A tribute to Bil Dunaway | AspenTimes.com

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A tribute to Bil Dunaway

Chris CassattIn the 1970s and '80s, Bil Dunaway's mustache and unkempt hair became a bit of a signature look.

ASPEN – Years ago, a friend of mine who spent many years in Colorado’s state Capitol commented to me that one of the reasons Colorado’s state government is more functional and effective than that of its neighbor, New Mexico, is because of a thriving newspaper culture, and the scrutiny it placed on state officials.

I would make the same argument about Aspen and its journalistic culture. It’s not that newspapers have all the answers, or always get the story just right. But when they’re functioning correctly, they shine a light on public affairs and promote honest discussion, civic involvement and accountability for decision-makers. Nine times out of 10, a town, city, state or nation with a strong “Fourth Estate” will be healthier than one without.

Bil Dunaway established a journalistic legacy that helped Aspen become both a world-class resort and a vibrant town with a full-time, year-round tradition of democratic debate. Bil, who ran The Aspen Times from 1956 to 1992 and died Feb. 25 at the age of 87, called for transparency in public affairs 40 years before the word was even applied to government. When the streets were unpaved and modern Aspen was still in its infancy, he argued for better public infrastructure, fairness in the courts and even hot plates in Aspen’s restaurants.

He urged Aspen to grow up. And it did.

Dunaway also happened to be an avid skier, climber and outdoorsman, which made him a perfect fit for this mountain town.

This Aspen Times Weekly is a tribute to Dunaway, who raised the bar for Aspen in innumerable ways. We’ve asked various friends, colleagues and former employees to share their thoughts on an Aspen icon, and they certainly delivered. Take a few minutes to learn about Bil, and enjoy.

– Bob Ward, editor

Runaway Dunaway has finally made his escape – and thank God for that. He needed to get out. It was time for Bil Dunaway to move on to whatever – if anything at all – comes next.

Now, if that sounds a little callous, I’m sorry, but I’m trying to write in the spirit of complete honesty, in the spirit of a newsman who tells the truth.

And that kind of truth-telling is the best monument I can offer to my personal hero.

I worked for Bil Dunaway at The Aspen Times on and off from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, when he finally surrendered ownership of the paper. And, like anyone who knew him, I have a good stock of Dunaway stories – his quirks and eccentricities, his astonishing accomplishments. And I could certainly recount a few of them here, with vast affection.

But I’m betting that others will more than fill that need.

I want to focus instead on one part of Bil’s character: the newsman. He was a real one and, in his own quirky way, a great one.

Bil Dunaway bought The Aspen Times in the mid-1950s and immediately began turning that sleepy little small-town rag into a real newspaper – and he used that newspaper to help turn this sleepy little small-time small town into a real city.

It might help to remember that not too long before Dunaway came to town, Aspen was so settled in its ways that the city fathers hadn’t bothered to hold elections for many years. Everyone thought everything was fine the way it was, so the mayor and City Council just kept their jobs and kept running things year after year without the bother of elections.

That had changed shortly before Bil got to Aspen, but the spirit of government had not.

The city council ran as an Old Boys club that frequently shooed everyone out of the room when they wanted to talk about “serious business.”

Bil Dunaway – newcomer, troublemaker – wouldn’t stand for that. Time after time, he protested vigorously when the council declared they were going into closed-door sessions and ordered everyone to leave.

Bil always left – he wasn’t one for civil disobedience – but eventually he wore them down and convinced the council to start doing the public’s business in public.

Over the years, Bil insisted on covering controversial stories – such as Aspen’s failing and unsanitary water system – even if they could have been “bad for business” in the fledgling resort. He stood up for hippies and against the Vietnam War and in support of unionizing the ski patrol.

That didn’t necessarily make him popular, but he didn’t care. It was the right thing for a newspaper to do and so he did it.

Bil, in fact, coined the slogan that the Times’ daily competitor has now adopted as its own. He published the news and if someone tried to kill an unfavorable story, Bil’s position was, “If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen.” (Damn, I wish he’d copyrighted that.)

