We have daily reminders of the ‘best and the brightest’

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The “great man” theory of history has few adherents nowadays, except perhaps among men who think they qualify as “great men.”

But forgetting for the moment uber-deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, who once said, “Thinking is what we already know that we have not yet begun,” let us now praise two not-so-famous men.

Each had long rich lives, each made extraordinary contributions to history and each are intimately connected to our city and our state.

One turned an idea and 49 acres of once-worthless land into a business template which would be replicated by tens of thousands of entrepreneurs, and the other might have prevented a third world war.

You probably haven’t heard of either, although one endowed a foundation and the other’s name graces an Air Force base.

Colorado’s most influential businessman was Temple Hoyne Buell, who invented the modern shopping center.

Born during 1895, Buell was a prominent Denver architect who designed more than 300 buildings, including iconic Denver structures such as Horace Mann Middle school and the Paramount Theater.

Convinced that Denver would grow toward the southeast, Buell bought 49 acres of vacant land at the intersection of 1st and University during 1925 — for $25,000.

Twenty years later, Buell had figured out just how to develop the site.

In a now-famous presentation to the Urban Land Institute during 1946, Buell presented the concept of a “central-mall” shopping center, designed with parking lots surrounding the buildings.

After years of wrangling with neighbors and city officials, the Cherry Creek Shopping Center opened during 1953, anchored by Denver Dry Goods and Sears.

Cherry Creek became the prototype of prototypes of every mall constructed since, from Chapel Hills and The Citadel in Colorado Springs to the largest shopping center in the world, the Golden Resources Shopping Mall in Beijing, with a total area of 7.3 million square feet.

Buell was already rich, and Cherry Creek made him even richer. He’s remembered for his buildings, for his enduring charity and generosity, for his business acumen and for his sunny optimism.

Fifteen years after opening Cherry Creek, Buell sought to redevelop it by adding a 17 story medical center, a 54-story office tower with a revolving restaurant and an underground parking garage for 16,000 cars.

Big plans — but they were never realized, thanks both to obdurate city officials and a shaky regional economy.

Buell, whose personal life was as interesting and tumultuous as his business career, died during 1990 at the ripe old age of 96.

Bernard Schriever, after whom Schriever Air Force Base is named, was the brilliant Air Force general who oversaw the creation of the intercontinental ballistic missile and began the Air Force’s space program.

Trained as an aeronautical engineer, Schriever was a veteran of World War II who flew B-17’s in combat missions in the Pacific. The German-born Schriever, who had come to the United States as a child before the First World War, was a brilliant administrator and an equally brilliant military strategist.

Schriever knew that, absent an effective deterrent capability, the United States would be vulnerable to nuclear attack from its then-formidable Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union. He also knew that time was limited — that if the Soviets developed the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons to American soil before the United States developed a similar capability, the resulting instability could have catastrophic results.

Schriever brought together a core group of scientists and engineers, and introduced a management technique that he called “concurrency.” All of the management and technical teams worked simultaneously on major problems and together selected the best solutions, rather than forming intra-project silos and rivalries.

All of Schriever’s brilliance — as a scientist, as a strategist, as a manager and as a military visionary — would have gone for naught without his immense political skills.

Schriever so perfectly mastered the bureaucratic swamps of systems procurement and development that his team deployed three major weapons systems in less than five years. Problem solved!

A fascinating book about Schriever, “A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon,” was published Tuesday.

Fifteen years in the making, it was written by Neil Sheehan, whose last book “A Bright Shining Lie” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. That book was about the failure of American policy in Vietnam, but this one is about an American triumph, and the man who created it.

During an interview with the New York Times, Sheehan, who clearly believes in the ability of individuals to affect the history of their times, talked about writing the book.

“I was always chasing the grim reaper,” he said. “These guys were old and beginning to disappear. There are only three or four of them left now. I firmly believe that there’s a dimension to history that exists in men’s minds — it doesn’t get written down — and if you don’t get that before it’s gone, you lose it forever. These guys understood that themselves. They kept saying: ‘Hurry up, hurry up with the book. We want to read it.’”

Schriever, who died at 94 during 2005, missed the book. But he didn’t miss history.

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.