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ALUMNI ROLL CALL: JEFF CHOSTNER’S RISE TO SUCCESS DEEPLY ROOTED IN THE DISTRICT

Jeff ChostnerAlthough it’s offered with tongue firmly in cheek, the statement is rooted firmly in fact.

“I haven’t lost an election since 1965.”

It was then that a young Jeff Chostner innocuously entered the realm of public service by successfully campaigning for a Heaton Middle School class representative seat. Another elected position as a student body leader followed, this time at East High School, from which Mr. Chostner graduated in 1969.

Since that time, service to country and community have defined the life of this proud and accomplished Eagle.

After a decorated 22-year stint in the Air Force, where he distinguished himself in the Judges Advocate General Corps, the retired Colonel returned to his hometown, where he continued to win elections and serve the populace: first as a City Councilman, then as a County Commissioner and, in the office he has occupied since 2012, District Attorney for the 10th Judicial District.

All in all, a life and career overflowing with achievement, accolades and honors, and one that speaks volumes of Mr. Chostner’s drive, patriotism, and unbreakable ties to the Pueblo community.

The Chostner family line can be traced back to the Revolutionary War, with family members having subsequently served in the Civil War, World War I and World War II. It was almost a given, then, that Mr. Chostner would continue the family legacy of military service and nose-to-the-grindstone industriousness.

“My family came to Pueblo County in 1875,” Mr. Chostner said. “I had a Union Calvary Officer who came out here about 10 years after the Civil War and settled in Pueblo County. And my family has been here ever since.”

Naturally, those extensive Steel City roots extend into District 60. 

Mr. Chostner’s mother and paternal grandmother graduated from Centennial, and his father from Central. His own educational journey began in 1956, as part of the inaugural class at Ben Franklin Elementary.

“I still have my grandmother’s diploma,” Mr. Chostner said. “And it’s big, about 2-by-3, because in 1919, getting a high school diploma was a big deal.”

With such a proud and dignified family legacy, it was the unspoken responsibility of Mr. Chostner to uphold and advance it.

And then, without warning or explanation, that legacy was abruptly ruptured.

In January 1964, a 12-year-old Jeff Chostner lost his father Keith – a combat veteran of World War II who went on to become a successful dentist in Pueblo – to suicide. 

It’s a soul-wrenching tragedy that Mr. Chostner infrequently discusses, but one that serves as a testament to not only his moral fiber and resilience, but the empathetic support he received from caring District educators.

“Something like that makes you grow up fast,” he said. “I have a younger brother and sister, and whether or not they tell you that you’re the man of the family, you feel that way. So my Father’s death skewed the relationship to more of a quasi-parent, because my Mom never remarried. So I felt something of a parental responsibility to my younger brother and sister.”

To a child not yet in his teens, a devastating event like the loss of a parent to suicide has the potential to change one’s life for the worse.

“Being 12 years old and having that kind of family tragedy, you can kind of go either way,” Mr. Chostner said. “You can either run around with the young toughs that I knew or you can try and be a good kid. And I was kind of caught in between. But I was never very tough at heart, at least not in that kind of street thing.”

In Heaton educator Charlene “Punky” Robbe,  Mr. Chostner found the caring and empathetic support he desperately, but silently, craved, during those dark days.

“The day my Dad died, my Grandmother came to Heaton to pick me up and I was taken out of Mrs. Robbe’s class,” Mr. Chostner explained. “And she saw that something was wrong, because my Grandmother was a little distraught. 

“So when I came back to class, Mrs. Robbe wanted to know what happened, and how she could help. And I want to tell you: that woman, through all my time at Heaton and then East, would check on me: ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Do you need anything?’ 

“Even though I had long left her classroom, she was still there to help me out.”

Leroy Martinez, who coached basketball at East, also took the young Mr. Chostner under his wing.

“Mr. Martinez was another one who knew what had happened,” Mr. Chostner said. “He would kick me in the butt, but he loved me up, too. And that kind of compassion from teachers, at that age, was life-forming.”

When Mr. Chostner was inducted into the East Hall of Fame in 2001, Mrs. Robbe, along with longtime East coach and administrator Mel Spence, were the only two educators invited by the inductee.

“And when Mrs. Robbe died here about a year-and-a-half ago, I made very sure I was at her funeral,” he added.

In the early 1960s, the stigma surrounding suicide was often a cause of shame for the surviving family members. In the days that followed his father’s death, Mr. Chostner searched within himself to find the strength he needed to not only carry on, but to do so with a determination that would quell any ill talk from the community. 

“I thought it was my psychology, and my part, to make up for what I thought was a failure on my Dad’s part,” he explained. “And to try to bring the family back to somewhat of a level of prominence in the community. So that’s why, when you look through my annuals, and you see that I was involved in Student Council, Speech and Debate, Latin Club and all these things, it really was with a goal to make up for my Dad.”

