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Mary Lilly: Memoirs of a Carbondale grande dame

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(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about Mary Lilly).

By David Troxel

Sopris Sun Correspondent

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I recently asked Mary Lilly to tell me about the first time she ever laid eyes on Carbondale, and was rewarded with the “look” that anyone who knows her would have recognized: eyebrows slightly raised over bright grey-green eyes, soft but quizzical grin, and a gentle tip of her head, all clearly suggesting that I was asking the wrong question altogether.

“Really?” she replied with some amusement. “But that’s in the middle of the story! I’d better start at the beginning. We started out in California in 1936, and were interested in skiing in the mountains … .”

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And off we went. For the next 90 minutes, Mary guided me through much of the 99 years of a remarkable life that was woven through with strands of history, not only of Carbondale and the Crystal River valley, but of a nation passing through some of the most significant cultural events of the 20th century.

As she relates it, Mary Lilly’s journey to Carbondale began in Pasadena, California, following her marriage in 1936 to John Lilly, then an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology. She was an aspiring artist, and he was taking his first steps toward world renown as one of his generation’s leading research scientists. Their first son was born in 1937, and following John’s graduation a year later the Lillys leaped across the continent, landing in Hanover, New Hampshire, where John became a medical student at Dartmouth.

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New England

It was in the mountains of New England that Mary and John became avid alpine skiers, and began to feel the pull of the slopes of the West. That calling, however, would wait while another son was born, and the growing Lilly family migrated to Philadelphia so John could transfer to the University of Pennsylvania to finish his medical degree. In 1942, as the Second World War intensified, Dr. and Mrs. Lilly finally took a break and headed back west for some downhill fun.

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“But we didn’t make it to the Roaring Fork Valley that time,” says Mary. “We rented a cabin at the top of Route 70 (now Interstate 70), skied to the bottom of the pass, and had a friend pick us up in a car to go back up. We did that for several days. It was wonderful!” From there, they might have continued on to Aspen, but the plan for this trip took them instead over Berthoud Pass and on to Alta, Utah, where John’s Dartmouth skiing buddy (and soon-to-be Aspen skiing pioneer) Dick Durrance was developing a ski area. Carbondale would have to wait.

Back in Philadelphia, the Lilly family settled into the realities of life during wartime. Mary became a Red Cross nurse and worked on her undergraduate art degree, while Dr. Lilly conducted research into high-altitude flying at the university. “And of course it was wartime,” Mary recalls, “so everything was secret and everything was rationed. There wasn’t any butter, and you were allowed very little gasoline. There were coupons for everything, coupons for meat, coupons for automobile tires and all kinds of things.”

To relieve the pressures of urban life during the war, the Lillys moved out to the suburbs, to Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. While living there, John and Mary tried to replace the sailing they had enjoyed on the waterways further to the east with boating on nearby Brandywine Creek, but soon discovered that their four-person, rubberized kayak was too large for the small river. So they folded it up and packed it into their station wagon, along with sons Johnny, 14, and Charlie, 10, and headed west in search of a more suitable spot to launch their craft. Earlier trips through Colorado had suggested just the place.

“The Colorado River was the only big river that we knew about that went someplace, and so we camped with jungle hammocks at a little place on the river called No Name. We went on into Carbondale, looking for some other people with kayaks to go on the Nursery Rapids with us.” There they encountered D.R.C. “Darcy” Brown (long-time Aspen Ski Co. president and brother of Ruth “Ditty” Brown Perry, another Carbondale grande dame and close friend to Mary), who directed them up the Crystal River to Janeway Campground. “He told us there was another couple there from the east, and they had two boys, and he thought we’d enjoy meeting them. They were in the area looking for some property to start a school, like the Putney School in Vermont, where they had been working.”

So the Lilly family started up the nine miles of gravel road to Avalanche Creek in search of the family that Darcy Brown had thought they might like to meet. There, camping along the Crystal River, John and Mary Lilly met John and Anne Holden. It was 1951, and an important era in Carbondale history was about to begin.   

Next installment: Colorado Rocky Mountain School is founded, the Lilly family goes through hard times, and Mary comes to Nettle Creek.

Published in The Sopris Sun on May 21, 2015.
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