addition to losing the primary to Johnson, Dendahl ran unsuccessfully for governor himself in 2006, against Democrat Bill Richardson. He also came under fire from his party’s mainstream when he backed Johnson’s call for decriminalizing drug laws.
“Policy and politics clearly were a passion” for Dendahl, said his first campaign manager and friend George Yates, who also characterized Dendahl as “a happy warrior.” The kind of worrisome controversies that keep others up at night just made Dendahl look forward to the next day’s battle, Yates said.
Born into a Santa Fe merchant family, Dendahl went on to head Eberline Instrument Corp. and served as president of the First National Bank of Santa Fe. Friday’s memorial service was held at St. John’s College, where Dendahl served on the board for many years.
His daughter Debra described him as “a man’s man” who also did housework and his own laundry, was a great cook and raised five daughters – “one of God’s great ironies.”
Dendahl and his wife, Jackie Tumbarella, moved to Colorado in 2007. In September, only a month before his diagnosis and death from leukemia, he celebrated his 75th birthday there with a family picnic.
None in attendance knew he was ill, his daughter Lisa West said, and among his presents was a new pair of skis.