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Vagneur: A mysterious friendship

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore
Tony Vagneur

There are certain words one can use: serendipity, coincidence, fluke, good fortune, even sometimes sagacious.  

Or as my good friend, John M. Smith, says in his book Curious Events Occurred on The Way to My Funeral: “To me, the world seems to be divided into those who see our lives touched by ‘Coincidences’ and those who see ‘Something More’ at work. … For convenience, let’s just call those meetings and events “Mysteries.’”

It was 1960s autumn, when he arrived at the ranch looking for work, whatever he could do to get by for a time. We sat at the kitchen table — my dad, this stranger, and me — listening mostly to the stranger’s tale of what he’d been up to the last few years, his stint at Yale, photography, Kentucky farm life, and other endeavors he’d experienced. To a young lad, he was quite interesting, had my attention from the very beginning, and became my friend on some level I can’t describe — although in essence, he remained mostly a stranger until recently.



That event was in my estimation one of good fortune, a serendipitous happening, perhaps more on the level of “Something More,” although we didn’t know it. Maybe we should file it under “Mysteries.” Years later, our second encounter was at the ski-patrol shack on top of Aspen Mountain, during which we both were a little dusty about that first meeting, but we did remember each other. 

John M. Smith, in case you don’t remember or didn’t live here then, is the founder of Grassroots Community Television — mainstay television source for all of Aspen’s activities, including government meetings. A man of creativity and foresight, he was the pioneer in developing community television, a venue to let local people tell the stories in their own way.




This was 1971. Of all the folks who have had a lasting effect on Aspen, John Macauley Smith should be very near the top of the list.

“On the Edge of Ajax” was likely the most popular TV show to hit Aspen in the ’70s, a fictional tale of happenings in Aspen pasted together each week by Grassroots community members, acted out by friends, and shown in several major bars in town for the benefit of those who didn’t have cable television.

Smith undoubtedly wrote a number of scripts for the show — that is what he does; he’s a writer. And, a thinker. The above book, On the Way to My Funeral, is a memoir of sorts, a short trip through the twists and turns of the man’s life, the good, and the tough times. He doesn’t cut corners. At the heart of his varied life, he has been a farmer, a newspaper reporter, a photographer, taught journalism at UCLA, is a husband, and a father. And, a storyteller.  

My first wife, Caroline, and I were living at the T-Lazy-7 in those days, and one of the blessings of such a life was that we had no television. The only drawback, really, that I see now was that a couple of fellow patrollers were actors on “The Edge of Ajax.” Hello, Buddy Ortega. Ross Griffin. Those guys kept it low-key, although they did pique my curiosity. But, without a TV, I missed out.

Several years ago, Smith and I managed to get together via USPS, passing a few tales and a photograph back and forth. Somehow, we lost touch, and, later when I wanted to write a column about the founding of Grassroots Television, the address I had for him was no longer current. The last I knew, he lived on Crow Farm, in Veneta, Oregon. That address, on a brown manila envelope, has sat atop my office bookcase for years, awaiting further instructions, I reckon.  

Mysteries! I should have seen it coming. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a large murder of crows cavorting on my place, portending the rest of the column, which, if you can’t remember, can be found on The Times website. However, in today’s reflection, it was a foretelling of a communication soon to come from John Smith and his lovely bride, Catherine.

So, imagine my surprise the other day when I got an email from John and Catherine asking one of their Oregon neighbors if they could have the willow leaves dropped from the man’s willow bush. Inexplicably, the email was also addressed to me and naturally I responded, offering all the willow leaves I could find, hope against hope that this was the John Smith who, in another life, might have been my mentor. 

We have a strong connection, although it’s interesting to note that John and I have not visited in person since that chance meeting in the ski patrol shack in the 1970s. A mystical connection of something more.

John M. Smith is the author of other books, including the 1970 insightful and prophetic expose, Aspen/Dreams & Dilemmas: Love Letter to a Small Town, by John M. Smith and Peggy Clifford. Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.