He’s been O.J. Simpson’s body guard, a pyrotechnic for the Grateful Dead and played with Merl Saunders for 35 years, and if you dine in the residence halls he is probably the person cooking your dinner.
Leonard “Boots” Jaffee, currently the Head Chef at Newsom Dining Hall, is not your average CSU employee. Steal a look behind his chef hat and one will find a pony tail wrapped entirely with ribbon that extends 10 feet from his head and must be draped from his belt in large loops to prevent it from dragging on the floor.
The New York City native’s story began in the 1960s when he helped Bill Graham, one of the most successful promoters in rock music history, open up The Fillmore East.
Boots found his way into the music scene through his mother, Odetta, a folk singer, who is hailed to be one of the most inspirational artists of the 21st century. Now at 81 years old, Boots said, “she’s still singing.”
Odetta influenced many great musicians of her time such as Bob Dylan, who was inspired to switch from an electric to an acoustic guitar after hearing her album, as well as other artists like Janis Joplin.
But Boots was playing his own cards in New York during the 60s. He began doing pyrotechnics, which he said impressed the guys from the Grateful Dead so much that they would ask him to go back to California with them, and eventually he did.
During his time with the Grateful Dead, Boots did what he called “special light shows” with fireballs or “three dimensional light shows.”
He remembers that Jerry Garcia really liked his fire shows, and sometimes called them the Ten Commandments or the Holy Grail.
“There was a quote from him (Garcia) with my photo in the Grateful Dead Family Album where Jerry said something like ‘when that stuff flashed into your eyes it burned itself into your head and that’s all you could see forever,” Boots said.
Boots described Garcia as a sweet guy who would talk to anybody about anything except Jerry Garcia.
“He didn’t like talking about himself, but he did really like to play guitar,” Boots said.
On New Year’s Eve of 1971, as midnight struck during the Grateful Dead show, Boots recalled setting off a giant explosion that sparked the numbers 71 in the form of fire. He said that visual lasted for about 20 minutes, similar to when a photo is taken the camera’s flash light is still apparent for some time.
“Ten years later someone came up to me and was like ‘hey you’re the fire guy, I always wondered how you made those white doves appear,'” Boots said.
After spending eight years on the road with the boys from 1968 to 1976, and still seemingly keeping in touch with them, today Boots describes The Dead as having been a bright group of guys.
“The point was that they could get totally fucked up and still create something really good,” Boots said.
Boots spent quite a few years of his life in the San Francisco Bay Area and eventually began managing Merl Saunder’s Bands, which he continued to do for 32 years. He would also join Saunders on his harmonica during shows more and more often throughout the years.
During his years traveling with Merl Saunders was when Boots discovered Colorado’s picturesque Poudre Canyon and the mountain venue where he would spend many years of his life, the Mishawaka Amphitheater.
“I fell in love with the Mish and the bartender there, and moved into the Poudre,” Boots said.
Boots was a cook at the Mishawaka restaurant and successfully helped open it up for winter hours, which was something that had never been done before. He eventually decided that he wanted a job that was more substantial and began working as a line cook for CSU Dining Services. However, he was quickly promoted because with such an extensive resume, it was hard to keep him doing simple jobs.
“I’ve cooked all over the world for many famous people like David Stiers and I’ve cooked in places like Italy and the West Indies,” Boots said.
However, Boots did not need cooking to make a living. He has attended three different colleges and has studied archeology and anthropology, graphic art and design, law enforcement and firearms and earned a doctorate in theology.
“My dad always said, ‘A day you didn’t learn something is a day wasted,'” Boots said.
Today Boots still lives in the Poudre Canyon with his wife who he calls Mish Chris, the same bartender who he fell in love with when he first came to the Mishawaka. Although Scene Magazine has called him “The Living Legend of the Mish,” Boots says that title truly belongs to his wife.
“She’s the star, she’s the one that’s kept me going, and she’s a legend in her own right,” Boots said.
His plans for the future are to continue to cook for CSU students.
And Boots does continue to play music as well. He surprised the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir last winter at the Fillmore Auditorium when he came on stage with his harmonica during a RatDog Concert, and also joined Weir on stage at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in July.
Yet, even with his history Boots seems to have found his place at CSU, in Fort Collins and in the Poudre Canyon. He said he loves CSU and appears as though he is devoted to his current line of work.
“I’m just going to keep on playing music and keep on cooking,” Boots said. “I like cooking for the kids and getting them to eat things they wouldn’t normally eat.”
Staff writer Elena Ulyanova can be reached at email@example.com.