Longtime Aspen Times columnist Su Lum, known for acerbic wit, dies at age 80
Friends and family remembered Su Lum on Monday as a fixture at The Aspen Times, a relentless and unapologetic voice for preserving Aspen’s character, and a keen observer of life who called it like she saw it — often with a strategic dose of profanity.
Lum died at Aspen Valley Hospital on Sunday at age 80 from complications of pneumonia. She had battled lung disease after smoking cigarettes for decades, stubbornly quitting a few years ago when forced by deteriorating health.
Lum grew up in New Jersey, fled to Alaska with her then-husband in 1961 and proved her mettle by homesteading there. She found her true home in 1964 after she drove over the gravel road on Independence Pass and descended into Aspen.
“She just instantly felt like she had found her tribe,” said Skye Skinner, her daughter. “She never wanted to live anywhere else.”
Lum made her mark on the town over the next 51 years — most visibly as part of the trinity that guided The Aspen Times through the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and into the ’90s, along with former owner and publisher Bil Dunaway and former longtime editor Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, now both deceased.
“They were fixtures. That was The Aspen Times,” said Lauren Cassatt, who worked at the newspaper from 1972 to 1993.
Former Aspen Times Editor Andy Stone said, “Su was the last of what I always considered the triumverate of the Times: Bil Dunaway, Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, Su Lum. Like those two, Su was a unique Aspen character and her passing leaves a hole — a quirky hole, like Su, small in size but enormous in impact — that can never be filled. Perhaps Aspen’s greatest loss is that there are so few left who know how much we have lost with Su’s death.”
Lum, whom Stone described as “the small, salty woman with an indomitable spirit,” worked as the advertising director and an ad rep for The Aspen Times for 46 years. She was a columnist from the early days of the Aspen Times Daily in 1989 until her death. She intended to write an installment for her “Slumming” column from her hospital room a few days before she died, Skinner said.
Reveled Old Aspen
Lum lamented her retirement from her advertising post in a January 2012 column that demonstrated both her fondness for the atmosphere of the newspaper and her wit.
“Finally, there’s the prospect of surrendering my key to the Times, my second home,” Lum wrote. “That will be especially hard. Maybe I can make a small nest for myself in the front-office window with our old company cat, Scoop. You can come in and pet me from time to time.”
Lum had a knack of befriending many of the reporters, advertising reps and production people who cycled through the paper over the decades, despite a growing age gap with them. Former reporter Janet Urquhart regretted “squandering” the time they shared at the paper and not getting to know Lum better. Lum caught wind of that sentiment and soon started inviting Urquhart to her quaint house on East Cooper Avenue. She bought her place in about 1970 and refused to sell out, even as condominium monstrosities bracketed both sides.
A trip to Lum’s house for a chat in her kitchen provided a step back into old Aspen that Urquhart regretted missing in person.
“Her miner’s cabin with the rickety fence gate, garden boxes all over the front yard and a row of fake plants ‘growing’ along the fence line between her yard and the upscale condo next door was classic Su,” Urquhart recalled. “The property was like the anti-Aspen.”
Small stature, large presence
Lum was a small woman, but she had a commanding and occasionally intimidating presence. She wouldn’t hesitate to march into the newsroom to ask an editor why a story was written a particular way or why an issue wasn’t being pursued.
Bluntness carried over to her private life. Nancy Thomas, a close friend of Lum’s for more than 50 years, said Lum had a way of setting things straight and calling a spade a spade.
“She could just cut me off at the knees,” Thomas said. She later added, “She was a very potent character.”
Skinner said her mom’s characteristics included being funny, crass, inappropriate and unvarnished.
Lum pulled no punches in her column, which frequently delved into Aspen politics and development disputes.
Bruce Berger, a writer who was friends with Lum since 1964, said her focus was preserving Aspen’s character and “staving off development for the sole goal of money.”
“She studied the technical aspects of how the city was run in a way that I didn’t, and her columns as well as conversation taught me much about how Aspen’s changes played out,” Berger said in an email Monday while traveling. “And I knew better than to call her on Monday nights during City Council.”
Longtime Aspen Times columnist and former reporter John Colson said he had to be cautious with his column so he wouldn’t appear tainted on issues he was covering as a reporter. Lum wasn’t required to show the same caution and didn’t, he noted.
“Su’s wit, caustic and otherwise, has always been a marvel to me, as it has to readers uncounted. I know I speak for a lot of people when I say I will miss her voice, her quirky sense of humor, her adamant refusal to quit smoking until declining health forced the issue and her general toughness in so many ways,” Colson wrote in an email.
Urquhart said Lum was unpretentious and took pride in calling it like she saw it.
“Her bulls–t meter had a hair trigger,” Urquhart said. “It was one of her greatest gifts.”
Numerous sources interviewed for this story mentioned that Lum swore like a sailor, but no one wanted to be quoted as remembering her that way. Truth be known, Lum would haunt everyone involved if her obituary was varnished. She had a fondness for the word “f–k.” In fact, she once wrote an essay on 20 different ways to apply the word.
Beneath the shell
Beneath the hard shell, Lum was a caring and fun-loving person. Thomas said she couldn’t wait to return to Aspen each summer, in large part to hang with Lum.
Thomas said her kids as well as those of a couple other families always wanted to hang out at Su’s house. Lum’s warmth created a welcoming and permissive atmosphere.
“My kids just adored her,” she said.
Hillary Burgess was hired at The Aspen Times in the 1990s on the recommendation of Lum, even though they had never met. Lum later told Burgess her reputation preceded her. Burgess told Lum she suspected she wanted her to be hired because the women shared a love of dachshunds. Lum has owned several generations of the dogs, the latest being Freddie and Nicky (named after late Aspen icons Freddie Fischer and Nick DeWolfe). She wrote about them consistently in “Slumming.”
After Burgess left the Times, she and Lum wouldn’t let their friendship fade. They designated one night a week to get together, then it became a couple nights, and then Burgess took over Lum’s gardening. When Lum’s health deteriorated recently, Burgess moved into a shed on Lum’s property. Burgess was a caregiver and a best friend.
They watched TV shows “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” together every night. Lum got immersed in playing bridge online on Thursday afternoons, and pity the fool who interrupted her.
She also became an unlikely fan of the TV show “Judge Judy” after retirement. Lum wrote in a March 2012 column that she couldn’t explain how she got hooked into the “lowlife mayhem” of the so-called reality show.
“In part, it might be the false sense of security derived from watching certifiably crazy people arguing totally untenable cases. It makes you feel quite sane by comparison,” she wrote.
Memorial to be determined
Those who knew Lum best were as likely to recall her merrymaking, upbeat attitude and unique sense of humor as they were her bluntness and acerbic wit.
“She was the best boss,” said Bland Nesbit, who worked with Lum from 1980 to 1988. “We had a lot of laughs, that’s for sure.”
That included elaborate birthday parties for the ever-present band of dogs at The Aspen Times.
She was always concerned about the well-being of her daughters, Skinner and Hillery McCalister, and she was especially proud of her granddaughter Riley Burns.
The family intends to hold a remembrance of Su’s life at a later time to be determined.
“She just really lived and loved fiercely,” Skinner said. “She touched a lot of lives.”
And taking a page from her mom’s book of irreverence, Skinner added, “Hopefully, wherever she is, there’s an ashtray.”
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