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Longtime Dot's Diner owner remembered as a 'gentle spirit'

May 13—Peter Underhill was many things to many people: a boss, a father, a friend, a partner. But friends, family members and former employees remember him as a uniquely kind, laid-back, fun-loving soul who embodied the "funkiness" of Boulder.

A soft-spoken man with a youthful face and an uncanny resemblance to John Denver, Underhill was best known among locals as the owner of down-home eatery Dot's Diner. His family moved around when he was young to several different states, including New York and Kentucky, but they settled in Boulder when he and his sister were in elementary school, and he lived the rest of his life in Boulder, until his unexpected death early this month.

As a young man in his late 20s, he bought the original location of Dot's that was connected to a gas station at 799 Pearl St. A decade later, in 1998, Underhill moved to a new location on the Hill, in a since-demolished strip mall near Broadway and University Avenue, and around the same time opened an additional location on 28th Street. He ran the diner while raising his three children — Melissa, Adam and Bailey — taking them on RV trips and camping excursions when he could.

Underhill's diner was, and is, a vestige of the quirky, countercultural Boulder of days past. Brian Peterson, who worked at Dot's from 1996 to 2004, spoke of the diner's laid-back, bohemian vibe. From the surly, punk-rock dishwashers and cooks in the back to the "Naropa-type, esoteric" servers who took orders and turned tables, Peterson said, the characters at Dot's created a distinctive scene, and Underhill was the stage manager who made the whole show run smoothly.

In a Facebook post, Peterson wrote that Underhill was the "unassuming linchpin that brought together an enormous cast of weirdos, misfits, artists, musicians, punks, hippies, outcasts, bohemians, academics, dropouts, geniuses, hermits, and people from all walks of life, all under one roof."

Peterson told the Daily Camera that Underhill had been a drama geek while in school at Boulder High, and he had loved doing set production (lighting and sound). The "stage manager" persona seemed to stick with Underhill over the years as he ran his diner and managed his eclectic crew.

And friends and family say Underhill himself fit right in with the people who worked at his restaurant — he was known to coast around the diner in roller skates. His wife of 17 years, Megan Yalkut, said he was a huge Rolling Stones fan who loved to play poker and pool, and the two of them would go to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker.

But what many people remember most about Underhill is his generosity and loving nature.

Melissa Underhill, his oldest daughter, said he was a caring, supportive person who would bend over backwards to help his kids, his staff, or anyone else who needed it. He was known to lend money to struggling employees while they got their feet back on the ground. Melissa Underhill remembered him driving her younger sister, Bailey, to all her extracurricular activities, and when Melissa Underhill and her wife moved into a house, Peter Underhill helped them with putting in insulation and doing other projects around the house.

"Whatever we wanted, like, he made sure he made it happen," Melissa Underhill said. "If it was something that we really wanted ... he'd do whatever he could to make it happen."

"Peter touched people with his heart ... (he was a) gentle, gentle man — not just easygoing, but gentle, which is a word that I think you don't hear associated with a lot with people nowadays," said Mark Matheson, a friend of Underhill's since junior high. "He was a gentle spirit who loved life, and he loved the people around him."

Underhill died early in the morning on May 1 at age 59, days after being diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer. He would have turned 60 on May 31. Underhill is survived by his children, Melissa, Adam and Bailey Underhill, and stepdaughter Sarita Lidke; his wife, Megan Yalkut; and his mother, Cynthia Underhill.

Yalkut said there will likely be a memorial service, but the family has not yet chosen a day or time.