And, by way of showing that he meant what he said, Bil was always very clear that embarrassing stories about his own family would be printed without flinching.

As owner/publisher/editor, Bil maintained a delicate balance between the business side and the editorial side of the paper. A lot of newspaper owners have solved that problem by caving in immediately whenever a story threatens to damage advertising revenues.

That was not Bil’s style.

When boycotts were threatened by businesses that disapproved of the paper’s editorial position, Bil shrugged. “They’ve tried that before,” he once told me. “And they always come back eventually. They need to advertise.”

I saw that side of Bil Dunaway one time when something I wrote enraged a local businessman. He called Dunaway to complain that he’d been misquoted and he threatened to sue. From my desk, I heard Dunaway raise his voice, interrupting whoever was on the other end of the line. “If Andy quoted you, then I’m sure it was accurate and we will stand behind it.”

There was a short silence, as he listened, and then Dunaway declared, “Go ahead. Sue us! People sue us all the time.” Then he slammed down the phone.

Dunaway called me into his office then and said, “He’s really angry.” I nodded, swallowing hard. “Did he really say what you quoted?” he asked me. I assured him the quote was accurate. “Good,” said Bil and that was the end of it.

He was a great man and a great newspaperman – and that is the end of it.

– Andy Stone

The first time I met Bil Dunaway was in 1956, just after he bought The Aspen Times. I was on my way to the Post Office (then in the Elks Building). Verlin Ringle, who had owned the Times for the past 11 years or so, ran out the front door and said, “I’ve just sold The Aspen Times and you had better come in and meet the new owner.” I had worked as a reporter-photographer for the Ringles before I married Jim Hayes in 1953.

There was Bil in his cast to the hip. He had come to Aspen to ski in a veteran’s race and had broken his leg the week before. He was in ski pants cut off to accommodate the cast and a tight, black and white striped T-shirt … somehow so macho and so full of himself, and somehow dangerous.

There had been a story about him in the paper, telling how he had skied down Mont Blanc and been editor of Skiing magazine. He seemed such a man of the world.

I had just sold a story to Ski magazine titled “Only a Row Of Tomatoes” and I was pretty proud of it as Ski, at that time, didn’t use fiction. But the editors liked it and bought and published it. Mr. Ringle introduced me to Bil as the writer. And Bil said, “You wrote that?” I looked really young for my age (I was 28 at the time and looked about 17).

Bil looked me up and down and condescendingly acted like I was some kind of little girl. I decided I didn’t like him.

But later he called and asked me to write the “Around Aspen” column, which I’ve been writing it ever since. And Bil and I established a kind of mutual respect relationship.

In 1972, when I wanted to go back to work full-time, he said I was first in line. I covered the police and sheriff beats as well as the school board, and the arts. One of my first stories was about a young girl who had been arrested for prostitution, the first such arrest in years. I went to Bil and said, “I don’t think I can do this job. I worried all night that I had ruined her reputation and life.”

Bil told me, “It’s not your problem. It’s hers. People have to learn that if they don’t want it printed, they shouldn’t do it.”

Years later, when talking with Dave Danforth, editor and publisher of the Aspen Daily News, he asked me what was the most important thing I had learned from Bil, and I told him that story. Danforth took Bil’s advice as his paper’s motto. I have never forgiven him.

I have to credit Bil for helping me become a writer. The first five years I worked for him, photographer Chris Cassatt and I had started our collaboration on feature stories and interviews, and we were winning awards. In 1977, when Bil called me at Conesus Lake in New York where I was visiting my Dad, he said, “You can be editor … but you have to keep writing.”

And so I was his associate editor for 15 more years until I retired in 1992, when he started negotiations to sell the paper to Full Court Press.

I always wished that Bil had done more feature writing. His account of going to the Himalayas and trying to find Fritz Stammberger, who disappeared on Tirich Mir while hiking solo, was beautiful and heartbreaking.

But there is something about writing features and interviews; it’s like you have exposed your heart to the world. And I don’t think Bil could do that.

I keep hoping that his widow, Barbara Dunaway, will find some writings in his lifetime collection of papers.

