Carbondale's community connector

Carbondale’s monumental commitment to CMC

Locations: News Published

By Will Grandbois

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

Colorado Mountain College is celebrating 50 years of operation this year, and while Uncle Jimmy’s Pig Roast and Carnival at the Spring Valley Campus on April 28 is certainly a local celebration, there are plenty of stories even closer to home.

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For Debra Burleigh, who worked for CMC in Carbondale for most of the ‘90s and served as the location director on several occasions, the defining moment was in January 1995, when Ginny Lappala paid her a visit. Ginny and her late husband Paul were familiar faces at the school, and Ginny recently read an article about how the school was struggling to secure space as its numerous leases began to expire. She had spoken with her heirs and had decided to offer CMC half a block of property across the alley from their old house downtown.

“I came out of the office and said, ‘You guys won’t believe what just happened,’” Burleigh recalled. “All of the sudden we needed a new building ASAP. CMC really came together to let us bump ahead.”

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Before that, the school didn’t really have a dedicated location in Carbondale to house its community focused programming — in contrast to the more formal degree programs taking place at the Spring Valley Campus.

“We were in the high school, middle school, elementary school and all over downtown” Burleigh said. “We’d be rolling chalkboards down the street.”

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She recalls on one occasion in which an older man got stuck in an undersized school desk, and remembers when the computer room was upstairs in the Dinkel Building, where it always smelled of burgers from the bar below.

When the Lappala Center opened in 1996, however, there were shower facilities for active classes, space that could be used during the day and a chance to show off student work.

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“It was all of the sudden like a dream come true,” Burleigh said. “You could actually make a classroom feel like your own, and that was special.”

It also meant the school could host events from other organizations at the facility as a way of giving back. To this day, it provides paid parking during Mountain Fair as a fundraiser for the Spring Gulch Ski Area.

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“It was really embraced by so many people,” Burleigh said. “We’ve done everything from blacksmithing to beads to self empowerment.”

“I think lifelong learning just keeps opening your eyes,” she added. “It brings people together.”

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Further back

While the “new” building has been a major asset for the school, CMC Carbondale spent decades figuring out how to do a great deal without a lot of space. In the school’s early years, Spring Valley and Leadville had the only proper campuses, while community classes used a more distributed model – in the Aspen firehouse or basement of the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs.

When Shirley Bowen took over the fledgling Carbondale operation in 1976, she worked out of  the basement of the dental office on Third and Main (soon to be Carbondale Animal Hospital).

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“Our first view of students was their feet as they walked by,” through a window looking out at the sidewalk, she recalled.

Bowen had worked her way up in Leadville, before continuing education was subsumed by the main campus.

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“I really admired the college and their mission to not just offer degrees, but serve the communities,” she said. “They were determined that there would be some presence in as many communities as possible.”

During her tenure, the offices moved to a doublewide trailer at Second and Main that had held the town hall (folks still sometimes dropped off utility checks there), then into a space on the west side of the Dinkel Building that had formerly hosted the library.

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“Carbondale was very responsive, and we kept growing,” she said.

She tried to maintain a presence in Basalt, as well, and was always looking for courses to meet the needs of changing times. Some were practical — when Mid-Continent Coal and Coke required an EMT course for its employees, she made the trip up to the mine to perform the final test — while others were just hip.

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“Oh my goodness, we couldn’t offer enough aerobics classes,” she laughed.

While there was a major focus on lifelong learning, Bowen also worked hard to help ease the transition into adulthood.

“A major part of what CMC did and continues to do is give students a second chance,” she said. “The community college is absolutely the best educational deal any parent will find.”

Over the years, the operation became progressively more robust, and at one point Bowen was asked to obtain a Master’s Degree — which, as a single parent, she did mostly over the course of one summer. She had already moved to the administrative office when the Lappala land was offered, but she remembered Ginny fondly as a perennial instructor on how to teach those with dyslexia and learning disabilities.

“I admired her so much,” she said. “Ginny was ahead of her time.”

While she has fond memories of the old days of using vacant K-12 classrooms and working out of basements, she’s glad the school has a Carbondale home in perpetuity.

“I’m just glad there’s a facility here,” she added. “It offers a permanence we never had.”

What’s happening

What: Uncle Jimmy’s Pig Roast & Carnival

Where: CMC Spring Valley (3000 CR 114)

When: Friday, April 28, 2017

Welcome Reception:

10-10:30 a.m.

50th Anniversary Program:

10:30-11:45 a.m.

Pig Roast & Carnival:

11:45 a.m.-2 p.m.

The event is free, but RSVP is required at

Published in The Sopris Sun on April 27, 2017.