TELLURIDE – “If it weren’t for skiing I would wilt.”
From the looks of him on skis, Larry Wilkinson isn’t about to wilt any time soon, even though the founder of Telluride’s Wilkinson Public Library will be 90 years old in June.
We took a tour of the mountain together a couple of weeks ago, and on every (groomed) path Wilkinson stood erect on his skis, like a hood ornament – like a man who learned to ski in the leather-boot era, which he did – and steered subtle, round arcs everywhere we went. He cut such an elegant figure, comfortably cruising down See Forever, for example, you’d be unlikely to notice the oxygen tank on his back.
Wilkinson needs a little extra O2 these days, but he makes few other concessions to age. (He did move down to the relatively rich air of Montrose – down from 8,800 feet to 5,800 feet – in 1998, when he was 76.) He has skied Telluride every winter since its opening, in 1972.
Larry and Betty Wilkinson first came to Telluride in 1971 intending to stay just one year. Their three kids had all graduated from college, and a southern California friend had offered the use of an “unwinterized cabin” in town – a town that was half boarded up from the “quiet years” of the 1950s and 60s. Larry did some winterizing, and they never left.
First the skiing part. Larry taught himself to ski on a rope tow at Drumlins, a golf course next door to Syracuse University. (Drumlins are “swarms of glacial hill forms” scattered across much of upstate New York.) Then, “eventually I graduated to skiing at White Face,” the alpine hill at Lake Placid.
He attended Wesleyan University in his birth state of Connecticut, and when the war came he enlisted in the precursor to the Air Force, the Army Air Corps. “I knew about the 10th Mountain Division,” he said, somewhat wistfully, which was training in Colorado in the early 1940s. “As a skier, I kicked myself” for not signing up with the mountain troops. “But then again, I’m still here.” (The 10th, which saw bloody action in Italy, suffered the highest casualty rate per combat day of any U.S. division in World War II.)
With the peace, the Wilkinsons settled in southern California, where Larry did development work for an architectural firm that specialized in amphitheaters and gymnasiums and other large public projects. And he skied the close-by San Gabriel Mountains, particularly Mt. Waterman in the Wrightwood area.
Then came the Telluride offer and, Larry said, “We realized there was nothing keeping us in southern California. ”
“Betty couldn’t live without a library.” That’s the way Larry explains the genesis of their long involvement with libraries in their new home. (At the time, Telluride was visited once a week by a bookmobile.) “So, we started the first library, in the Quonset Hut, in 1973. We formed a nonprofit, Telluride Community Library, Inc. Betty was the librarian, and I built some shelves in one end” of what was then the all-purpose gym. Donations and late fees paid for the coal-fired heat.
The library needed to expand almost immediately. The Wilkinsons made a deal with the town for the old Telluride stone jail, across Spruce Street from The Senate bar. A countywide vote established the San Miguel County Public Library District No. 1, with 1.5 mills to renovate the tumbledown building. “That bond issue passed handsomely,” Wilkinson remembered, unlike the controversial $2 million bond issue in 1997, which was needed to build the current, 20,000 square-foot facility.
Not that the jailhouse library was easy. Larry and Betty hauled the needed sandstone building rocks, three and four at a time, in their van from down in San Miguel Canyon. Judge Tom Goldsmith helped with the labor pool: Instead of fines for dog-owners who let their hounds roam in town, he ordered them to work off their sentences at the library job site.
The jailhouse library opened in 1976. But even with an expansion in the mid-1980s, it was clear more space was required. The 1997 referendum was so close it went to a recount. And when all the counting and appealing was done, the bond issue had passed by two votes.
The acrimony dissipated, though, and by 2000 when the new space was dedicated, “The lines for the ceremony were down the block,” Wilkinson remembered. “The desire is what pushed it.”
Now the Wilkinson Public Library is a five-star edifice. Literally. The Library Journal Index of Public Library Services has awarded it five stars, the maximum, three years running for its circulation numbers, its programs and program attendance. The WPL is ranked the fifth busiest library in the nation for its size.
At Gorrono Ranch restaurant for lunch (Larry brought nuts and dried apple slices from a friend in Olathe), a parade of old friends stopped by to pay their respects: longtime ski school director Annie Vareille-Savath and her husband Robert, Hotel Columbia developer Jim Lincoln, security guru John Cohen. “For awhile I worked for food services here,” Wilkinson said with a sheepish grin. “I was known as the Mayor of Gorrono.”
He told me it was “great to ski with somebody.” He’s outlived most of his old ski partners. (Betty died in 1988. Larry has since remarried, and he’s “made a mountain girl out of Sally, but she doesn’t ski.”) He told me his brother Bob’s ashes are strewn along See Forever run. “That’s my wish, too,” he said. “No tombstone. My name is etched on the library; that’s enough for me.”
And then as we pushed off for one more run, and he stepped into his first turn, Larry said to no one in particular, “God, I love it.”
Contact Peter Shelton at email@example.com