Sweet pea of Aspen dies at 79
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
ASPEN – It was 1954, and Ramona Markalunas and her husband, Jim, had just moved to Aspen. A native of Kansas, she “took to Aspen like a duck takes to water,” her husband recalled Tuesday, less than two days after her death.
Markalunas – who in 1971 became the city’s first female council member and who for decades was a force to be reckoned with in the community’s historic-preservation arena – died Sunday evening at Aspen Ridge Alzheimer’s Special Care Center. Her 80th birthday would have been Monday.
“She cared about people,” her husband said. “She was a loving person. She had a great way of communicating. And all the old-timers of Aspen … they just loved her.”
Former Mayor Bill Stirling expressed sadness upon hearing the news. He remembered Markalunas’ work not only as a council member but also her longtime leadership role as a founder and president of the Aspen Historical Society.
“She fought fiercely for everything,” Stirling said. “She was a great preservationist, and she was very instrumental in bringing about the refurbishing and restoration of the ghost town out at Ashcroft. She also was very instrumental in getting the town to pay attention to Independence ghost town. Not everybody jumped on the bandwagon for those efforts.”
Stirling said he admired Markalunas’ “terrific persistence and staying power with things.” Many people in government and community affairs jump from one cause to another, or they become frustrated and disappear from the scene when they don’t make progress, he said.
“She loved Aspen, and she did all that she could to preserve the things that she thought were so great about it,” Stirling said.
Jim Markalunas and Stirling both mentioned her efforts to blanket Aspen with sweet peas – not the kind people eat but the flower.
Every spring, for many years, she and volunteers would stuff envelopes with sweet-pea seeds and take them to The Aspen Times, which would then distribute the seeds at no cost to newspaper customers or anyone who wanted them. The city’s sidewalks and front lawns were covered with sweet-pea flowers every summer and early fall.
“She was the sweet-pea lady of Aspen,” Jim Markalunas said. “She thought they smelled really good, and so did everybody. She collaborated with The Aspen Times on that. She went to (former owner) Bil Dunaway and said, ‘Let’s make this a sweet-pea summer.'”
In fact, the sweet pea was named Aspen’s official flower in a May 2001 City Council resolution in honor of the Markalunases’ service to the community.
Ramona and Jim met in November 1952 while they were both working in Denver. Jim had just been discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps after serving in the Korean War. They married in June 1953 and moved to Aspen, Jim’s hometown, the next year. At the time, Jim was returning to his old job at the city’s former hydroelectric facility on Castle Creek.
The Markalunases have a long record of government and community service to Aspen. In addition to being a council member and a founder and president of the Aspen Historical Society, Ramona Markalunas served on many other boards and task forces over the years, including one that was devoted to senior housing issues.
Jim Markalunas worked for the city’s Water Department for more than 35 years. Like Ramona, he served one four-year stint on the City Council. He’s also volunteered for numerous local causes, including the Aspen Homeless Shelter, the Salvation Army and Aspen Grove Cemetery. Both Jim and Ramona were longtime advocates of bringing light-rail service to the city.
Jim tells a story about his wife’s feisty spirit. He said that while working for the Water Department, he wanted to bring home an alarm that would sound if there ever was a power shutdown. Ramona put her foot down.
“She drew the line. She said, ‘Either the alarm goes or you go,'” Jim said.
In addition to other awards and honors over the years, they were jointly inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame in 2007.
Ramona Conner Markalunas is survived by her husband, Jim; daughter Julie Markalunas Hall, son-in-law Marshall Hall and grandsons Carter and John Hall; daughter Lisa Markalunas; son John Markalunas; son Tom Markalunas, daughter-in-law Leighann and granddaughters Ella Grace and Lily Kate; brothers Ed and Curt Conner; sisters Donna Huth and Ellen Sieminski; and extended family throughout the country.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated Friday at 10 a.m. at St. Mary Catholic Church, at 533 E. Main St. in Aspen, with a reception to follow. There will be a rosary at the church beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday. All members of the community are welcome to attend.
The family requests that donations be made in her memory to the Independence Pass Foundation, P.O. Box 1700, Aspen, CO 81612.
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