Former valley newspaper editor dies at 41
August 31, 2006
A former member of Aspen’s media community died Thursday morning after a short fight against cancer. Donna Dowling, who was the editor of Roaring Fork Sunday from 1995 to 2001, was 41 years old.Dowling was diagnosed with stage IV malignant melanoma in February. According to close friend and former business partner John Duffy, she pursued different treatments for the disease before the progressive disease took a turn for the worse.Dowling and her then-boyfriend and current husband, Curtis Robinson, first moved to Aspen in 1994 to work as reporter and editor, respectively, of the Aspen Daily News. After a year, they left the publication along with Duffy, the newspaper’s general manager, to begin what was then the valley’s only Sunday newspaper, Roaring Fork Sunday.The publication was Dowling’s vision, Robinson said, a combination of in-depth investigative pieces and long features.”Donna was all about significance – she was constantly asking ‘What’s the importance of this? Why does anyone care?'” Robinson said. “She also had great respect for the valley reader – that people in the valley actually give a damn. She thought that newspapers don’t have respect for readers – they start with the assumption that readers don’t want to read, and she thought that people do want to read.”
Robinson and Dowling married at the Aspen Chapel in 1995, and now have a 2-year-old son, Finnegan.Dowling was raised in New Jersey, and later attended journalism school at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., before taking an internship at the Los Angeles Times. She worked as a staff writer there before becoming the weekend editor at the Vail Daily in 1989, where she met Robinson.Mark Fox, a photographer for The Aspen Times, met Dowling at the Vail Daily.”She was sweet and quiet, and always had a smile for you,” he said. “This is a case of the good die too young.”Dowling and Robinson later moved to California, where she worked at various newspapers, including the Star-Free Press in Ventura.By the time Dowling was running Roaring Fork Sunday, she was a well-seasoned reporter who had honed her craft to a science.
“People would tell her anything, because she was just so sweet,” Robinson said. “They’d say the damnedest things, and then call me and say ‘She put that in the paper.’ I’d say, ‘What did you think she was going to do?'”Dowling hired Catherine Lutz, current managing editor at the Aspen Daily News, to work for the Roaring Fork Sunday in late 2000. Dowling was both her friend and a mentor, she said.”She was a really sharp reporter and editor,” Lutz said. “She used to bombard me with questions about what I was working on, and how to make it better. She had a quiet, confident way – she cared about the product and what she was doing, and what her employees were doing.” Dowling was a founding board member of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, something her husband said she was very proud of. She also helped found the valley’s first Spanish newspaper, La Mision.Writer Cam Burns was production manager at Roaring Fork Sunday in the late ’90s. He said Dowling was “completely honest, unbelievably intelligent and amazingly diplomatic.”
“She had a passion for understanding the human condition, and she brought that to journalism,” he said. “She taught you how to do things by doing them herself. She might challenge you, or question your point of view, but she was incredibly open to hearing what you had to say.”The Roaring Fork Sunday closed in 2001 – Morris Publishing Group bought it, and then Swift, current owner of The Aspen Times, which folded the newspapers. Dowling and Robinson moved to the Washington D.C., area and most recently lived in Arlington, Va.Dowling was also a photographer and artist, excelling at a mixed-media, collage-type art that blended words and pictures. She returned to the Roaring Fork Valley to show her work at the Woody Creek Gallery in 2002.”She put her heart in soul into anything she did, and didn’t do anything halfway,” Duffy said. “She was like that with people too – when she talked with you, you had her 100 percent attention, and she shared in your joys and sorrows.”A local celebration of Dowling’s life is in the works for later in September, as is a showing of her art at the Wyly Community Arts Center; details will follow.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org