‘Wilk’ dies at 63, leaves Smuggler legacy
September 27, 2006
George “Wilk” Wilkinson – whom friends considered one of the most misunderstood characters in Aspen – died at his California home Wednesday morning from brain cancer, according to his partner, Sharyn Wynters.”He was just an amazing man. His creativity was endless,” Wynters said.Wilkinson, 63, was diagnosed with brain cancer in April 2005 and given just a few months to live, Wynters said. He fought with a perseverance that surprised no one who knew him.Last weekend, Wynters held an art show in which 23 of Wilkinson’s paintings were on display. “I hired a string quartet and had it catered,” she said. Sixteen of Wilkinson’s paintings sold, much to his delight, his partner said. “He was hanging on for his art exhibit.”He died peacefully at their home in Tarzana.Wilkinson had a long history in Aspen. He moved to town after visiting as a ski racer in international competition in 1960 and lived here full time until 1995.Although he had a diverse range of talents, from ski racing to filmmaking and photography, Wilkinson will always be closely linked to Smuggler Mountain. He performed painstaking title work to track owners of mining claims on the mountain that flanks Aspen’s east side and legitimately gained title to about 200 acres.He sought development approval from Pitkin County in the late 1980s, then engaged in something best described as a cross between tug-of-war and chess with Pitkin County staff and commissioners. The battle continued into 2004, flaring up at times and smoldering at others.
In December, Wilkinson sold his 170 remaining acres for $15 million to Pitkin County and the city of Aspen. The property is perhaps one of the upper valley’s greatest pieces of open space since it is highly visible, and Smuggler Mountain Road gets so much use from hikers, mountain bikers and other recreationalists.Ray Wall, an attorney who represented Wilkinson in many of his land-use battles with the county, said Wilkinson had the same can-do attitude that characterized many of the people who settled the U.S. frontier. “He was of that fabric, that kind of man,” Wall said.The downside to that quality, Wall noted, was he didn’t always like to be subject to rules and regulations, especially when they interfered with his vision. That contributed to the years of litigation with Pitkin County.
“He could be very controversial, too,” Wall said, “and he could dig his heels in.”Jim True, who served as Pitkin County commissioner from 1989-97, experienced years of negotiations and battles with Wilkinson. “He knew I didn’t agree with what he wanted to do, but I never felt he hated me for it,” True said.When True took office in 1989, the commissioners knew Wilkinson had development rights on Smuggler Mountain. He recalled being impressed with all the work Wilkinson did to acquire the mining claims, which had a convoluted ownership history.”I think it was a demonstration of just how smart he was,” True said.By True’s estimate, the county was willing to allow development that would have netted Wilkinson about $10 million – a tidy sum anytime, but even tidier in 1990.
But settlement negotiations would always derail at the eleventh hour, with each side blaming the other. Wilkinson became increasingly frustrated because Pitkin County appeared to change land use rules specifically to stymie his chances of development.At the nastiest point in the feuds, the county bulldozed a house Wilkinson built without permits on his land above the viewing platform on Smuggler’s face. Another house that Wilkinson built near the same spot burned down in October 1999.Wynters said she and Wilkinson felt he was unfairly portrayed as a greedy developer in the Aspen newspapers throughout the long fight. She said they would make new friends in Aspen who would tell Wilkinson he was nothing like what they expected after reading accounts of the development battles.Wynters said Wilkinson had a vision for development of the land that included taking care of the common folks. “He had that dream for 30 years,” she said.Many people never knew of his appreciation for the arts and his own talents, Wynters said. He wrote poetry, painted, sculpted and made jewelry, she said. He was an accomplished photographer and filmmaker and had keen skills as an amateur geologist.Wilkinson is survived by his mother, Winifred; his first wife, Tulasi, and their son, Jaya; Wynters, and her boys through a previous marriage, Dylan and Josh Young.
There are currently no plans for a memorial service in Aspen.Although Aspen was home for Wilkinson for 35 years, Wynters said the Smuggler fight snuffed his enthusiasm for the town. Although he took the ashes of his father and brother to Smuggler Mountain, he had no similar desire for himself.”His spirit kind of left Aspen after Smuggler,” Wynters said. “After all this, he said he has no desire to be back in Aspen.”But he also put the land-use fight behind him. “He never carried malice, which is pretty amazing,” she said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.