Fred Collett was a no-nonsense kind of guy. But his cultivated tough exterior concealed a soft-heartedness for kids, a dedication to public service and a propensity for fun.
For decades, Collett was one of the titans of the downvalley community. A longtime business leader, school board member, aviation enthusiast and local philanthropist, he died March 10 at the age of 91. He left behind a treasured family and community legacy.
“He wanted everyone to think he was a hard ass, but he was actually the furthest thing from it,” recalled his grandson Beau Oyler. “He would do anything for anyone. Except let you drive. He would teach you how to drive, but he wouldn’t let you drive him anywhere. ”
“You always knew where you stood with him,” offered grandson Jay Oyler. “He didn’t mince words most of the time, and I think a lot of people learned a lot from him. He had high expectations of people and he would tell you if you didn’t meet them. “
On his own
Collett was a walking example of a self-made man. He was born in Chanute, Kansas, to George and Lucy (Cooper) Collett. His father’s name was actually Georgio Colletti, but as an Italian immigrant he opted for a more Americanized moniker. Fred was the second youngest of eight boys.
Fred’s father worked on the railroad in Eagle County and that’s how he met his future wife, a Glenwood Springs girl. While the family had moved to Kansas briefly, they returned to the Wolcott area when Fred was 3 years old.
At age 12, Fred Collett left home. He lived on the Cowen Ranch along Milk Creek and also spent time in Gypsum and on Derby Mesa. The early days of his story reveal something important about Collett’s character – he was, for all intents and purposes, a homeless preteen kid. But he stayed the course and eventually graduated from Eagle County High School. He was a member of the school’s championship football and baseball teams, played trumpet in the band and served as the student body vice president.
“Some of the boys from Burns would come down during the week to go to high school,” explained Collett’s daughter, Janet McGinnis. The teens lived in the Turgeonville cabins – a little residential enclave formerly located south of the Gypsum railroad overpass and west of the creek. “Mr. Green (the ECHS principal) would check on those boys at night, probably to make sure they weren’t getting into trouble, ”McGinnis said.
After graduation in 1948, Collett enlisted in the United States Air Force and served during the Korean War. When he returned from military service, he and Margaret Beasley were married. The couple briefly lived in Grand Junction and Alamosa while Collett was employed by JC Penney. The Colletts eventually returned to Eagle County and started a family – sons Mike and Miles and daughter, Janet. The couple later divorced, and in 1985, Collet married Teri Miller.
After he returned to the valley, Collett had several jobs including time as a plumber’s apprentice, work at the Gilman Mine and even driving logging trucks to the top of Coffee Pot Road. But he found his vocation when he started work for Willis Staup in Gypsum.
Staup was a Standard Oil agent, who delivered home heating oil and fuel.
Collett purchased the business in 1958 and started with a bulk plant, warehouse and office on Railroad Avenue in Gypsum. Collett had the foresight to recognize he was in the right place at the right time as Vail and other surrounding areas started to be developed.
His customer base expanded from primarily agriculture to construction, commercial, mining, ski areas and more. For more than five decades, he supplied fuel and other petroleum products throughout the Eagle River and Roaring Fork Valleys.
“I think he really found a niche in the petroleum industry,” Jay Oyler said. “He was an entrepreneur at heart and he came up with many different business ideas and plans over the years and executed them successfully.”
Collett eventually expanded his business – which he christened as Collett Enterprises – to include retail gas stations / convenience stores and one of the largest automotive service centers on the Western Slope. For 25 years, he also operated a transportation division that delivered US Mail to post offices throughout Eagle County.
Back in 1994 the “Amoco Jobber,” the oil corporation’s trade magazine, printed a front-page story featuring Collett. The article noted he provided service to Eagle County customers, large and small, for decades. In that piece, Collett shared his basic business philosophy.
“I try to give the kind of service I’d like to have,” he said.
Today, the focus for Collett Enterprises is wholesale petroleum marketing and distribution— the place where Collett began his career
“His business is still successful 64 years after he started it,” said Jay Oyler. “Now it is operated by second- and third-generation family members.”
Collett also influenced many other community members and leaders.
“The first thing that pops into my mind when I think of Fred Collett is his work ethic,” said Eagle businessman Ed Oyler. “I’m not sure if I knew anyone who worked harder at his business, home and at play, way past normal retirement age. He set a great example for me and so many others I know. ”
“Fred built everything he had all on his own,” offered Gypsum resident Scott Green. When he was a teen, Green worked for Collett at his full service Standard gas station. Collett employed lots of local kids, and for many of them, like Green, he became a lifelong mentor.
“Fred was a good business example,” Green said. “There are a bunch of us who modeled ourselves after Fred’s example in the community.”
