By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff
“If you’re not pissin’ people off, you’re not doing your job.”
That’s what veteran journalist John Colson remembers Publisher Bil Dunaway telling him one day in the early 1980s, after a pack of prominent Carbondalians spent the better part of an hour complaining about the way Colson ran The Valley Journal, which Dunaway owned then.
It has become something of a mantra for Colson, who at 66 is retiring from The Sopris Sun this week after almost 40 years of newspapering from Rifle to Aspen.
“People, I think, need newspapers or some equivalent of newspapers to keep them informed… about what’s going on around them so people can make educated decisions about politics, about society, about whatever,” he said. “I believe an informed electorate is critical to the American Experiment at the very least, and maybe to the future of the world.”
Colson was born in Cleveland, Ohio but grew up all over and mostly identifies as a Wisconsinite.
“I had a very peripatetic life,” he said.
He graduated high school and had started college in Maryland when he got his draft notice for Vietnam. In most places, flat feet from childhood polio and some vision issues from a car wreck would have disqualified him to serve — but Maryland was an exception.
“I went through the physical and learned that I was in a state where, if you were alive and breathing they would draft you,” Colson observed.
His father, a veteran and staunch opponent to the Vietnam war, was having none of it. He took young John with him during a yearlong professorship in Wales — a trip that ironically started on a military transport plane. They returned just in time for Watergate.
“I was inspired, as so many kids were, by Woodward and Bernstein’s work,” he explained.
Before that, journalism was just one of several types of writing he’d dabbled in — from listening to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” read aloud to composing poetry to crafting science fiction short stories.
“I just learned early on that I liked the English language and I liked to use it,” he said.
After getting a journalism degree in Madison, Colson got on a motorcycle and came West. His actual destination was California, where a friend had encouraged him to try out screenwriting, but a stop in Glenwood Springs turned into a month-long layover. By comparison, the west coast seemed less appealing, so Colson came back and landed a job at the old Glenwood Post.
“The rest, as they say, is my story,” he observed.
Two years later, he met with Bil Dunaway at the local Baskin Robbins and was offered a job as editor of The Rifle Telegram. He lost the job there, ostensibly for keeping a messy desk, but stuck around Rifle at a competing paper in town, The Rifle Tribune, until oil shale went bust in 1982. That’s when he took an offer to become editor of The Valley Journal and moved to Carbondale. Weekly editorship took its toll, and in 1985 he opted to work as a stringer for the Denver Post for a while until a job opened up at The Aspen Times, where he stayed for 17 years, doing a Tuesday column that continues to this day, and became friends with Hunter S. Thompson.
Colson’s journalistic career wasn’t unbroken, however. Twice he flew to the Soviet Union to participate in the International Peace Walks, and he even began learning Russian, with plans to return and help with the transition to a free press; but instead he fell in love and got married.
He did stints as a liquor salesman at Carl’s Pharmacy and as “the world’s worst waiter” at Pine Creek Cookhouse.
“If someone got jerky with me, I’d get jerky right back,” he explained — an attitude that once earned him a dime for a tip on a $2,000 bill.
He ended up being pulled back to newspapering at The Times, a second stint at the Valley Journal and later at the Post Independent. When the latter let him go, he came to work for The Sopris Sun.
“They couldn’t afford to pay me much, but I didn’t need much,” he said. “I also wanted to help the paper. I was really bummed when Swift (Communications) killed the Valley Journal. I thought that was a grievous error and a slap in the face to the town.”
He found it easy to work with then-editor Lynn Burton to give The Sun an identity and a backbone of hard news.
“I enjoyed the hell out of it. I still do,” Colson said. “The reason I’m leaving is not because I’m unhappy… I’m just tired. I’ve been covering news in this region for almost 40 years, and that’s a long time to be writing about basically the same stories… It starts to wear you down when things don’t seem to respond to the best efforts of many reasonable, progressive people.”
He still plans to be involved in some capacity.
“Nonprofit news gathering organizations are still a novelty in the world,” he said. “I think they have a place, and I’m happy and honored to be part of trying to work out what that is in this locality.”
He also hopes to ride his motorcycle as much as possible, and has contemplated getting a camper van for adventures around The West. There’s also an idea in the back of his head that it might be time to try writing fiction again. What else is on the horizon is hard to say.
“My ego and identity has been entirely wrapped up in journalism for so long,” he observed. “I don’t know who John Colson is going to be as time moves along.”
This much we do know: Colson will be taking the High Noon shift at the Pour House on Sept. 14, so anyone who he hasn’t pissed off — or pissed off much — can come by and wish him well.