– Mary Eshbaugh Hayes

I was fortunate to have known Bil since my early days in Aspen, both professionally and socially. He was truly a remarkable person whose strong beliefs were not only spoken, as well as written and published, but acted upon without compromising his integrity.

In the 1960s, when I was Aspen’s city attorney, he attended every City Council meeting along with other municipal meetings and, when necessary, which was often, he would remind the council members what actions they had previously taken contrary to their current positions. At times the council members would request him to not only educate them but also to make recommendations on matters confronting them. He was clearly an unelected councilman. I recall one time he took me aside after a particularly contentious meeting and expressed in no uncertain terms how wrong I was in my legal opinion. Later I found out how right he was.

Later on, Bil and I became business partners and sat on a bank board, and invariably, in most every case, his honest and direct analysis of an issue settled the outcome.

He was truly his own man whose contribution to our community is unparalleled and we all should he grateful for his presence.

– Albert Kern

I first met Bil around 1970. I can date it a bit better since it occurred after the disappearance of Bil’s climbing partner, Fritz Stammberger, in the Hindu Kush. He and Bil had been part of an expedition to climb Tirich Mir, which did not succeed. Apparently Stammberger had returned to try to make a solo ascent. When he did not return, Bil was part of an expedition that tried to find him.

Bil later told me that he was able, from a plane, to follow some footprints on a glacier and then they disappeared. Stammberger had vanished. So Bil was without a hiking and climbing buddy. I think it was David Michaels who introduced us. I made it very clear that I was no Stammberger, but if he wanted to do some modest climbing I would be happy to join him.

One of the first things we did was to go up the Ute Trail and continue to the top. In those days we also climbed down – no gondola for us. We had come down Copper Gulch when Bil said we would take a shortcut to get back to the car. I thought he must know what he was doing, but soon we found ourselves on what seemed like a cliff covered with brush. It became quite clear to me that Bil was clueless about the route, but always self confident.

My favorite example occurred very early one season when we climbed the fisherman’s trail above Maroon Lake. As it happened, I knew this trail like the back of my hand. When we got to the top, the actual trail was covered in snow. I let Bil lead a traverse that I knew was above the trail. I also knew that if you went too far, you got into the woods with some unpleasant going. When we got to the crucial point, Bil wanted to continue on. His usual argument was “This is the way we always go,” which he used even if he had never set foot in the place. I told him that we were too high and had to go down. He restated his position. At this very moment, a party of hikers appeared below us on the trail. Bil claimed they were lost. I said that he could do what he wanted, but that I was going down to where they were. Over the years we must have done 50 hikes and climbs.

The biking came at about the same time. Bil joined the physicists every Thursday to ride up to Ashcroft. It was Thursday because that was the day he put The Aspen Times, then a weekly paper, to bed. Bil was a very strong biker but he insisted that I try to descend like he did – no hands. He had also been on many organized bike trips and invited me to join him on a trip to Bali. I agreed and we found ourselves biking in a sauna. It had its moments. A large coconut fell from a high tree and came within an ace of braining Bil. The directions were impossible: “Turn left at a pagoda …” The language was hopeless and the people always told you that you were there, wherever you were. We could not stand each other’s company and split up. About four in the afternoon I found myself on a long stretch of road. In the distance I saw another biker coming in the opposite direction. It was Bil. I pointed out that one of us must be wrong. I said that we should ask for directions to the ocean, since this seemed unambiguous. It worked and we got to our hotel by nightfall.

In 1987 we traveled to Tibet by road from Kathmandu. The border had just been opened to tourists and for a brief time it looked as if Tibet might be coming out of the shadow of the Chinese occupation. It did not last long. We arrived in Lhasa covered in grit, to find ourselves at a Holiday Inn that had a color television playing the Sound of Music. It was surreal. On the way back we went to the Everest base camp and climbed up to somewhere close to 20,000 feet. Everest got no closer. In Lhasa, Bil insisted that I pose in front of the Potala with a copy of The Aspen Times that he had brought with him. The picture appeared in the paper.

In recent years he suffered from dementia and the physical ailments of old age. I visited him time to time, but it broke my heart.