That example extended far beyond Collett’s considerable business success. Collett gave back, with quiet but profound generosity, to the community he called home.
Collett compiled a long community service resume during his 91 years that included membership in Club 20, the Eagle Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Gypsum Town Council, Gypsum Sanitation District and American Legion Post 150. He was a member of the Board of Education for Eagle County Schools for seven years and served as its president for four years.
Green, who also went on to serve as president of the local school board, said Collett led the school district during turbulent times.
“It was a redistricting and Fred was the driving force behind saving the Sweetwater community center. That was, at one time, the school district property but rather than auction it off he helped save it for the public. ”
Collett also supported local kids with his wallet.
“Any time a kid came in, for whatever fundraiser, to collect at Collett Enterprises, Fred ponied up,” Green said. “I don’t know of anyone who ever went to him, asking for help, that didn’t get it if they were deserving.”
For more than 50 consecutive years, Collett was a big supporter of the Eagle County Fair and local 4-H programs. Collet Enterprises purchased many, many animals at the Junior Livestock Sale including several top-dollar, grand champion steers, pigs, sheep and more.
“He came from nothing as a kid and I don’t know if he had something to do with how he gave to kids later in life,” said Jay Oyler. “I think he wanted to make sure every kid had a chance and the opportunity he didn’t have. Of course, he never actually said that. ”
“He was soft-hearted, but he didn’t really want anyone to know about that,” McGinnis said.
Collett was also fun-hearted, and his spirit really soared when he was behind the controls, up in the air.
Flying was one of Collett’s biggest passions.
“I have so many really good memories of flying with my dad,” McGinnis said. “It used to be really fun to fly to Lake Powell with him. We had a boat at Hall’s Crossing and we would fly into a little airstrip there. It was kind of scary, but I was young and so it was a thrill, rather than a scare, at that point. ”
His grandsons fondly remember flying to Canada with Collett on a week-long fishing trip. When Collett moved to Grand Junction for a period of time, he routinely commuted to Eagle County via air. He had a reputation as an excellent mountain pilot.
“An FAA official at the Gypsum airport describes him as one of the best mountain pilots in the West,” read an excerpt from a 1970 profile of Collett that appeared in the American Oil Company’s trade publication.
His passion for flying and his commitment to the community often intermingled. For years, Collett would fly Santa to the Eagle County Airport – part of a beloved community tradition. Jay remembers telling his parents he knew the deal about Santa, specifically so he could make that flight with his grandfather.
Collett also loved fishing, boating, trap shooting, hunting, golf and gambling.
“He was known among local pool halls, in his earlier years, for his love of a good poker game,” Jay said. ”He made frequent trips to Las Vegas. Sometimes he would fly down just for the night to play at the blackjack tables. ”
As much as Fred loved having a good time, he also spent countless hours working on the property he shared with his wife, Teri, located north of Eagle.
“They built it from the ground up, and he took a great pride in keeping it in tip-top shape and maintaining it mostly by himself, even into his 90s,” Beau Oylersaid.
“Fred lived an interesting life,” Green said. “He wasn’t a saint by any measure, but he was a good guy, a good neighbor and a good community member. He was just real and he was straight-up. He wouldn’t hesitate to tell you what he thought you needed to hear. “
Collett made a big deal out of little gestures, such as always taking his hat off to eat lunch and demanding his grandsons to likewise. But he downplayed the many honors he received, including industry awards and accolades. In 2018, Collett was the first community member to be inducted into the Eagle Valley High School Foundation Hall of Fame.
“He did a lot of things for a lot of people that people don’t know about,” Jay Oyler said. “A lot of people didn’t know that side of him.”
“Fred is one of the last longtime locals that shaped this community into what it is today and his contributions will live on forever,” said Ed Oyler. “He will be missed by many, but not forgotten.”
Collett was preceded in death by his parents, all of his siblings and his son Dr. Miles Collett. He is survived by his wife Teri of Eagle, son Mike Collett of Grand Junction, daughter Janet (Bryon) McGinnis of Eagle, grandsons Jay (Jana) Oyler and Beau (Emily) Oyler, granddaughters Jocelyn (Chase) Aalborg and Alexis (Grant) Ordelheide and great-grandchildren Madison and Max Oyler and Charlee and Jack Aalborg.
A memorial service commemorating the life of Fred Collett is planned at 2 pm Saturday, April 9, at 4Eagle Ranch north of Wolcott. The family asks that in the lieu of flowers, donations be made in Fred Collett’s name to the Eagle Valley High School Foundation, PO Box 82, Gypsum, CO, 81637. Donations will be used to help fund programs, athletics and scholarships at Eagle Valley High School.