Guillermo Vidal in his Cuban hometown

From Cuba to Mayor of Denver

Film to trace Vidal's life from Cuban boyhood to 'incredible' education at CU Denver to his long career in public service

October 18, 2016

A forthcoming documentary will tell the life story of CU Denver graduate Guillermo “Bill” Vidal, who fled Cuba as a boy and went on to become mayor of the city of Denver.

The documentary is a collaboration between CU Boulder’s News Corps program and CU Denver, where Vidal received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1973 – as part of CU Denver’s first official graduating class. Vidal went on to work for more than 20 years with the Colorado Department of Transportation, where he spent five years as executive director.

A life in public service

Guillermo "Bill" Vidal, second from left, was Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Transportation in the 1990s when Wellington Webb, far left, was Denver Mayor and Frederico Pena, third from left, was U.S. Secretary of Transportation. In this photo they are looking at plans for the replacement of the 23rd Street viaduct in Denver.
Guillermo “Bill” Vidal, third from left, was Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Transportation in the 1990s when Wellington Webb, second from left, was Denver Mayor and Frederico Pena, fourth from left, was U.S. Secretary of Transportation. In this photo they are looking at plans for the replacement of the 23rd Street viaduct in Denver.

He later worked as the public works manager for the City and County of Denver, introducing the city’s first sanitary sewer master plan and developing Denver’s first strategic transportation plan.

Guillermo Vidal getting sworn in as Public Works manager
Vidal is sworn in as manager of Public Works in Denver. Looking on is then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, second from left.

Vidal became mayor in January 2011, after John Hickenlooper resigned to become governor. Vidal served in that role until July 2011, when he became president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver.

He has since retired from public service and has become a published author of several books, including “Boxing for Cuba,” about his experience as a Cuban immigrant in the United States, and the soon-to-be-published “Orphan to Mayor — A Rags to Riches Story With Everything In Between,” which includes personal observations about great leaders he’s worked with during his life.

Vidal serves as not only a model CU Denver graduate — an immigrant who learned English as a second language, and a non-traditional student who worked full-time to make his way through college — but as a model citizen, someone who has dedicated his life to public service.

Cuban roots

And it all started in Cuba.

Street performer in Cuba
CU Boulder News Corps faculty and students record live sound and video of a street performer in Cienfuegos, Cuba, as part of the documentary about the life of Guillermo “Bill” Vidal.

“¿Cómo fue? A Cuban Journey” will trace Vidal’s life from his Cuban boyhood through his time at CU Denver and his term as mayor. The title means roughly, “How did it happen?” as the film seeks to tell the story of how an immigrant became a celebrated public servant and published author. The crew went with Vidal to Cuba this past summer to capture his return to his native home at a time when U.S.-Cuban relations are thawing and travel restrictions and other sanctions are being relaxed.

Vidal fled Cuba in 1960, a year after Fidel Castro’s revolution and his Communist regime took over the country. Vidal was a benefactor of Operation Peter Pan, an effort funded by the U.S. government to provide air transportation to the United States for Cuban children.

Guillermo and his brothers failed to be met as planned by relatives in Miami, and instead ended up on a train to Pueblo, where in the middle of the night they arrived at Sacred Heart Orphanage, where they would spend the next four years before being reunited with their mother and father. Years later, after relocating with his family to Denver, Vidal enrolled at CU Denver, where he worked full time and yet still graduated in four years.

Calls CU Denver a ‘life raft’

Bill Vidal and Leanna Clark of CU Denver
Guillermo “Bill” Vidal being interviewed by Vice Chancellor Leanna Clark in the Chancellor’s Suite at the Hotel Teatro. The Hotel Teatro was formerly CU Denver classroom space when Vidal attended CU Denver in the 1970s.

“Guillermo’s time at CU Denver factors hugely into his story and into his success,” said Leanna Clark, vice chancellor of University Communications and a longtime, personal friend of Vidal’s. When Clark learned that CU Boulder’s News Corp, a program that produces student-driven content of interest to Colorado audiences, was planning to feature Vidal’s story in one of its projects, she reached out to Boulder to ensure News Corps understood Vidal’s ties to CU Denver, and a collaboration was born.

In addition to the 30-minute documentary film that will be produced as a result, University Communications is partnering with CU Denver’s Office of Advancement to create video clips and other content that feature Vidal talking about his time as a CU Denver student, to be used as part of an upcoming scholarship outreach campaign.

“Guillermo truly credits CU Denver with launching his career – he calls us his ‘life raft’ and says earning his engineering degree was one of the top accomplishments of his life,” said Clark.

‘An incredible jewel’

Guillermo Vidal at CU Denver graduation
Guillermo “Bill” Vidal stands with his parents at his graduation from CU Denver in 1973.

As part of the effort, Vidal visited CU Denver’s campus a few months ago, meeting with engineering students and talking with Chancellor Dorothy Horrell.  After a tour of campus, he said, “I’m just overwhelmed with how incredible the campus for CU Denver is now. I just think what an incredible jewel to the Denver metro area to have this great university right in our midst that’s so reachable.”

Although he graduated more than 40 years ago, Vidal still reflects the values and priorities so prevalent in today’s CU Denver students.  “I was serious about coming to school. I wanted to be here, and I wanted to learn because I was having to work so hard to do it,” said Vidal.  “I think that still exists … there are thousands of Guillermo Vidals graduating from CU Denver today. It’s just wonderful to think about the contribution CU Denver makes.”