Jack Pera was many things to many people — a protector of wild places, a dry-witted columnist, an encouraging word on a wind-whipped mountain pass, a changer of lives. Some even affixed the word “legend” to his mantle, one he likely would have shrugged off, modest as he was. Heck, he would have shrugged off all of the accolades he’s received from those he touched in his 83 years in Telluride. Pera died Oct. 17 at his Hillside home, surrounded by his family.
Pera was a rare bird, indeed, a true native, and one that never left, even as Telluride verged on becoming a ghost town. In his eight-plus decades in these mountains, he saw the town’s economy evolve from one driven by mining, to a new model, one dedicated to skiing and tourism. It was a change he embraced, and he welcomed the influx of new people and ideas with open arms and an open mind.
This is not to say he was without a point of view. He loved picking up pen and paper for his regular column with the Planet, one he turned in on sheets of legal paper. The internet age was in its infancy, and though he would eventually join the digital fray, he did so when he felt like it. Former Planet copywriter, reporter and editor Erin Spillane was tasked with transcribing his Rantin’ ’n’ Ramblin’ column when she first arrived to Telluride and her new job in November 2000.
“Jack used to drop off in person his handwritten columns and stay and chew the fat for a bit with then-editor Bob Beer,” she said. “There were usually around four or five pages, yellow pages from a legal pad. I had just moved to Telluride and to say that I read, thoroughly absorbed, Jack's tales and rants would be an understatement. It was the most perfect introduction to the community through the eyes of a genuine old timer. It could have been a laborious task, but it never felt like it. Looking back on it, I am grateful he didn't have a laptop.”
In his May 2006 column titled, “Sure, I’ll make a run from it,” he’d been asked by county Republicans to run for San Miguel County commissioner, a proposition he deemed preposterous.
“Bureaucratic procedure is definitely not my bag, because so much wasted and boring time goes into it,” Pera opined. “Modern government has converted this into an art form. I don’t like politics in general and routine government dynamics are becoming increasingly abysmal and complex.”
He lamented a simpler time in county government when elected officials casually convened, “smoking cigarettes, telling jokes, writing checks.” And anyway, in the self-deprecating manner that stood out front and center in his columns, he pronounced himself, “severely mentally handicapped because my thinking is so 19th century. Last I checked, this is the 21st century, moving at warp speed toward the 25th.” Not to mention, he was, perhaps, a bit anti-government.
“I don’t like making decisions that adversely affect other people’s lives. I like to think people prefer making their own decisions about the quality of their lives, rather than increasingly capitulating it to government. I can barely manage my own life without taking on the burden of micromanaging.”
Needless to say, he turned down the opportunity.
In a classic “ramble” from May 2006, titled “Valley thrills, war and ticks,” his views on government were made clear, suggesting exactly where the buck stopped.
“The Bushies, led by a smirking idiot who doesn’t have a clue beyond propaganda and PR, are determined to plunge America into combative war against the rest of the world. Give them a few more months and they’ll surely succeed. Don’t blame them. Blame us. Government is us. Period. End of rant, but not the frustration.”
Pera made our phones ring, oh, yes, he did. But he had a prescience that intrigued his readers. From an August 2005 column, titled “Condamnation and the truth,” he peered into his crystal ball and saw the future we’re living now.
“In its unrelenting determination to wrestle away from the San Miguel Valley Corp. the valley floor land south of the abomination it acquired from CDOT (aka the spur), has the town of Telluride considered that, if successful this will virtually guarantee imminent massive commercial development along the north side of the highway between Hillside and the town? … Is sacrificing massive development on one side of the highway worth the gain of acquiring the other?”
But Pera’s point of view came with a lot of heart. Denise Clark was baptized into her life of activism and advocacy by Pera who, she said, set her on the road she’s followed since meeting him in the late 1980s. Pera had gathered a group of people to help him protect the wilderness he so loved, specifically, his efforts to thwart a timber sale that would have stripped the forested flanks of his beloved Sheep Mountain. Clark was one of those he enlisted and who eagerly threw her efforts into the cause and the organization that became known as Sheep Mountain Alliance.
