Guest column: Remembering Randy Udall |

Guest column: Remembering Randy Udall

Mark Harvey
Guest Commentary

Randy Udall towered over most of us. The first time I met him he seemed imposing with his stature, raw-boned features, bearing and obvious intellect. I have to admit to being a little intimidated by the man and all the history he carried in his name on my first encounter. Son of Congressman Mo Udall, who ran for president in 1976, and nephew of Stewart Udall, who was secretary of the interior in the 1960s, Randy inherited an oversized personality and presence too big for small spaces.

What made him delightful and accessible to those of us who looked up to him from our stations closer to the ground was a poignant wit, an uncanny ability to see — stories, the interior life of friends, trends, patterns, rhythms — and a big, kind heart. Those same qualities might have precluded him from his birthright in politics.

Randy was nothing if not complex and complicated — terribly acerbic one moment and then a St. Bernard lavishing affection the next. He had a steady confidence in himself and his abilities, but it was tempered by a healthy self-doubt and, of course, his humility.

I don’t imagine you can be a Udall without considering the history of your forebears.

All the public service, leadership and clarity of vision that family has shown must be both an incentive and an impossibly high standard. It’s presumptuous to figure out where Randy fits in the legacy other than to say his legacy was at once his own and still rooted in the Udall tradition. A dendritic branch, part of the river or tree.

Randy was a great storyteller. His calling card was energy expert, but if you ever heard his talks, they were less BTUs and kilowatts than Lewis and Clark, the Wright brothers, American Indians, the American mind, American folly and the possibility of American redemption.

For those of us who liked to claim him in the camp of conservation or environmentalism, he sometimes made us bristle when he described the energy industry as enterprising or said Prudhoe Bay had served Alaskans well. But in the same talk, he would describe the flying-too-close-to-the-sun attitude of consumer and producer, the freebooting quality of oil wildcatters and the need to take up ancient patterns and rhythms with energy from the sun and the wind and the earth’s interior. Ultimately, I say he was still in “our” camp, but he never promised easy solutions or took the easy path of an ideologue. He made our camp stronger with his honesty.

His talks were mesmerizing, the cadence and plaintive tone taking us from the Oregon Trail to the Aleutians, from Powder River to the Land of the Ancients. Many of us nagged at him to go into politics, but when all is said and done, that might have been a waste of his real talent to describe and illustrate our past, present and future with his lucid mind. He wasn’t a natural politician, but he cared as much about the nation, especially the West, as his father; his uncle; his brother, Sen. Mark Udall; his cousin, Sen. Tom Udall; and untold other Udalls out there following the almost inexorable call to public service that is stamped on the family’s DNA. His stories about the nation, with energy as just a metaphor, gave us an understanding that only could come from a great narrator.

And of course he had an immense love of his family and unspoken pride in his children. We teased him fairly mercilessly about the piles of academic scholarships and athletic honors his children earned, and he deflected any credit with art and humility.

On a personal note, he was a good friend to me, like a bigger, older, smarter brother. Both encouraging and critical, he said a few things to me in person or in writing that stung like hell at the time, probably because they came from a place of truth and from his keen observation. It usually had to do with me being too sure of my own opinion or any sort of self-promotion, no matter how carefully disguised. But he also gave me great words of encouragement. I’m thankful for both.

Since his death, I’ve found myself writing him emails, forgetful that he is gone and deeply missing the sharp answers from an American sage. Ever sad for losing him, ever grateful to have known him and have him as my friend.

Mark Harvey, a native Aspenite, is a filmmaker, writer and photographer. He is an avid outdoorsman, chairman of Ecoflight and former board member of High Country News and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.