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March 2, 2011
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Dunaway's legacy, on and off the hill

As readers may or may not have noticed, it's been some time since we've run an editorial in this space. The reason: Due to staff cutbacks, I cover most of the hard news for the Sun and to opine about news stories would remove the objectivity that should be aspired to in these pages.

So much of my early training in the newspaper business comes from my mentors at The Aspen Times, long-time editor Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, whose column you still can enjoy on a weekly basis in the paper, and former publisher/owner Bil Dunaway, who died last Friday at the age of 87.

As per Dunaway's wishes (he was never Bil, always "Dunaway"), there will be no memorial service and thus, no place for friends and co-workers to share their stories.

But I have a few memories that I'd like to repeat right here.

I first met Dunaway at a media ski race in Winter Park while I was working at a Denver television station. We assembled what we thought was a very competitive team and actually made it to the finals. Standing in the starting gate of this dual event, I glanced over at a trim, mustachioed "older" man who I thought, dismissively, would provide little to no competition.

To say he blew my doors off would be an understatement. Unsurprisingly, the Times ski team of the current Aspen mayor, dedicated pressman Arlan Hemphill and Dunaway, the first person to ski Mont Blanc for heaven's sake, bested our News4 bunch by a few miles.

When I moved to the mountains the following year, I cruised into the Times' office and found Dunaway hunched over his desk, sorting through notes from the previous night's Aspen City Council meeting. I reminded him of our ski racing connection, which may have helped set me apart from the stack of other applicants who were dying to get on with the prestigious weekly paper.

Like any newbie reporter, I learned in the trenches and made some mistakes on the page. One - which involved a chairlift accident on Aspen Mountain - almost led to my dismissal but Dunaway forgave and forgot and didn't relieve me of my much beloved ski beat. In the meantime, he plugged away on those Aspen City Council stories, relishing the role of watchdog for the community and calling elected officials on any and every transgression.

Nothing was more offensive to him than an executive session and if you ever needed any clarification on the state's open meetings or "Sunshine Law," you needed look no further than Dunaway.

A reporter's days at this family-owned newspaper were long - we had no option of wire copy to fill the huge news holes - but it didn't matter because the story policy then was local-interest only.

If you'd bring your lunch, best to finish it in one sitting because no food was safe when Dunaway was in the room. He'd swipe a lonely cookie from a desk and felt no remorse about grabbing a sip from an errant soda can (that practice stopped after he tasted a cigarette butt in the bottom of a Coke).

After joining the Times staff, I was able to join the much-coveted Times' ski team and for two or three years, we'd travel to the occasional media ski race and crush the competition, just like I'd been crushed when I was on the opposing team. Dunaway seemed to truly enjoy hanging out with this rangy group of reporters on our weekend sojourns and while he was not much of a drinker, the boys on staff swear they convinced him (just a single time, mind you) to sample a puff of the evil weed.

Modest about his many accomplishments, one evening he rolled out the film projector onto the office's cracked Linoleum floor, threaded up the machine and shared his celluloid antics on the famed mountain. Over freshly popped corn and seated shoulder to shoulder, we watched our boss - quite the stud in his prime - thrill to the first known ski descent of Mont Blanc.

Legendary for his ability to squeeze a nickel, Dunaway nonetheless felt it important that his staff all had ski passes (he recognized that this was still a ski town) and even in a bad year, rewarded us with Christmas bonuses ranging from two weeks pay to a whopping five weeks of salary during one of the paper's gravy years.

Dunaway eventually stopped covering council, leaving younger hands to sit through those seven-hour meetings. But even when his work load shrunk to almost nothing, he still found purpose in riding his beater bike from home high up the hill in Eastwood to the Main St. office.

Things changed when the daily version of the Times was introduced in 1988 and I always felt he had mixed feelings about a publication that didn't provide all local content. But the competition across town was starting to eat into our revenues and the decision was made to launch the Times Daily on the morning after Election Day.

Those who hadn't worked with Dunaway in the trenches may have regarded him as quaint and even inconsequential to the news operation as he shuffled through papers and answered the occasional phone call from his now second floor office (having been kicked upstairs from our modest cubicles in "editorial row"). Retaining a hand in the paper, even though his role had diminished tremendously by this time, seemed to give him purpose and a place to go between long bike rides with George and Jeremy.

Dunway's final day on earth came while I was accompanying my daughter to a ski race, a little ironic, really. I now wonder if she could have beaten him in the gates during his race heyday - I sure couldn't.

What I can do to honor Bil Dunaway's legacy is continue to insist on open access of information for reporters by elected officials and never forget that our duty as journalists is to put the community's best interests ahead of corporate concerns and advertiser demands.

Thank you, Dunaway.

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The Aspen Times Updated Mar 2, 2011 12:57PM Published Mar 2, 2011 12:56PM Copyright 2011 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.