Volunteer extraordinaire Jim Cox on the joys of Summit County retirement
When Jim Cox talks about his favorite gigs since retiring, he pauses for a moment, grins a bit mischievously and drops a figurative bombshell.
“I get paid for blowing stuff up and you can’t beat that,” he says with a chuckle.
For the past few years, the Florida transplant has blown stuff up in Keystone, Frisco and Dillon, sometimes once or twice a week during the peak of ski season and into the heart of July. The stuff he’s blowing up is meant to be blown up — they’re fireworks, after all, so no cause for alarm — but it’s far from the usual post-retirement gig.
He’s had a hand in the Saturday-night fireworks in Keystone and the massive, almost Hollywood-caliber Fourth of July show in Frisco, put on by Western Enterprises, an Oklahoma outfit known for doing choreographed shows across the nation.
The fireworks job came together almost by accident. Shortly after moving to Summit County full time in the early 2000s, Jim began volunteering with the old Snake River Fire Department, now known as Lake Dillon Fire Protection. The owner of Western Enterprises donates proceeds from the Frisco show to the department — the funds help firefighter families in need — and by chance, Jim was asked to help prep for a show. One thing led to another, and soon enough he was helping place mortars and secure wiring and, eventually, get paid to, well, blow stuff up.
“Planning is already in, check’s in the mail and they’re getting ready to put on a very good show,” Cox says of this year’s Fourth of July production, a tantalizing teaser for one of the largest fireworks shows in the Rockies.
Then Cox gets back to listing the plethora of volunteer work he juggles across Summit County: the guest services department at Keystone, the U.S. Forest Service visitor center in Dillon, Lake Dillon Theatre Company set crew, the fire department (he’s on the board) and his longest-running passion, the Summit Historical Society.
The last one “can be more like the ‘hysterical society’ sometimes,” Cox says. “Sorry, a slip of the tongue.”
Along with Maggie, his wife of 42 years, Jim is a tireless volunteer. The two easily devote several hundred combined hours each month to their various endeavours, ranging from aid stations at the Turkey Day 5K in Frisco to Jim’s position as vice president of the historical society board.
And those are just the unpaid duties.
“The dirty little secret is I’m a deputy coroner for Summit County,” Cox says. It’s not technically a volunteer position, but never mind that. He and Maggie pull 24-hour on-call shifts once or twice a month for the gig, reminding him ever so slightly of his old career in IT.
“I think I should get a real job so I have some free time,” Cox says between sips of coffee on a gloomy April morning. “But it’s very nice to set my own schedule. Look at yesterday — I didn’t have anything on the calendar so it was a good time to do taxes. If it’s a powder day, I can head out skiing. It’s nice to have that.”
FLORIDA TO THE COVE
The Coxes met and were married in Florida. His roots there run deep: The Cox clan is a founding family of Pinellas County, today a tourist hot spot on the Gulf Coast across the bay from Tampa.
But Florida wasn’t where their hearts were.
“‘We learned the area, liked the area, slowly started putting down roots and decided this is where we wanted to be,” Jim says of his early visits to Summit County. “We just knew at the time we wanted out of Florida.”
For Maggie, whose matter-of-fact sense of humor almost perfectly complements her husband’s off-kilter jokes, Colorado summers were too good to pass up.
“We knew a long time before we were able to move that this is where we wanted to be,” she says. “We both just love it up here, and I’m still getting over those 37 Florida summers.”
The Coxes didn’t quite go against the retirement grain — they moved to Colorado almost two decades before making the final move to Summit — but volunteering has kept the two active in their occasionally cold and harsh adopted home. It’s what they want, even though the couple rarely “works” together.
“She goes her way with volunteering and I go mine, and then we get together over dinner and compare notes,” Cox says. “Living in Florida, near a retirement area, you saw a lot of people just sitting around. We used to joke about the retired folks. We’d call them ‘raisins’: They just get wrinkled from the sun, sitting on a bench feeding the birds. How is that the quality of life you want?”
Cox’s time with the historical society has been the best type of volunteer work, combining his passion for local history and heritage with a strong urge to get his hands dirty. His first project for the society was to rebuild a farm wagon — he dubs it a “1900s SUV” — that belonged to the Rice family, which homesteaded in the Summit Cove area where the Coxes have lived since moving to Summit.
“Having never built a wagon, a lot of things fit together that weren’t screwed or glued,” Cox remembers. “The thing was such a piece of junk — it was literally falling apart. There was a lot of head scratching on that one. It took all winter by the time it was done.”
The wagon project was a doozy for the first-time society volunteer. Cox spent 200 to 300 hours rebuilding the old machine. But it hardly scared him off, and he’s now in the thick of another long, intimidating rehab: a Dillon schoolhouse dating to 1883.
“Right now it’s kind of a wreck,” Cox admits, although he says volunteers are making tremendous progress on the site. “It started out with getting the interior painted, and as usual that means you have to pull everything out. It was kind of a catchall for everything we wanted to put on display, so the idea is to make it look a bit more like a late-1800s schoolhouse.”
LIFE OF A LOCAL
By now, Coxes are true locals. They’ve met dozens of people through volunteering — enough that a single trip to the grocery store can take hours between chatting in the aisles and the parking lot and the checkout counter.
“I’ve made a lot of good, long-lasting friendships with people I wouldn’t meet otherwise, but the downside is you almost become too well known in the community,” Cox says. “I keep getting accused of having the inability to say no. But that’s the nice thing about the volunteer gigs — you do it on your own time, and all these organizations are very appreciative of what you do.”
Despite the near-endless volunteering schedule, Cox still makes time for play. He’s an avid skier and hiker, but every once in a while, the beach bum in him gets drawn back to the ocean. Since first strapping on a scuba tank as a teen, he’s dived at the Great Barrier Reef, the Truk Lagoon naval wrecks near New Guinea and, come mud season this year, the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He typically goes by himself — it’s easy enough to find other solo divers on these excursions, he says — but the Coxes enjoy traveling together, including short jaunts to their former Florida home.
“We go down for good seafood, good Greek food, then it’s time to head back home to Colorado,” Cox says without missing a beat. “When we left there, we’d been talking about moving somewhere else for a long time, and we decided if we don’t like it we can always go back to Florida. Twenty-eight years later and that still hasn’t happened.”
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