John Hickenlooper
Credit: Photograph by Edward Keating

When Hick was elected mayor, in 2003, Denver had a $70 million deficit, which he closed by cutting the number of city employees, and offering those who remained higher pay if they worked more efficiently. (He cut his own pay at the same time.) After a man was shot by cops while reaching for a soda can in his bedroom, Hick instituted a community-based police oversight board. He jumped out of a plane in a political ad to get voters to increase taxes to fund a $4.7 billion transit plan that happened to culminate this May with the opening of a revamped Denver Union Station. In 2007, he was reelected with 87 percent of the vote.

"I don't understand the purposes of personal attacks," Hick told me in explaining his mellow approach in an era of slash-and-burn politics. "You don't see Coke going after Pepsi. It would just make both look bad, and they'd have to spend a ton of money rehabbing their brand."

Hick was a political comet – he was named by Time one of America's top mayors – but there was one problem: Helen dreaded the spotlight as much as he craved it. He decided to run for governor in 2010 partially with the misguided idea that campaigning would respark their relationship. He tried to turn statewide barnstorming into a family adventure, but though he became the first Denver mayor to be elected Colorado governor in more than a century, it probably cost him his marriage. A year after he was elected governor, they split; she and Teddy moved not far from Hick's house. (Helen declined to talk for the story.) Suddenly, Colorado's most gregarious man was alone. The first months were especially rough.

"Teddy would often lead the way," says Hick one afternoon at his house as his boy plays with a friend. "He would ask me almost every day, 'How is it? How's it going?' And I'd tell him, even if it was sad stuff."

But he didn't tell Teddy all about Aurora. Hick was overnighting in Colorado Springs when the call came in a little before 1 am that there had been a massacre at a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie. Twelve were dead. By 8:30 am, Hick was in Aurora, watching footage of the murders in a police trailer. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. He went to the hospital and started going room to room. President Obama arrived to pay his respects. Hick thought his own words of consolation rang hollow, so he sought Obama's counsel in a hospital room.

"Does it get easier?" he asked. "I don't know if I'm helping anyone."

"Part of our job is to be consoler in chief and just let people know that you care," Obama told him. "That means a tremendous amount to people. You'll get better."

Hick took the advice, and over the next two years became better at grieving than he would have ever hoped. There were fires in the canyons and floods in the lowlands and more shootings.

Then, tragedy struck inside his own office. A recent parolee, Evan Ebel, killed a pizza deliveryman. Then, using the deliveryman's uniform and pizza warmer, he approached the home of Tom Clements, Hick's head of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Ebel knocked on the door, and when Clements opened, he shot and killed him. Making the sadness all the more heartbreaking was the fact that Ebel's father, Jack Ebel, had been a friend of Hick's for 30 years, since his geologist days. In an eerie coincidence, when Hick hired Clements, he told him about Evan Ebel, without mentioning his name, and they discussed the long-term impact on young prisoners like Ebel of being held in solitary confinement. Before shooting Clements, Evan Ebel had served eight years on an earlier assault charge and was mistakenly granted parole, inspiring conspiracy theorists to suggest that somehow Hick had intervened for the son of a friend, which infuriated the governor. When a TV crew badgered Hick (for a second time) about whether he had finagled to get Ebel released, Hick lost it. "What a stupid question," he said, his voice quavering. "Why would you even ask that?" It was as if Hick couldn't comprehend a world in which cynics could contemplate he'd play a role in a slimy backroom deal.