Rock On! A Tribute to Norm Miller and Those Who Help Keep Whale Rock Alive

"Stormin'" Norman Hollis Miller of Rist Canyon. Photo courtesy of rcvfd.org.

Jonson Kuhn | North Forty News

Who knew a painted rock could and would become such a popular topic?!  Why, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say this rock is almost more popular than the other ‘Rock’ that just got slapped at the Oscars!  First and foremost, I feel it’s important to get a certain specific detail covered before getting too far into the new information I’ve been given regarding Whale Rock; North Forty had printed a Photo of the Week and the photo featured Bellvue Bluff Dome but it was incorrectly labeled as Whale Rock.  Well, obviously, that’s not correct and so I just want to be perfectly clear that it was a mistake on our part and Bellvue Dome and Whale Rock have absolutely nothing to do with one another.

Now then, as for who has taken up the mantle of painting Whale Rock after Polly Brinkhoff’s passing, I have to make yet another correction by admitting I was wrong in speculating it was Polly’s lingering spirit continuing on with her artistic endeavors…turns out it was just other people.  The (unofficial) Mayor of Bellvue Judy Jackson was able to get me in touch with Larry and Barbara Monesson who then shared with me that it was Barbara and their son Cal who were at least responsible for painting the rock one time within the last six years.

“We tried to get rid of the graffiti and keep it off as much as we could, so far it’s been pretty successful; it just requires a can of similar color or same color paint and the motivation to get down there and crawl around in the weeds and shrubs to get it done,” Barbara said. “Polly Brinkhoff painted lots of rocks in Rist Canyon and it’s sad that she passed, but the history of Rist Canyon, we have a lot of history up here[…]it’s sad that the people who have helped create all of this history have pretty much passed on now; Judy Jackson has a wealth of information stored in her head and on paper[…]Larry and I have been here (in the canyon) for forty-something years now and we’ve met and known a lot of those people.”

Seeing how Polly was such a prolific artist and was well known for having painted many rocks, pianos and you name it within Rist Canyon, I asked Barbara why she thought Whale Rock specifically became so popular.

“I think a lot had to do with the early reputation of Whale Rock Road, there were some pretty great characters that actually lived many years ago on this rock; it was just a really interesting place when we came here and we loved it, not so much just because of the view of Fort Collins and Horsetooth Reservoir that a lot of us have, but the people were friendly and they were clannish, they sort of stuck together and had their opinions[…]We all sort of took a bit of pride in that because we didn’t really want people crawling all over the land.”

But that’s hardly the end of the story; as they say, the plot thickens!  In addition to speaking with Barbara, I was also able to speak with Richard Lund, a 31-year resident of Rist Canyon and Treasurer for their Fire Department, and he informed me that Norman Hollis Miller had taken the reigns of painting the rock on at least two separate occasions from the time of Polly’s passing in ’99.

“Norm Miller, he was a firefighter up here, he’s the one that picked up the painting of the rock. Right now, the rock has not been painted since he painted it, he was the last one to do it and the paint is starting to fade away, I’m just not exactly sure how long ago that was, it’s been at least a few years,” said Richard. “I’m not sure if Norm and Polly knew each other or not, but what had happened was the rock got in such poor shape, as far as painting and so forth, and that’s when he (Norm) stepped in and felt that he needed do something about it.  He was a really great guy.”

Known to many as Stormin’ Norman, he retired from the fire department last fall and moved to Fort Collins, however, on January 29 of this year he unexpectedly passed at the age of 86, from injuries sustained in a tragic accident at his home.  Norm was a proud fireman and EMT with the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department from 2004 through 2020.  He fought during High Park and Cameron Peak wildfires in recent years and kept the department’s fire trucks and equipment repaired and ready for action.

“I knew Norm well, I’ve been in the fire department for thirty-four years now, so Norm was a good friend of mine and we’re all certainly really sorry that he had that accident; we miss him and will continue to,” said Larry Monesson.

Just a word to the wise for any of you artistic folks that might be reading this and feel inspired to add your creative two cents to the rock, Barbara says the Rist Canyon community would like to carry on the tradition for themselves.

“We would prefer to leave it in our hands, we just wish people wouldn’t graffiti it at all or any of the other rocks within Rist Canyon.  Norm would actually scrub the paint off of the main rocks in Rist Canyon when he saw them and leave them back in as much of a natural state as he could,” Barbara said.

In fact, Barbara told me that her son Cal had recently suggested that they go back down and pay Whale Rock another visit to scrape off the eroding blue paint and spruce it up a little bit, so I think it’s safe to say that the legacy is in good hands, thus, honoring the spirits of both Polly and Norm, two staple characters of Rist Canyon that much like the paint on the rock, won’t ever fade away.

Norm is survived by his wife Joan, daughter Lynn Miller and grandchildren Avery, Hayden, and Chloe; daughter Diane Davis (Mike) and grandchildren Megan, Melissa, Maia, and Nadia; and his sister Kathy Converse (Randy) of Madison, Wisconsin, and many nieces and nephews.

If you knew Stormin’ Norman personally, Richard let me know that they have a memorial planned for June 5 at the Anheuser Busch Biergarten Event Center in Fort Collins from 1 pm to 5 pm, but you can also pay your respects and learn more about him and his wonderful contributions to the community by visiting rcvfd.org.

The famous Whale Rock alongside Rist Canyon Road. Photo by Jonson Kuhn.

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