After more than 40 years of service, outgoing Torrington Mayor Mike Varney retires
TORRINGTON – More than 40 years after his first venture into city government, Mike Varney is moving on to the next chapter in his life. Although he isn’t sure what that will be, he is looking forward to new opportunities to contribute to his adopted community.
A native of Broken Bow, Nebraska, Varney and his wife, Mary, arrived in Torrington in 1960 to teach in the county’s public schools. Graduates of Chadron State College, Varney with degrees in secondary education and coaching, was hired to teach American and World History at Torrington High School, while Mary later taught at Lingle and Torrington as their family grew.
Landing in Wyoming
According to Varney, the young couple had previously been “wined and dined” by school district personnel at Atwood, Kansas, and had pretty much decided to take those jobs, before Torrington called. Don Woodley, principal at Torrington High School, and Blaine Roney, district superintendent, invited the Varneys to interview for positions at Torrington.
“It was kind of like a sixth sense, agreeing to take this job in Torrington,” Varney recalled during a recent interview on his last day as Torrington’s mayor. “They asked if I had to coach, and I said ‘No, I want to teach.’ That pretty well decided it.”
Varney said it was a fairly easy decision because the couple immediately liked Torrington, and they were already acquainted with some of the county’s teachers from their years at Chadron.
However, after five years, a representative from the new junior college in North Platte, Nebraska, called looking for a coach. Varney was excited at the prospect of coaching his own team rather than being an assistant for the junior varsity team in Torrington, and accepted the offer that included teaching political science and history.
The stint in North Platte lasted three years, until Eastern Wyoming College called, asking if Varney wanted to return to Torrington. He turned down the first offer, but a year later, in 1968, Chuck Rogers, EWC dean and director of personnel, called again. Varney agreed to visit Torrington and discuss the possibilities.
It was a time of transition for Goshen County Community College, which was in the process of becoming Eastern Wyoming College, with its own permanent campus at the top of the hill on West C Street.
“I didn’t know what to think when Chuck Rogers first took me up there,” Varney said, laughing at the memory. “It was barren. Dirt was blowing all over. I wondered what I was getting into.”
The new offer was for a position teaching history and geography, but EWC President Al Conger emphasized that the new gym was to be used for intramural gym classes, not just a basketball court. That philosophy changed within a few months when Conger died and was replaced by Rogers, who had a different take on the sports programs and emphasized basketball.
“Chuck wanted a real basketball program, not a glorified intramural program,” Varney explained. “Chuck said, ‘Take it over and do it.’”
Recalling those days with a smile, Varney said the original EWC team was called the Colts, with blue and yellow as the school colors. Noting that situation didn’t seem to fit a college team, he got other department heads and the student senate involved, resulting in the current black and gold colors for the modern Lancers.
Getting into politics
As the years passed, Varney said it struck him that since he was then teaching history and political science, maybe he should be more involved in city government. Consequently, in 1974, he became a candidate for the Torrington City Council. He won a seat on his first effort, and remained on the council for 24 years, 1975 through 1998.
During those years, Varney again changed careers. In June 1978, he retired from EWC, and became transportation director for the Goshen County School District. He held that position until retiring in June 1998.
Coinciding with his retirement from the school district, and with a push from retiring mayor Ed Jolovich, Varney decided to run for mayor in 1998. He won, and has served in that position for all but four years, 2007-2010, since then, losing the 2006 election by a slim margin. He was elected again in 2010 as a write-in candidate.
Accomplishments as mayor
As mayor, Varney has steered the City of Torrington through some interesting times. They include, but are definitely not limited to, construction of the Highway 85 Bypass, securing the city’s safe water supply, and landing the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution, with most of the projects requiring long hours on the phone and numerous visits to the Wyoming Legislature in Cheyenne.
Varney is especially grateful to Cactus Covello, who as chairman of the Wyoming Transportation Commission, was in a position to help secure the long-sought bypass project.
Another of Varney’s successful efforts was the acquisition of the old Lincoln Elementary School that now serves as the City Hall complex. He also is proud of the development of the sports complex near the hospital. The city’s ball fields were originally located next to St. Joseph’s Children’s Home, but had to be moved when the facility needed to expand. Consequently, local real estate developer Hal Brethour worked with the city, resulting in the current complex near the hospital and care center.
Re-locating ball-field lights from the former site where the new CTEC building now stands on the college campus to the Jirdon ball field complex near the swimming pool is also one of Varney’s proudest efforts. He said the move saved the lights and lit the field, a welcome addition that otherwise might never have happened due to the cost of new lights.
A major accomplishment was the relocation of the landfill from the vicinity of the baler near the North Platte River in South Torrington to its current location southwest of Torrington.
“That move was very important to protect our groundwater,” Varney explained of the relocation. “And we have plenty of land for future expansion.”
Maybe the most important accomplishment during his time as mayor is the reverse Osmosis water treatment that has resulted in getting the city’s water supply back into compliance after the DEQ declared nitrate rates were too high back in 2001.
When asked about highlights of his career, Varney’s face instantly lit up with a big grin and he exclaimed, “The retirement party. More than 300 people came! I didn’t get to talk to them all, but I appreciated them being there.”
The Dec. 5 gathering was held in the Pony Express Room at City Hall.
A broken hip, surgeries and other conditions resulting from a fall in June 2007 may have slowed Varney, but they definitely have not hampered his desire to serve his adopted community. He looks forward to continuing his duties on the Eastern Wyoming College Board of Trustees and the North Platte Valley Conservation District board, and would like to continue on one or two others.
Over the years, Varney’s personal life has undergone changes as well. The Varney children grew up, married and established their own families and lives. Mary died, and Varney later married Joy Fuss.
However, looking to the future, Varney chuckled and said, “It’s going to be different. I’m going to be lost for a while, but I plan to stay active. I’m on the North Platte Valley Conservation District Board of Supervisors and the Eastern Wyoming College Board of Trustees, and I plan to be more active on them. I’d also like to continue being involved in some of the boards I’ve served on as mayor.
“And of course, Joy and I will be busy keeping up with grandchildren in Wyoming, Kansas and California, but I am looking forward to slowing down.”