– Jeremy Bernstein

Bil Dunaway always championed the underdog, and rose to the occasion when the Aspen police began arresting hippies for vagrancy back in 1966 or early 1967. Guido Meyer was the magistrate and his prejudices were already well-known because he had an old “No Beatniks Allowed” sign on his restaurant door. The beatniks were on their way out, but here came the hippies. Guido was sentencing them to jail before they had even entered their pleas, and Dunaway was on fire.

I remember an evening when Bil got a call from Craig Dawson, who told him to come over to his house quick – he was onto something big. We dashed over to Craig’s place somewhere in the West End, where a kid named Ken Jenkins had just developed a roll of film he had shot of a cop harassing a couple whose offense was to sit on the steps of what was then The Bank of Aspen.

Ken Jenkins had just happened to pass by as the scene unfolded, and was snapping away from the other side of the street. As we pored over the tiny prints on the contact sheet, Ken dived back into Craig Dawson’s darkroom, making bigger and bigger enlargements and carrying them out dripping wet, just like a scene from the movie “Blow-Up.”

The photos told the story: the innocent couple (I think there may have been a child as well), startled to be accosted by an angry officer of the law, the writing of the vagrancy ticket, the couple walking off dejectedly. I wish I could remember the details more clearly, but it made a hell of a great double-page photo spread in the paper.

Advertisers staged boycotts and citizens did counter-boycotts, with pages and pages listing the names of Aspen Times supporters. The ACLU was called in and Joe Edwards defended the hippies in a successful class action suit.

Dunaway loved a good news story and I never saw him as excited as he was that time when those photographs were being enlarged.

– Su Lum

Like many of my over-educated and over-qualified predecessors, I had figured out soon after my arrival in town that the route to a coveted journalism job at The Aspen Times ran through the back office. My predecessor had risen through advertising to win the coveted crime, courts and drug beat at the weekly and I set out to use my skills with a No. 11 Exacto knife and pica stick to do the same.

I bargained for my salary with Bil as did the rest of my colleagues: Bil made an offer and I accepted it. When Evie left the drug beat behind, I moved up to the full $6 an hour and the prestige of being hated by both the DEA and the cocaine “community.”

In the early 1980s, the transition from a marijuana party scene to the cocaine culture was well under way, with coke users crashing against the hard reality of addiction and the public learning that federal law enforcement wasn’t always honest. Bil had no insight or interest in drugs and offered an aspiring journalist one and only one tool: complete freedom. If anyone knew less than I about drugs and crime, it was Bil.

With Bil, there were no restrictions on what you wrote, no requests to protect special persons or avoid offense to advertisers. You wrote about that which you felt important, so long as what you felt important filled a lot of space by the end of the week.

That meant I could and did have the latitude to name 54 alleged drug “associates” in a single story, seen by no editors prior to publication. It meant the freedom to spell out the misdeeds of DEA agents who exceeded their court-granted search authority. It was blogging before the Internet, with a bit more personal risk. And the storm of self-righteous denial by cops and crooks was not Bil’s problem when the story broke.

Bil reported on City Hall as a journalist and “sixth member.” He was used to blowback and couldn’t have cared less that the public reacted badly to the news that cocaine was a problem not confined to worker bees and young transients. Nonetheless, I was required to offer and did offer each and every subject of the story a chance to tell their side of the story. Only one prominent business person came in to tell his tale and I taped every word.

This meant a long, tedious morning transcribing word-for-word exactly what was told to Bil and I in the presence of the man’s attorney. The statement of denial ran on as a single sentence for almost a half-hour to the effect of, “I dint do nothin’ and I resent anything anyone says about me and I never heard of this guy who they say did drugs because I run a business and don’t have any drugs and how anyone could say this I dunno etc.”

Bil came by my office halfway through the transcription and looked at my old green and yellow computer screen. After reading a few paragraphs, he passed judgment: “You can’t print this.”

“But it’s what he said, exactly from the tape,” I answered.

But in Bil’s world, fair was fair and quoting someone’s incoherent drivel with punctilious accuracy would bury the aforementioned driveler, make him foolish as well as guilty and, worse still, put his beloved Aspen Times in a bad light by endorsing ridicule.

