Get our facts right, be entertaining,
but one other thing: tell the truth
by Allen Best
Ed Quillen once advised me that a journalist must avoid two fatal errors: to be inaccurate and to be dull. Rarely, if ever, was he either, as occurred to me during two events in his honor recently, the first in his hometown of Salida, Colo., and then two nights later in Boulder, Colo.
An anthology called “Deeper into the Heart of the Rockies,” has been published, containing 100 of his columns culled from among the 1,500 columns published in The Denver Post between 1999 and 2012, when he died. The book, a sequel to his previous anthology, called “Deep in the Heart of the Rockies,” is primarily the result of work by Abby Quillen, the daughter of Ed and Martha. She asked me to assist in selecting Ed’s best columns, and I did my best, working through 300 to 400 of them, mostly late at night.
I wasn’t of much help to Abby. I saved more than I discarded. What struck me again was how consistently good Ed was, and how extremely rare the duds. He was often funny and always informative, particularly in providing context of geography and history about this or that issue of the day, something that journalism does poorly. Most deliciously, you never knew exactly where he would take you. He tended to be liberal or, as one blogger described him in The Denver Post after his death, “mountain libertarian.” You wouldn’t bet on his conclusions. His arguments were buttressed by facts, not girded by some ossified ideology. Particularly in his later years, he was a first-order intellect, what the historian Patty Limerick, who has academic credentials that Ed lacked, describes as a populist intellectual. I’m sure she intended that as a compliment, as she’s fully engaged with the world outside of the academy.
The reading in Salida was held at the Victoria Tavern, one of Ed’s hangouts, where about 60 people showed up, double the number of seats that had been set out. There was a charming looseness to the affair. My favorite moment was when Mike Rosso, the owner of Colorado Central, the Salida-centric magazine that Ed and Martha founded in 1994, took the podium. He was dressed nicely, in a sweater, but after about three words he paused and then, with great drama, yanked the sweater off and pulled his T-shirt from out of his pants. Any event true to the spirit of Ed Quillen, he said, needed to reflect Ed’s sartorial style.
Although Ed put on a suit and tie a few times, it never took. He was as scruffy as sagebrush, and you either accepted that about him or you didn’t. But if he devoted little attention to his personal appearance, he was fastidious about the written language. Never was a comma out of place, and the few errors he made – he confused Columbia with Colombia in one of his columns —horrified him. He did his homework. And dull? Even in his rare off days, he was never that.
My other favorite moment at the Salida reading was in George Sibley’s monologue. George taught journalism at what used to be called Western State College. Sometimes he invited Ed to talk to his classes. George had wanted an emphasis on the value of community journalism, which had been Ed’s work before becoming a Denver Post columnist. Ed complied, talking about his years in putting out newspapers in Kremmling and Salida, but then broke from the script. Looking back, he said, he thought maybe his years would have been better spent writing a good novel.
Nobody else laughed, but I did. That was Ed again, never one to put on airs, always himself, and always true to his mission of truth-telling. He was accurate, entertaining and, more than either one, somebody who could reliably peel the controversies to get at the truth of a matter.
Two nights later, at a college auditorium at Boulder, the cast of readers was different and longer. No time was allowed for personal stories, but former State Senator Dennis Gallagher, a professor of Shakespeare before he got into politics, bent and troweled Ed’s words to maximum oratorical effect. Just as much fun was Greg Hobbs, a former water lawyer by practice and now a Colorado Supreme Court Justice, who read one of Ed’s best columns about water: “Water is easier to understand if you treat it like a religion.”
Both nights, I read a column published February 22, 2005, called “To Write like Hunter S.” He wrote it the day after receiving news of the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson. His column talks about craft, the power of opening passages, both by Thompson and another of his favorite writers, Ambrose Bierce. But the column is also about purpose of journalism.
In this column about Hunter Thompson, Ed had mentioned his one conversation with Thompson, an early morning telephone call from the famous “gonzo” writer about the Lisl Auman case. He did not explain Auman in that 2005 case, for he had to stick to his 750 words. But, in my appearances in Salida and Boulder, I did explain.
Lisl Auman in 1997 had been a young woman who had made some bad judgments that resulted in her being an innocent bystander when a police officer was shot and killed. For this, she was sentenced to life in prison. The law governing the particular circumstances allowed this, but it was a miscarriage of justice nonetheless. Ed was one of the first, maybe the very first, to call attention to the injustice, followed by others, including Hunter Thompson, who in turn was followed by celebrities. Lady Justice had her eye patch removed. Today, I told the group in Boulder, a woman walks free, partly as a result of Ed.
Oh yes, Ed had his prejudices. He never was fond of ski towns, and his lone experience in 1978 in Breckenridge left him less impressed yet. He often told of the time that he ran a photo of a snowplow that had slipped off an icy Highway 9 and the resulting phone call received from one of the local chamber people. What will tourists think when they read that snowplows slide off the highways here? Instead, he gravitated toward places like Leadville, which was more in line with his blue-collar sensibilities. But he wasn’t beholden to a certain mythology or political ideology. He let facts steer his thinking.
And Ed always had a way of assembling big pictures. In her comments in Boulder, Limerick, who directs the Center of the American West while also teaching history and writing books, shared that Ed had attended a forum about boom-and-bust economies of the West that her institute had sponsored. During that session, Ed had made an observation that caused her to step back with a new understanding, an “ah-hah” moment.
Limerick was a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, the so-called genius award. But Ed was a genius, too, if less formally recognized, and he delivered lots of ah-hah moments in his writing career. As I put in my foreward to Ed’s anthology, picking up the morning paper just isn’t as much fun since Ed has been gone. I miss him all the more.
You can order a copy of “Deeper in the Heart of the Rockies” through www.edquillen.com. Copies are also available at Barnes & Noble and, I think, Tattered Cover in Denver.