The one and only right brain/left brain person I ever knew
September 3, 2006
I met Donna Dowling in 1989, at a party celebrating my (re)arrival to the high country to help start the Summit Daily News. Also attending that party was my long-time partner in crime, Curtis Robinson. Curtis and I were the first two editorial employees of the Summit Daily, and Donna was then toiling away mightily at our sister paper, the Vail Daily, where her reputation for perfection verily permeated the newsroom. Who could have known that, a few years later, Donna and Curtis would become husband-and-wife?My relationship with Donna, unlike so many of you in the Roaring Fork Valley, was mainly through Curtis, a man who has been like a brother to me since we first met working at the Granby Sky-Hi News in early 1984. Curtis and Donna were vacationing in Mexico a few years back at the same time I was down there working on a story. We hooked up (and for those of you who know Curtis and/or me, this will not exactly be a stunner) and proceeded to spend the next few days enjoying numerous beverages. We ended up at a wonderfully ratty tavern in Sayulita before that town was discovered by every late-comer High Country sun-seeking Third-World-traveling wannabe on the planet. Curtis and I were on a good roll, and Donna was there for every sip. Though the exact details of the conversation remain slightly blurry, at some point in the evening, Curtis leaned over and said: “Man, I married well.” I heard him utter those same four words many more times over the years. And he meant it, clear down to his DNA. Curtis loved that woman so dearly.Yes, he married well. Stunningly, Thursday morning, after a half-year battle with the most aggressive form of cancer, Donna succumbed. I’d been talking to Curtis every week since the diagnosis was made in February. I am so proud of how he was during that trying time. There was never any reference to Donna alone … it was always “we,” as in: “We’re trying a new treatment.” Though I can only imagine how it must have been in private moments, on the surface, Curtis was of the opinion that “we” were going to beat this thing. It was only in the last few weeks that his tone changed. Fatigue and fear and sadness had entered his voice, and I knew that the love of his life was losing her battle. I did not know what to say. What are you supposed to say? The last time I saw Donna was last summer, when she, Curtis and their son Finn came to Frisco for a Mountain Gazette summit. Finn was a year old at the time, and, therefore, Donna could not stick with us during the entire meeting, which ended up not being measured in time, but, rather, in numbers of bars visited. But it was still wonderful to see how her face lit up with every little interaction with Finn. Though she definitely had a good sense of humor (a necessity for being married to Curtis), I always thought of Donna as a fairly serious person. During those few fleeting moments when she would come join us during that evening, she looked very, very happy. And my friend Curtis was happy to see Donna so happy.And that is how I’ll remember her.Donna was the only truly right brain/left brain person I ever knew. There are plenty of good photographers out there who are decent writers, and there are plenty of good writers who are decent photographers. But Donna could do it all: take astounding photos while also being able to write brilliant features and well-researched and conceived news stories. She could edit, design pages and do collages. She was the complete creative package. And she completed Curtis (and vice-versa) in a way I have rarely seen. Curtis and I were invited by George Sibley to participate in a weekend series of journalism-based seminars at Western State College in Gunnison. Just as the festivities were kicking in, Donna called. That horrible plane crash in Aspen had just happened, and Curtis spent much of the weekend on the phone with his wife, with whom, at the time, he was running the Roaring Fork Sunday. They were bouncing ideas off each other regarding how RFS ought to cover the catastrophe. I could, of course, only hear Curtis’ side of the conversation. But it was not his words that stick out in my memory; it was the look on his face. He was partnering with his partner, doing the thing they both loved doing the most: figuring out the best way to cover a local story. It was a wonderful thing to watch.When I talk to young people about the profession of journalism, 100-percent of the time I invoke Donna and Curtis, the two best community journalists I have ever known. I invoke Donna’s tenacity, her fight for the unexplored angle, her insistence upon getting every single syllable correct, but, most of all, her sense of compassion and fairness. There is no higher praise from one journalist to another.Curtis, one of my best pals, has lost his soul mate. Finn has lost his mother. Rufie, their invalid dog, has lost his caregiver. And she was only 41. This is one of those times when people take long walks and look into themselves and ask those Big Questions. How come to this person now? Why is the cosmos so cruel and uncaring?Unanswerable questions that maybe cause more heartburn than anything, especially when they are centered around someone so universally loved and respected.In the end, there’s only one thing I personally can take with me from such a tragedy: a recommendation that everyone find the ones you love and hold them tightly, for a long time, up until the point where you arms go to sleep in the embrace.M. John Fayhee most recently was editor/publisher of the Mountain Gazette, published in Summit County. More importantly, he has had the good fortune to be a close friend of the Robinsons, Curtis and Donna.
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