And so it was I came to rewrite the alleged dealer’s words to a level of coherence that amounted to a denial of the allegations rather than sounding like a riff on an old gangster movie. The truth, Bil taught, is often not the literal record.

Years later, some were still angry that they had been implicated in a federal warrant and that The Aspen Times had allowed its publication. Others came to tell me that what had been printed was the truth and they had changed their ways, made amends, gone on to live a life of respect, have families, do social good. The businessman never spoke to me again.

I can only hope future journalists and bloggers will learn as I did that the literal quote is not always the fair and truthful one.

– Mick Ireland

Fifty years ago, before glitz, fancy hotels and boutiques, timeshares and stoplights, Aspen was a vibrant community. The residents were passionate about her and kept close watch. Aspen was cherished almost jealously by her multi-talented (and sometimes a little crazy) residents.

And the leader, it seemed to me, was Bil Dunaway. Not only did he keep his finger on the pulse, he became the pulse of the community. He was the day and night watchman, who carefully eyed our direction and sounded the alarm if anything seemed askew or if he perceived we were drifting off course.

Public officials treated him as though he was a member of their board and often developed a stronger interest in what Bil thought than what their fellow members did.

And so, every Thursday afternoon, officials along with everyone else, would anxiously look for their personal paper boys. Lavish 25- to 50-cent tips could be made, if another week had passed without much too much expose’ about them.

Bil and I were good friends in those days. We did much together, skiing, climbing and hiking. Our whole family went hiking and camping with Bil and Barbara. The passion Bil had for the community spread to friends and children. When our kids, Johnny and Kate, could not say “Bil Dunaway,” he encouraged them instead to call him “Dun Bilaway,” which for some reason they could handle. We all still refer to him that way.

Late last fall, I went to visit Dun in Heritage Park. He was slow to relate. I talked about various outings, climbs and adventures we had had, especially a climb with Fritz Stammberger up the Grand Teton one summer. He became more alert. I took him outside in his wheelchair. We went back and forth beneath the shadow of Mt. Sopris. Becoming more and more animated, he announced we should get Fritz and go up Mt. Sopris this spring.

“OK,” I said. “Why not? I’ll call Fritz. We’ll do it as soon as the valley snow melts, Dun. It’ll be memorable.”

– John McBride

I honored Bil Dunaway with duct tape last Sunday.

I went skiing with a pair of blue gloves that had three fingers on the left hand and one finger on the right wrapped with gray duct tape. They’re decent gloves that got a little worn, but they were too good to throw away, so I salvaged them for another winter. Dunaway would have appreciated that.

Dunaway made a lot of money in media and real estate, but he never regarded his wealth as something to flaunt. One of the first times I met him on the slopes for a ski date, he was skiing Aspen Mountain with a long strip of gray duct tape covering a rip in his bright red parka. There was no such thing as a “fashion don’t” with Bil.

His frugality at the office, and my quick temper, led to our only scrape in the five years that I worked for him while he owned the paper. The Aspen Times relied on word processors that were grossly outdated by the late 1980s and early 1990s. All reporters and production people had these big, bulky monitors from a company called Micro Tek; we dubbed them Micro Wreck. They were slow, inefficient beasts that were temperamental about saving files. Sometimes they saved multiple versions in various places, sometimes they saved none. Reporters were close to revolt when the system mysteriously started eating stories and leaving no trace.

As editor of our daily edition at the time, I took our objections to Dunaway in 1990 or 1991. Perhaps a little too heatedly and dramatically, I complained that the word processors were making our jobs too difficult. Dunaway was a little crusty but generally mild-mannered. When provoked, however, he could dish it out. He heatedly told me maybe I needed to move on if the word processors made the job too tough.

We quickly made our peace. He said he didn’t want me to move on; I told him he deserved better than to hear a complaint in the form of a whine. Dunaway knew that passions sometimes flared in the stress of the newsroom, and he never held a grudge.