“Jack Pera changed my life,” Clark said. “His form of activism was so authentic and sincere … so from the heart. He cared about the land and this part of the world.”
Clark remembers Pera sharing with her a moment in his life that shifted his perspective.
“He told me he put down his gun and picked up a camera,” she recalled. “It changed how he looked at the land.”
His mentorship, Clark said, “changed the way I saw the mountains and the land and gave me a huge sense of appreciation about what matters.”
Longtime local activist Linda Miller was also a founding member of Sheep Mountain Alliance. In her a recent Planet letter to the editor she wrote, “Jack Pera epitomized the adage, ‘you don’t know who you are, if you don’t know where you are.’ Jack loved this place and everyone living here now benefitted from that love.”
Though it seems the Mortell family has been at the rudder of community fixture Timberline Ace Hardware forever, before they purchased it, Jack and Davine Pera owned the business. Pam Masters remembers what fun it was to work for the couple, high school sweethearts, who’d married in 1956.
“I worked at Timberline with Jack and Davine in 1979,” Masters shared. “What sweet, wonderful people. Jack never lost his ability to work hard and amuse everybody who came in. Davine held up the books and paper work —all 100 pounds of her — and raced Jack home at noon to cook, eat and dash back in under an hour. Imogene training? Vicky, their funny, beautiful blonde daughter, worked with us and always had the answers since she'd grown up in the hardware store.”
The Peras owned the hardware store from 1969 through 1981.
Pera, it seemed was never idle. He gave back to his alma mater by volunteering for Telluride High School basketball games as the gatekeeper for home games. Miner maroon, through and through, and often with Davine at his side, Pera sold tickets, handed out programs, and assisted the school’s athletic directors, teams and coaches wherever he was needed. Telluride High School Athletic Director Chris Murray wrote a heartfelt letter to the paper that “a Telluride legend has left the gym,” and noted the stalwart volunteer’s selfless dedication.
“Jack gave back,” Murray wrote. “Jack gave his time to the community. Jack gave his time to the school. Jack gave perspective. Jack gave whatever he was able. Simply put, Jack gave to others.”
Pera’s sense of service melded with his love of running, which took him to the top of Imogene Pass. There, during the annual Imogene Pass Run, after he no longer competed, he lent encouragement to the athletes struggling through the thin air on their way to the finish line in Telluride from the start in Ouray.
Pam Masters shared a poem written by former San Miguel County poet laureate Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, a poem that anoints Pera as no less than a hero, simply for being Jack Pera.
The Hero of the Imogene Pass Race
When I think of encouragement,
I think of Jack Pera,
who stood every year
at the top of Imogene Pass—
in snow, in sun, in sleet, in fog.
On race day, a thousand plus runners
would reach the top,
weary, having climbed
over five thousand feet in ten miles,
and Jack, he would hold out his hand
and pull each of us up the last foot,
launching us toward the long downhill finish.
I remember how surprised I was
the first time, and grateful,
grateful to feel him reaching for me,
grateful to feel his powerful grip
yanking me up through the scree.
“Good job,” he’d say to each one of us,
cheering us though we were sweaty
and drooling and panting and spent.
After that first race, I knew to look for him
as I climbed the last pitch,
trying to make out his form
at the top of the ridge.
And there was. Every time.
“Good job,” he’d say
as he made that last steep step
feel like flight.
There are people who do this,
who hold out their hand,
year after year,
to help those who need it.
There are people who carry us
when we most need it,
if only for a moment.
When I heard today
Jack had died, I couldn’t help but imagine
an angel waiting there above him
as he took his last breath,
an angel with a firm grip and a big smile
holding out a hand, pulling him through that last breath,
telling him, “Good Job, Jack. Good job.”
And may he have felt in that moment
the blessing of that encouragement,
totally ready to be launched into whatever came next.
Good job, Jack Pera. Good job.