Longtime Aspen area resident Monroe Summers, regarded by just about everyone who knew him as the epitome of a Southern gentleman, died Tuesday at age 71.
Summers had an imposing physical stature, standing over 6 feet, 6 inches tall, but a gentle demeanor. He had a light drawl, an easy laugh, twinkle in his eyes and an interest in conversation that came across as genuine rather than forced.
“He was gentle, charming, respectful,” said family friend Sarah Tornare. “He’d do everything for you.”
“He was good-natured, more than anything,” added her husband, Felix Tornare.
Summers was well known in Aspen after living in the area for roughly 36 years, most of that time with his wife of many years, Glenda. His sudden passing after a brief illness left many people in disbelief, according to friends.
Summers was raised in the Orlando, Florida, area. He worked in the mid-1970s as a marketing man in a consulting and engineering firm in Atlanta, where he befriended Sunny Vann and Alan Richman. All three men ended up in Aspen.
“Monroe was the first of us that came out here,” Richman said.
While details are hazy with the passage of time, he recalled that Summers toured the West, swung through Aspen and probably fell in love with the free spirit of the place around 1978. Vann followed a year later when a planning position opened up with Aspen-Pitkin County Planning Department, and Richman was recruited to join the department in 1980.
Summers initially worked for the city of Aspen transit department, essentially a predecessor of Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. He later became the marketing director for the city of Aspen, where he had a third floor office next to then-city attorney Paul Taddune.
It was a much smaller staff at City Hall back then, Taddune said, and “very collegial.” Summers worked as a sort of jack-of-all trades. He was effective because he was a good listener and had a disarming personality when someone was upset about government action.
When a challenge arose that city staff balked at dealing with they’d say, “Oh, give it to Monroe to deal with,” said Glenn Horn, a government planner at the time.
“He was always calm. He never ripped his hair out over anything,” recalled Peggy Carlson, who works with Taddune now and worked in City Hall at the same time as Summers.
Summers was “a fun-loving guy” among a fun-loving crowd, Taddune said. “He was a supporting actor,” he said.
The City Hall crew typically gathered for cocktails at 4 p.m. on Fridays. Other City Hall workers of that era recall Summers could be regularly counted on to pop corn at 3 p.m. during workdays.
Summers’ personality made him very popular with his co-workers. His position didn’t survive the scrutiny of a new mayor, Bill Stirling. The dismissal of Summers in 1983 so incensed his fellow workers that Bill Tuite started a petition drive banning Stirling and the council from attending the city government Christmas party as a protest, Horn said.
Summers started a successful property-management firm in the mid-1980s. In 2000 he expanded into management of the city owned Cozy Point Ranch, which became his passion. He oversaw the horse boarding operation as well as the summer riding camp. But working the land and restoring the historic ranch to a producer of food and crops grabbed his interest.
Shortly after he secured a 10-year lease to manage Cozy Point in 2000, he befriended Felix and Sarah Tornare, who started the Milagro Ranch in Missouri Heights. The Tornares raise grass-fed beef and practice an agricultural technique more in harmony with the land. That appealed to Summers.
When Summers started working Cozy Point Ranch, he bought hay from the Tornares, borrowed equipment and tapped their knowledge, Felix said. Summers eventually secured leases on hay fields at W/J Ranch and other properties along McLain Flats Road, allowing him to grow enough hay for his expanding operation. He eventually started raising a special breed of cattle that he would sell to Milagro Ranch.
“He loved the land — not just taking off of it but putting back into it,” Felix Tornare said.
Summers secured a second 10-year lease on Cozy Point Ranch in 2010 and began building a legacy. In addition to operating the traditional businesses, Summers provided space for nonprofit organizations tied to sustainable agricultural practices. One of the beneficiaries is Aspen T.R.E.E., which focuses on education particularly of kids. Summers provided the nonprofit with about 1 acre of land for $1. Aspen T.R.E.E. has erected a greenhouse, a chicken coop, outdoor gardens in the summer and a farmyard featuring goats and alpacas.
Summers envisioned expanding food production at Cozy Point. He wanted to add space for a community garden and for a commercial grower that would sell produce onsite.
“I’m a big fan of the local food movement and the locavore movement,” Summers told the Aspen Times Weekly for an Aug. 2 article on his vision for the ranch. “I was never radical about it. I’m getting more like that as time goes on.”
While giving a reporter a tour of the ranch for that story, Summers noted that he could be kicking back and enjoying retirement rather than working hard on his vision. When asked what was driving him to keep at it, he looked at the kids riding horses at the camp at Cozy Point and said, “The kids. I know it sounds corny, but it’s really true.”
Eden Vardy, executive director of Aspen T.R.E.E., said Summers could be gruff and stern as well as funny and light-hearted.
“He was probably the hardest working man I’ve met,” Vardy said. “He was haying right up to when he had to go to the hospital.”
Summers would drive a tractor during cutting and baling of hay. He helped dig postholes for fences, and something Vardy said he will always remember, he constantly picked up liter.
“I never once saw him walk by a piece of garbage and not pick it up,” he said.
Aspen Parks and Recreation Manager Jeff Woods wrote a memo to the Aspen City Council on Tuesday informing them of Summers’ passing and assuring them that city staff is working with Summers’ team to make sure operations at Cozy Point continue to run smoothly. He noted that the city is working on a master plan to determine the property’s future.
“Staff is confident that Cozy Point Ranch, thanks to Monroe’s dedication and hard work, will remain a unique and special place for our community,” Woods’ memo said.
Summers wasn’t afraid to mix it up in the political arena. He bristled over development schemes and politicians that bowed to the development industry. He occasionally wrote letters on political matters both in Aspen and in the midvalley, where he lived at Holland Hills subdivision near Basalt.
“I could always count on his slow drawl and kind direction whenever I asked for his help — and sometimes when I didn’t,” said Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, who was aided by Summers in various campaigns. “(It was) exactly what I needed.”
Summers will be remembered best for his friendly nature.
“What could you do but love Monroe?” Richman said.