Carbondale remembers centenarian Mary Lilly

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Mary Lilly of Carbondale, who turned 100 in early April, died on April 26. Locals will remember and celebrate her storied life during a memorial service on Monday.
Courtesy Linda Romero Criswell |

Mary Lilly remembered

A memorial service and celebration of the life of Mary Lilly is to begin at 10 a.m. Monday, May 2, in the Calaway Room at the Third Street Center in Carbondale. The ceremony will be followed by a light lunch. Friends of Mary are invited to gather together to share their stories and remembrances.

Linda Criswell always figured it was Mary Lilly who first picked up on dolphin sounds and how they mimicked human speech when she was working alongside her famous researcher ex-husband, John C. Lilly, in the middle part of the last century.

“That would be something Mary would notice,” said Criswell, who was a close friend of Mary’s in recent years and worked as her personal assistant, preparing John Lilly’s scientific papers to be handed over to Stanford University.

“I got to hear a lot about that period of her life,” Criswell said of one of Carbondale’s town matriarchs, who died last week after having just reached the 100-year milestone April 7.

“Going back to the 1880s, there has been a tradition of women helping women in our community, and Mary was one of them,” Criswell said. “She had a special love for people who struggled, who worked hard.

“Mary had high standards of behavior and did not care much for gossip, complaining or small talk.” — Linda Criswell

“And, as anyone who knew her would tell you, Mary had high standards of behavior and did not care much for gossip, complaining or small talk,” she said.

Wally Finley, longtime former pastor at the Carbondale Community United Methodist Church where Lilly was a member, would concur.

“She grew up in a cultured society, so she knew how to do things right,” Finley said. “It didn’t bother her at all to tell you how things should be done.”

Lilly died the morning of April 26 after a brief illness, attended to by a few of her remaining family members and some close Carbondale friends, including Criswell, Finley and his wife, Mary Peace Finley.

She was born Mary Crouch in San Diego on April 7, 1916, and grew up in southern California where she studied art, according to an obituary in the current issue of the Sopris Sun newspaper.

She married John Lilly in 1936 and they had two sons, John Jr. and Charles, both of whom preceded her in death.

The family left California and moved about the Eastern Seaboard before heading to Colorado in the 1940s and befriending John and Anne Holden, who later founded Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. The Lillys’ sons both attended the school.

In the 1950s, Mary and John moved back East to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., where John Lilly, a renowned neuroscientist and psychoanalyst, dove into his research on a variety of topics. Most notable was his work in human sensory deprivation and human-dolphin communication.

However, his growing fame took a toll on the marriage, the obituary notes, and he and Mary divorced in 1958.


Mary Lilly went on to earn an advanced degree in art from American University and then taught at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland.

She and son Charles moved back to Carbondale in 1971 and bought into the Four Pines Ranch on Nettle Creek south of town, where they grew heirloom apples and boarded farm animals.

According to Criswell, Lilly was one of the charter members of the Mount Sopris Historical Society, along with another of the town’s matriarchs, Mary Ferguson.

Mary Lilly and Charles moved to Hawaii for a period of time in the late 1990s to take care of John Lilly, who had retired there. He died in 2001, and a year later Charles also died unexpectedly.

Mary Lilly again returned to Carbondale, becoming active again with the library, her church and the historical society.

“I met her when I was giving a historical walking tour of Carbondale,” Criswell, the former director of the Mount Sopris Historical Society, said of their chance meeting in 2002.

“She gave me her phone number and address and said, ‘Call me,’” Criswell said. “We have been friends ever since.”


Lilly was instrumental in helping to get the historical museum on Weant Boulevard up and running, continuing a love of history that Charles had fostered in the community.

She was also a regular participant in the “Wake Up Now” gatherings at the flag pole in front of Carbondale Town Hall on Tuesday mornings, a tradition that started after the Iraq War broke out in 2003 as a way to honor lives lost.

“Those were the things that were meaningful to her,” Criswell said. “It is a great honor to us in Carbondale that she came back to this place to live. She could have settled anywhere, but she came back here because she liked the people.”

Finley also recalled the first time he met Lilly, when she came to church to “check out the new preacher.”

There had been a big rainstorm the night before, and she offered up prayers for the ranchers because the irrigation ditches were flooding, Finley said.

“We got about 10 or 12 people up to her ranch that afternoon to help dig out the ditches,” he said.

Finley also remembered Lilly as “an amazing lady. … Always so full of stories about her previous history before coming to Carbondale.”

“We were always rather humbled that she considered us to be very close friends,” he said.

Friends and acquaintances are invited to a memorial service and celebration of life for Lilly at 10 a.m. Monday at the Third Street Center in Carbondale.