Remembering Ed Quillen, that prodigious writer of the West

by George Sibley

Western writer, historian, thinker, polymath Ed Quillen, 61, died suddenly on Sunday, June 3. He had been a Denver Post columnist since the mid-1980s, a small-town journalist before that, and founded a regional magazine, Colorado Central, in the early 1990s. But that hardly begins to describe Quillen.

When the news of his sudden passing began to spread through the grapevine, I passed it along with the headline, “We have lost a great curmudgeon.” But that already slips toward something inexcusable in Quillen’s universe -- sentimentality -- even though Quillen described himself with the C-word almost as often as we did. But when Quillen used the word, it was usually to let you down a little more gently, as you realized the air was leaking out of whatever balloon he’d just terminally pricked: “Don’t mind me; I’m just an old curmudgeon.” His best disguise, but not really an epitaph.

But how to remember Quillen? The rest of the world seems content to drop him in the “liberal” box, but those who knew him, know better. At the Headwaters conferences at Colorado’s Western State College, I liked to give Quillen the job of summarizing a session -- probably revealing my own latent masochism. But since such gatherings tended to be primarily liberals talking to other liberals because the invited conservative speakers almost always left as soon as they finished speaking, unwilling to engage in discussion, I’d let Quillen beat up on us a little. Liberals need that every now and then. He would pop every progressive balloon that had been floated, in that wry way he had of making things sound funny even when they really weren’t, and before we knew it, we’d be howling with laughter at ourselves.

If Quillen spent more time skewering so-called conservatives than liberals, that was because they made him feel a little like a jilted lover. He disliked the kind of “yupscale” liberal sensibility that was spreading through the mountain towns he loved, but he also had a passionate love-hate relationship with what “conservative” had come to mean. He began his writing career as a card-carrying Republican, but dropped that when the Republicans became obsessed with militarism, womb control and xenophobia; he quoted Ronald Reagan, who had switched the other way: “I didn’t leave my party; my party left me.”

So Ed was neither liberal nor conservative in any conventional sense. He wrote frequently for High Country News, including one of the best things that ever came out of that journal, a long, deeply researched essay about the metropolizing of the West, under the working title, “Is Denver necessary?” But he was not exactly an environmentalist, either.

“I’m not big on purity,” he said in one column. He talked and wrote favorably about “old beater pickups” (usually with some uncontrolled substance stashed under the seat), and recommended putting beat-up refrigerators and washers on the porch to discourage yuppies from moving in, but he was neither redneck nor hippie himself; he read too much, thought too much. The night he died, says his wife, Martha, he was poring through not one but three books on the Civil War.

I have wasted some time this past week, trying to figure out the answer to the question I always thought there would be time to ask someday: “Well, Ed, dammit, what is your vision for America? What measures up, Ed? What’s good enough for your America?”

Now that Ed is gone, we can all collage our own answers to that question, using the 2-million-plus words he left behind. His “Deep in the Heart of the Rockies” is back in my bathroom, for those mostly quiet and contemplative parts of the day.

Myself, I think what Quillen was (and still is in those pages), is a small-r republican, a Jeffersonian. He wanted to live in an intelligent community that knew its place, in all senses of the phrase -- knew its earthly limits, didn’t measure its riches in dollars, had a government neither too big nor too small but just good -- a community that daily walked its dogs through its neighborhoods to keep the world around it fresh in the mind and deep in the heart.

And I realize, of course, that I am just giving my own answer to the question that I never got around to putting to Quillen, and now never can. That is what we miss most when someone moves on: Our conversation is over.

George Sibley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Gunnison, Colorado, and is writing a history of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

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