This intent drive to banish any tarnish from the family name continued, and even grew, after Mr. Chostner graduated from East in 1969. He enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he discovered that from an academic standpoint, his District 60 foundation was rock solid.

 “During my freshman year at CU, I can remember consciously comparing myself to the Denver products,” he said. “In high school, I would see them in Speech and Debate, and Latin Club activities, and we were in awe of the people from Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, and those schools. 

“But when I got to CU, and started looking around as to how well I was prepared viz-a-viz my classmates, I thought I held up quite well: Pueblo gave me a good all around education, and I was competitive in a number of ways both during high school and then at CU.”

While a Buff, Mr. Chostner joined the Air Force ROTC Detachment, a move that was to play a key role in his future.

After graduating with a double major in History and English and a minor in Political Science, Mr. Chostner turned his eyes toward law school. But he first had to clear the move with the Commandant of the ROTC detachment.

“He told me, ‘We’ll let you go to law school. You pay for it on your own and we’ll keep you in the Reserve. But instead of the 4-year commitment you would have had, it’s going to be a 6-year commitment.

“’And if you fail at law school, you get to come back in as an E-1: an enlisted man.”

As the University of Missouri (Ole Miss) School of Law hosted an Air Force ROTC Detachment, Mr. Chostner ventured from Berkley-like liberality of Boulder to the racially charged Deep South, where only a decade earlier, James Meredith became the first African American student to attend the University of Mississippi.

As the East school community boasted students of different nationalities, from varied backgrounds and from different parts of town, Mr. Chostner was already sensitive to the social dynamics surrounding integration.

“Coming from Heaton, the big thing at East was integrating and melding very different parts of town into one class, and into one East High,” he explained. “When I ran for Sophomore Class President, my campaign slogan was, ‘Regardless of where we come from, we are all Eagles.’ 

“So I was able to bring people together then and that has been instructive to me my whole political life. And that was learned at East High School: bring people together. Don’t divide, because we all have the same dreams and aspirations.”

After earning his law degree, Mr. Chostner entered active duty, ushering in what became a decorated two-decade career in the Air Force. 

Serving with the Judge Advocate General’s Department, Mr. Chostner was stationed throughout the nation and world, where he managed four of the largest legal offices in the Air Force, with one of those offices twice named the Outstanding Air Force Judge Advocate Office. 

As a Colonel, and with a storied resume to his credit, there was the potential for Mr. Chostner to advance to the highly coveted rank of General.

“In that last year of service, I was in Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Chostner explained. “So the question I had to answer was, ‘Do I stay in and try to be a General or do I go home?’”

In Pueblo, Mr. Chostner’s wife Paula – whom he hadn’t seen in a year – was keeping up the family home and awaiting her husband’s decision.

Assessing the possibility of advancing to the rank of General to be slim, Mr. Chostner happily elected to return to the roots his family established more than a century before.

“I made the right decision, because I was still energetic enough to start a second career,” Mr. Chostner said. “I told my wife, ‘My family has roots in Pueblo County since 1875, and I want to give that to my kids. They need to have a piece of dirt on this planet that they call home.

“’And I don’t think there’s another place in Colorado but Pueblo that will give that to us.’”

With a “political itch” dating back to high school, Mr. Chostner found ample opportunity in his hometown to scratch it.

After practicing law for two years, Mr. Chostner began his “second career” by being elected to City Council. 

“And I’ve been in public service ever since,” he said. “I wanted to do things to shape this community: not in a quantitative way but in a qualitative way, because at that time I thought that Pueblo was an undiscovered treasure that I wanted to bring back my life experiences to assist.”

Almost immediately, Mr. Chostner became involved with the Bessemer Historical Society and the East High School Site Council, eventually forming the non-profit that established the East Alumni Association.

“I also did that for South and Central,” Mr. Chostner said. “And at South, I’m introduced as an honorary Colt. I’m proud of every school and every high school in this town, but for me, East is my school and I’ve tried to do my best to help it out, as I can.”

With a new East set to open in the coming years, and with 3 grandchildren residing in Pueblo, Mr. Chostner is anxious to see the next chapter in Eagle history unfold.

“My grandchildren are on that route from Fountain to Corwin to East. So they wear the ‘Future Eagle’ T-shirts. At this point, it’s generational, and my oldest grandchild should graduate from East in 2029,” he said.

Top-tier academic instruction aside, Mr. Chostner left District 60 with a wealth of life lessons that helped form the very essence of his character, and played an integral role in his success as a student, lawyer, Air Force officer, and elected official.

“I had kind of a knock in life, but the thing that was really valuable in forming character was the fact that I had teachers who picked me up,” he explained. “They showed, by example, dedication, leadership, honesty, the hard work: I saw that day in and day out in District 60, and it still applies to my life today.”