Su Lum: Slumming
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
On Sunday morning I opened the Internet edition of The Aspen Times and read that Bil Dunaway had died on Friday morning. And I got that sick feeling of despair that all of Aspen’s best old-timers were either gone or in the brink of crossing, being replaced by aliens from another planet – that not only would it never be the same, but that soon no one would even remember what Aspen had been.
Bil Dunaway was one of the most influential and the least pretentious men in Aspen, back when Aspen was a town that prided itself on its lack of pretense. He didn’t care a whit how he looked or what anyone thought about him or The Aspen Times, he just attacked his job as the purveyor of Aspen news and let the chips fall.
When I came to Aspen in 1964, Bil had already owned the paper for eight years. I had never been an avid reader of newspapers, local or otherwise, but I was immediately hooked on The Aspen Times. The news was entirely local, often with gory details, and even the ads reflected the individuality of the local business owners. There were no Pradas or Guccis, though Terese David, who ran an eclectic boutique, had a dog named Pucci.
Back then, The Aspen Times was hot. We came out every Thursday afternoon and people were lined up the whole block, wanting first crack at the classifieds, the news, Dunaway’s editorials. Back then, you had to wait for an employee to die to get a job at the paper – I got mine (proofreading, subscriptions, manning the front office – $2 an hour) when the previous Girl Friday moved away in 1965.
Dunaway was not a hands-on manager. Everyone knew what needed to be done and did it. Bil’s best quality as a boss was that he himself worked harder than any of us, setting the standard by example. He sat through hours of city council meetings every week, always good for several headline news stories, and wrote his editorials in longhand every Tuesday evening.
If he weren’t out tracking down a story he was fixing the toilet, or up on the roof with a bucket of tar paste for the leaks, or shoveling the sidewalk – no task was above him. We were loyal to him and he was loyal to us.
I remember a day in the late ’60s, when the ad department consisted of me and my assistant Terry, way back at the end of the aisle we called “editorial row.” One of Terry’s clients came roaring in mad as hell at a mistake in his ad and Dunaway ran down the row, grabbed this guy by the seat of his pants and the back of his collar and propelled him all the way through the building and out the door, yelling “I don’t care what happened, don’t you ever talk to one of my employees like that.”
In Mary Eshbaugh Hayes’ obituary of Feb. 27, 2011, she said that some employees remembered Bil cutting his own hair. I never saw that, but one time I mentioned that the condition of his desk chair, which was covered with duct tape and showing its stuffing, was beyond the pale even for him. He looked up, surprised, just as he always looked surprised when anyone pointed out that his striped bellbottom pants were a decade out of style.
The next day there was a strange looking crop circle on the floor of the ad department (by then moved to the front of the building where KSNO used to be) – round with a fringe of black around it. Turned out Bil had cut out a circle of newsprint, put it on the rug and spray-painted his whole chair black.
It wasn’t that he was so cheap, he just hated to bother about things like that. With his employees he was very generous with profit-sharing bonuses, and bought employee housing before the rest of the town caught on.
Dunaway led a life of high adventure, as chronicled in Mary’s obituary. He skied down mountains, raced fast cars, rarely looked back and never held grudges.
In some ways he was ready to sell the Times and in other ways it was hard to let go. He kept a tiny office and still came in every day to manage his own affairs. Old ski injuries made it harder and harder for him to walk, increasing deafness made it more and more difficult for him to communicate, and when his car keys were taken away after a few near-disasters he would ride the bus and sometimes get lost and would have to be taken home.
It was very sad to see him gradually fall apart, and sadder still to visit him in the lock-down unit of Heritage Park. He recognized me, but was far from his old self. “What kind of car are you driving?” he asked, and I wrote, “VW Beetle” on the notepad. “A Beetle, eh? That’s good.” Looking around, he said, “There sure are a lot of old people around here.” Then the heartbreaker, “What kind of car are you driving?”
When I read in the obit that he had already been cremated and that there would be no services – no memorial, no party, no Dunaway stories – it seemed a shame to let him go into that good night without some kind of celebration. Not that he would have wanted or expected it, wouldn’t have known what the fuss was about.