William Coors ’38 *39 and his nephew, Jeff Coors
The Denver Post via Getty Images
A Controversial Conservative Whose Years Had Great Highs and Lows

Aug. 11, 1916 Oct. 13, 2018

AS WILLIAM COORS ’38 *39 neared the end of his life, the longtime leader of his family’s brewing company wanted to frame his legacy around something else: a speech he gave to graduates of the American Academy of Achievement in 1981.

“Probably the most important thing that you must achieve if you’re going to achieve success is what I refer to as the 11th commandment: Thou shalt love thyself,” Coors said in the speech.

Chairman of Adolph Coors Co. for more than four decades, Coors was widely admired in business and conservative political circles. He developed insulators for the Manhattan Project during the 1940s, created the recyclable aluminum can in the 1950s, and eventually turned the regional brewer into the nation’s third-largest. There was great controversy, too, as anti-union policies and Coors’ public statements led to worker strikes and a long boycott of Coors beer in the 1970s.

At the same time, he dealt with personal tragedies: A son choked to death as a toddler, a brother was kidnapped and murdered as a young adult, and a daughter committed suicide when she was 40.

Coors’ struggles with depression and his aim to live a better life in light of his 11th commandment were illustrated in a recent documentary film, Bill Coors: The Will to Live. Coors was one of the film’s executive producers and writers.

“The pivotal element to Bill was that he was a young man who never received love as a child, so he never learned how to give or receive love as an adult,” says the film’s director, Kerry David. “And then it was ultimately self-love that saved him.”

Coors found healing through meditation, exercise, and alternative medicine. He brought those practices to the Coors Brewing Co. by opening a wellness center in the early 1980s and hiring an onsite chiropractor, viewed as innovations at the time. “People can be miserable, and they need a friend, so I decided to teach them how to cope with it,” Coors said in the documentary.

But organized labor, civil-rights groups, and others saw some of Coors’ statements and company policies as sexist, racist, and homophobic. Brewery workers struck in 1977 over company policies including the use of lie-detector tests: Unions said the tests asked about sexual orientation and political views, but the company said they were meant to screen out drug users. Employees who crossed picket lines voted the union out, prompting a 10-year boycott of Coors beer, led by the AFL-CIO.

Given some of his statements on politics and social issues, Coors’ positions on some topics were unpredictable. Coors’ son Scott said in the documentary that his father was supportive when Scott told Coors he was gay. Coors supported the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s, and as a trustee of his family’s philanthropic foundation, gave millions of dollars to environmental and other causes.

Coors Brewing Co. thrived for much of the 40-plus years Coors served as chairman. He took the company public in 1975, and began distributing the beer internationally in the ’80s. In 2005, three years after Coors retired, the company merged with the Canadian brewery Molson. Coors continued to serve as an official taste-tester for the brewery until his 100th birthday in 2016.

“Do you judge a man on errors he made throughout his life, or do you judge a man on who he became along that journey?” David says, reflecting on Coors’ legacy and the views and policies he espoused earlier in life. “That’s a question for everybody to answer for themselves.” 

Anna Mazarakis ’16 is a podcast producer.


Watch: A Trailer for ‘The Will to Live,’ a Documentary about William Coors and Suicide Prevention

Bill Coors: The Will to Live Trailer FINAL from KDC & Films on Vimeo.