Aspen Times fixture Mary Eshbaugh Hayes dies at 86

Andy Stone
The Aspen Times
Chris Cassatt

Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, award-winning writer, reporter, columnist, photographer and editor, died Thursday in her Aspen home after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 86.

A small woman with a very large career, Hayes focused with directness, clarity and simplicity on Aspen and, more than that, on the people of Aspen, in her newspaper stories, her photographs and her books.

Moving to Aspen in 1952, Hayes went to work almost immediately as a reporter and photographer at The Aspen Times, then a struggling small-town weekly. After working at the Times for two years, Hayes took 18 years off to raise her family while still working constantly as a freelance writer and photographer and helping run the family’s earthmoving business and her husband Jim’s silversmith business.

Grassroots TV produced this piece about Mary Hayes in 1974:

She then returned to the newspaper full time in 1972 as a reporter, then editor and finally the editor-in-chief (under owner-publisher Bil Dunaway), overseeing the paper’s explosive growth and its shift from weekly to daily publication.

Through it all, Hayes continued to produce her weekly column, “Around Aspen,” which documented the life of the town in words and photos, covering “Aspen society” — in all the changing definitions of that term through the decades. Dressed simply, with her glasses perched on her nose and her camera slung around her neck, she would show up at Aspen parties, from the fanciest to the simplest, from the festivities of visiting millionaires to the celebrations of hard-working local families.

Known to one and all as MEH, Hayes was, in fact, known to one and all. After more than 60 years in Aspen, Hayes collected friends (never “acquaintances;” friendship was her gift) from every Aspen generation along the way. Her daughter Pauli said that in recent years, it was almost impossible to accomplish any errands in town with her mother.

“It would take forever just to walk across town,” she said.

Their progress wasn’t slowed by Hayes’ age. She kept fit with regular trips to Glenwood Springs to swim a mile in the hot springs pool as well as constant hikes from her Bleeker Street home down the hill to Clark’s Market and then home again, hauling a cart full of groceries. It was people who made crosstown progress impossible.

“Mary knew everyone,” Pauli said, “and everyone wanted to stop and talk to her. And she wanted to talk to them. They loved and honored her, but she always wanted to talk about them — about what they’d been doing, about their new baby, about the things that had happened to them.”

She became the embodiment of the small town that Aspen had been when she moved here, where everyone knew everyone, a quality that was recognized when the Aspen Historical Society awarded her the (somewhat odd) title of “Living Landmark.”

Hayes’ focus on people ran as a clear thread through her life.

It was clear in her work, from her “Around Aspen” column to her thoughtful award-winning newspaper profiles of residents and visitors in her book “Aspen Potpourri,” a collection of photos and stories of local residents combined with their favorite recipes. It was clear in her career as she served as a friend and mentor to many young writers and reporters and newspaper staffers. And it was clear, perhaps above all, in her devotion (strong, but never showy) to her family: Her husband Jim, their five children, six grandchildren and one great grandson.

Raising a large family was difficult in Aspen in the 1950s and ’60s.

“We were dead-flat broke,” Pauli Hayes remembered. “Barely enough money to feed ourselves.”

But MEH kept the family afloat, kept the family together and taught them all the importance of generosity and art.

“We never had a TV,” Pauli Hayes said. “We read books, we drew pictures, we painted. And Mary loved small, random acts of kindness. We would go out and gather wildflowers, roll little paper cones and fill them with flowers, and then Mary would go into town and just pop in and give people these little bouquets, little papers of posies.”

Though she was a reporter and an editor, though she ran a newsroom and — during her time away from the paper, raising her family — she also hired and fired truck drivers for the Hayes earthmoving business, Mary Hayes was never cynical.

“She was such an optimist,” Pauli Hayes said. “She was somehow almost childlike, but with wisdom and breadth and compassion.”

Mary Eshbaugh Hayes was born Sept. 27, 1928, in Geneseo, New York. She began her newspaper career at age 14 at the local Livingston Republican, writing address labels for newspapers that were sent to local soldiers serving in World War II. She once wrote that she loved “the smell, the clatter of the linotype, the clank of the press, the old oak roll-top desks, the typewriters … the newspaper being printed that day.” She was hooked.

She graduated from Syracuse University in 1950 with degrees in English and journalism, then turned down a job as managing editor of the Livingston Republican in order to “head west.” She moved to Aurora, where she worked at the Aurora Advocate for two years.

Moving to Aspen in 1952, she (as she described it) “snagged the best-looking bachelor in town,” Jim Hayes, and went to work at The Aspen Times. In the course of her career there, she won dozens of awards from the Colorado Press Women’s Association and the National Federation of Press Women. Her books won the International Skiing History Association’s Ullr Award in 1997 and 2002. She was named to the Aspen Hall of Fame in 2008.

In addition to “Aspen Potpourri,” which has gone through five editions since 1968, she had significant publishing success with “The Story of Aspen,” which combined her newspaper profiles with photographs by herself and Aspen Times photographer Chris Cassatt. She also is known for her series of notecards featuring photos of Aspen Victorian doorways.

She is survived by her five children: Pauli Hayes, of Scottsville, Virginia; Elli Ford, of Center Sandwich, New Hampshire; Lauri Hayes, of Glenwood Springs; Clayton Hayes, of Honolulu; and Jess Bates, of Glenwood Springs and Aspen. She also is survived by her seven grandchildren and one great grandson: Gus Fitzgerald of Aspen; Tamas Bates, of Seattle; Paul Hayes, David Hayes and Reid Hayes, of Honolulu; Meridith Carr, of Annapolis, Maryland, and her son, John Carr; and Alice Ford, of Los Angeles. No plans for a memorial service have been announced.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Hospice of the Valley.