Coors, Joseph, Sr. (“Joe”)

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Coors, Joseph, Sr. (“Joe”)

(b. 12 November 1917 in Golden, Colorado; d. 15 March 2003 in Rancho Mirage, California), chemical engineer, philanthropist, coinventor of landmark manufacturing processes, and financier of the modern conservative political movement.

Coors was one of three sons born to Adolph Herman Joseph Coors, Jr., a brewer. The family was very conservative. The first Adolph Herman Joseph Coors founded the Coors brewery in Golden in 1873, and he dedicated himself to making America’s finest beer. His children were raised in a strictly conservative German household. His son, Adolph Coors, Jr., was equally devoted to the task of brewing fine beer, and he demanded the same dedication to the family business from his three sons: Adolph III, William (“Bill”), and Joseph. The household was one of regimented discipline and little love. Joseph’s mother was Alice May Kistler, a homemaker. The Coors family chose to live without the trappings of wealth, including private schools, and Joseph attended a public high school, Golden High School. He broke from family tradition by not attending Princeton, instead earning a BS degree in chemistry from Cornell in 1939.

Adolph Coors, III, was groomed to take over leadership of the Coors brewery, with his brothers expected to take supporting roles. After earning an MS in chemical engineering from Cornell University in 1940, Joseph Coors instead accepted a job with DuPont, where he worked on polymers briefly before joining the National Dairy Association in 1941. That year, on April 26, he married Edith Holland Hanson, known as “Holly.” The couple had five sons.

In 1946 Joseph Coors joined the Adolph Coors Company, working in its ceramics division. Prohibition had forced the company to diversify, and one of its subsidiaries was a ceramics manufacturing business. The ceramics unit became America’s only source of ceramics suited to the demands of scientific research during World War II. Coors worked everywhere his employees worked, including in the pits where the company mined its clay as well as among the machines of the manufacturing plant. When his oldest brother, Adolph, was murdered during a botched kidnapping attempt in 1960, Coors became a partner to his brother Bill in running the family business, although Bill was officially the boss.

Working with Bill in the 1950s and 1960s, Coors participated in some remarkable engineering achievements. The two most important were the invention of a process for mass-producing aluminum cans and the development of a process for cold-filtering beer to meet high sanitary standards without sacrificing taste. The Coorses were not comfortable with job titles, but as their company grew, they found it necessary to clarify the chain of command. In 1975 Coors became the company’s executive vice president and in 1977 its president, although Bill had the final say in company policy. His job title from 1985 to 1987 was chief operating officer, but he left the company in 1988 to live with his mistress, Anne, in California. He divorced his wife that year and later married his mistress.

Coors was an intense yet taciturn man with a short temper, and he had trouble expressing himself well, especially in public. He had a strong resentment toward the federal government. Coors believed that the government was telling his family how to run its business while over-taxing Adolph Coors Company, and he yearned for a way to express his unhappiness. In the mid-1950s Coors read The Conservative Mind, from Burke to Santayana (1953) by Russell Kirk. In it Coors found a coherent articulation of a conservative ideology; the book seemed to be speaking Coors’s own mind while giving order and context to Coors’s thinking about government and society. The Coors family lived simply, like middle-class people rather than rich ones; as a consequence, they amassed large amounts of capital that they could spend as they pleased. They contributed millions of dollars anonymously to charities, from building large hospitals to providing legal assistance for the poor. For Coors, funding conservative causes was to become just another part of his philanthropic efforts.

It was not until the 1960s that Coors began to find a focus for contributions to conservative causes. The focus was Ronald Reagan, who two weeks before the 1964 presidential election gave a televised speech that galvanized Coors’s political interests. Coors met and became friends with Reagan, who often visited him in Golden. In 1968 Coors was the only delegate from Colorado at the Republican presidential convention to vote for Reagan. Coors tried his own hand at running for office in 1966, when he was elected to the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado. During his term Coors fought what he perceived as an anti-American bias among the faculty of the university.

For decades the term “think tank” had been synonymous with liberal policies, and Coors rankled at the power think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution in Washington. He wrote to senators with a proposal to create a conservative policy think tank; one of his letters found its way to the congressional aide Paul Weyrich, who had been toying with idea of a conservative think tank with Edwin Feulner. Weyrich and Feulner asked for Coors’s aid, and in 1973 Coors gave $550,000 to found and house what eventually became the Heritage Foundation.

By funding this organization and other efforts to create and publicize conservative policies, Coors had a profound effect on American politics. When Reagan was elected president in 1980, Coors was made part of the “kitchen cabinet” that advised Reagan on political appointments and government policy. The Heritage Foundation published Mandate for Leadership: Policy Management in a Conservative Administration (1981), a one-thousand-page detailed description of how the Reagan administration should reform the national government; many of its recommendations were adopted. Coors succeeded in persuading Reagan to appoint Coors’s protégé James Watt as secretary of the interior. Coors’s political views made the Adolph Coors Company the target of boycotts by unions and people who disliked Coors’s politics. Even after the company made peace with the unions and took the lead among breweries in hiring and promoting women, African Americans, and Hispanics, the name Coors remained anathema to many.

Coors died of lymphoma in Riverside County, California. His funeral was held the following Saturday at noon at El Camino Mortuary in San Diego. He is buried in El Camino Memorial Park in La Jolla, California. Coors was one of the most celebrated and excoriated philanthropists of the late twentieth century. He did not set out to be a lightning rod for a political movement, but his crucial role in developing an ideology for political conservatives made him a target for the hatred of liberals as well as for conservative political activists who wanted him to give them money.

The most extensive coverage of Coors’s life is in Dan Baum, Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty (1999). Robert J. Burgess, Silver Bullets: A Soldier’s Story of How Coors Bombed in the Beer Wars (1993), offers an account of how Coors conducted business. An obituary is in USA Today (17 Mar. 2003).

Kirk H. Beetz