As a reporter and editor working for Bil, I always felt he had our back. One time in particular stood out. Former Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Bob Maynard and second-in-command Bill Turnage asked for a meeting with Bil to complain about the Times’ coverage. Bil invited myself, as the primary reporter covering the Skico, and then-editor Dave Price, to sit in.

Bil listened patiently while Maynard and Turnage blasted away. He didn’t get angry; he didn’t concede any point. After the bluster blew over, Bil thanked them for their opinion, promised we’d discuss their points, then gave Maynard and Turnage, who were new to town, a lesson on surviving in Aspen. He suggested they ease back and listen to the locals a bit before trying to implement so many changes. I will never forget the astonished look on the faces of the two men when Bil calmly told them their actions were coming across as “arrogant.”

Dunaway demonstrated over the years that passion, patience – and occasionally duct tape – were needed in Aspen.

– Scott Condon

The first time I met Bil Dunaway was an occasion of momentary disappointment, followed by years of satisfaction.

It was 1980, and I had been working at the Glenwood Post for two years, when Dunaway called me up at my desk and asked me to meet him at the local Baskin-Robbins to talk about coming to work for him.

My heart leaped, because The Aspen Times, over two years at the Post, had evolved in my mind to a tower of journalistic excellence and progressive writing, and I really wanted to work there.

Unbeknownst to me, Bil wanted me to become the editor of one of his satellite properties, the Rifle Telegram, not a staff writer at the Times.

Not quite the giant step in my career I had imagined, I thought. Little did I know.

A couple of years of work in Rifle, during the height of the oil shale boom when energy companies were trying to figure out how to wrest an oil-like material from deep underground, taught me a lot about a newspaper’s role in a small town dominated by a single industry.

In fact, Bil had hired me to battle against the conservative elements in town that did not like the Telegram’s skeptical view of oil shale, and had started a competing paper, the Rifle Tribune, to wage economic war against the Telegram.

A couple of years later, I had moved to another Dunaway satellite, the Valley Journal in Carbondale, and Bil again showed me proof of his faith and support in his staff, at whichever paper they worked.

A group of Carbondale businessmen, unhappy with something I had written in the paper, demanded a conference with me and Bil to air their grievances.

Bil came down and we all met at the old CMC office on Main Street. He listened to them for nearly an hour without saying much of anything, as they harangued and harrumphed about my wild editorials and my lack of respect for their interests.

After they had finally run out of steam, he asked them, “Are you finished?”

They nodded, and Bil turned to me and asked, “John, is there anything you want to say?” I looked at them, looked at Bil and, if my memory serves, replied, “Not really.”

Bil stood up, thanked the business owners for their time and said, “OK, then, we’re done,” and we walked out the door, leaving the group flummoxed at Bil’s lack of response to their demand that he DO SOMETHING about me.

As we walked, in very few words, Bil let me know that once he achieved a certain respect for a journalist in his employ, he stuck by him no matter what – a philosophy I had sensed, but never directly encountered, at the Telegram.

“If you’re not pissing some people off, then you’re not doing your job,” are his words that stick with me even now, 28 years later.

I got to know Bil in other ways, through other activities over the years and 17 years at The Aspen Times. I grew to love the man even as, occasionally, I chafed at his fabled miserliness and his equanimity when confronted over this issue or that controversy.

Like many, I was saddened at the news that he had passed away, but it’s for the best. He’d done all he could in this world, and if there’s another one, I’m sure it won’t be long before he makes his mark there as he did here.

– John Colson

I wish I had a complaint to make about Bil Dunaway. I worked with him and for him for 12 years. And I donated my time for eight years by hosting a half-hour, Monday-to-Friday noontime program on KSNO, a station in which he had a financial interest. The program interviewed everyone from school teachers, politicians and musicians to the famous who visited Aspen.

I don’t think Bil ever heard my program or listened to the radio, even though the station was in The Aspen Times building. He considered it only a financial enhancement.

But he was generous in other ways. I never heard him bawl out a reporter for a mistake. I covered county commissioner meetings for Bil when I worked for him, but he never had a reporter at commissioner meetings when I became a commissioner. I guess I should thank him for that too.

Aspen owes Bil many thanks.

– George Madsen