OURAY COUNTY – Conservationist, bartender, DJ and longtime Ridgway Mayor Pat Willits will receive the Ridgway-Ouray Community Council’s 2013 Outstanding Citizen Award, the ROCC Awards Committee announced this week.

Willits will be honored at ROCC’s annual Spaghetti Dinner on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. at the Ouray Community Center.

ROCC created the Outstanding Citizen Award to thank individuals who have made sustained contributions to Ouray County’s quality of life through their services to the community at large.

Whether Pat Willits is managing a controversial mining cleanup, a tension-filled town council meeting or the rebirth of the Sherbino Theater, he typically proceeds with a cool head and an easy smile. 

As Mayor of Ridgway for 12 years (2000-2012), he is credited with bringing efficiency and harmony to town government. When Willits stepped down from the office last year, his successor, John Clark, remarked that he had “big shoes to fill.”

"In all my years on Town Council, Pat was a joy and an inspiration to work with,” said Clark. “Calm, patient, not easy to anger; he really had just about the ideal personality for a mayor.”

Willits also is a familiar face behind the bar at the Colorado Boy Brewery. Music lovers hear his mellow voice on the air most Tuesday nights when he morphs into KURA Radio DJ Cimarron Slim.  “It’s therapeutic,” he said. “It’s the only time in my life anymore that I take the time to put on the headphones and just listen to music.”

Late in 2011, Willits learned that Ridgway was in danger of losing the Sherbino, a historic landmark, and he and other volunteers rallied the community to save the building. The group incorporated the nonprofit Ridgway Chautauqua Society, which raised enough funds to keep the theater afloat financially under a lease-option agreement. 

In little more than a year, the board and other volunteers have restored and revitalized the 98-year-old theater. In true Chautauqua tradition, programming includes concerts, award-winning films, children’s programs, dance and theater classes, and lectures.

“I’m a small part of that success,” said Willits, with typical humility, who chairs the Chautauqua board. “I appreciate the great volunteer help, the energy of the board members and the support of the community.” He sees the Sherbino’s rebirth as part of a larger vision for the revitalization of Clinton Street, which once was Ridgway’s main street. 

Brian Scranton, a Chautauqua Society board member, has half-joked that Willits’ parents should have named him Elmer, “because he is the glue that binds this community, and organizations like the Ridgway Chautauqua Society, together. We're lucky to have him in our ranks."

Willits and his family have lived in Ridgway since 1997. His wife, Deb, is a ski instructor and Ski School Training Coordinator at Telluride and a former member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) National Nordic Demonstration Team.  Daughter Sam is a student at Montana State University and son Orion is a senior at Ridgway High School, headed for Fort Lewis College next fall.

After graduating from San Diego State University with a BA in political science and public administration, Willits served as director of Nordic Skiing for Eldora Mountain Resort in Nederland, CO.  Summers, he worked as a river guide for a small raft touring company based in Moab, Utah.  

“It was the coolest thing I ever did in my life,” he said. “We ran trips to Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Alaska and Mexico. I’d leave home in April and not return until September.” Still an avid outdoorsman, the lanky 60-year-old skis, hikes, bikes and rafts, often accompanied by his faithful black lab, Rio.  

In 1990, Willits became Southwest Colorado Program Manager for the Nature Conservancy. In what was to become a familiar role, he worked with property owners, government agencies and other stakeholders to help them influence conservation of the San Miguel watershed. Willits found mining clean-up projects particularly fascinating. But the associated liability issues made the Conservancy’s lawyers nervous.

“That set me on the road,” he said. “I have an optimistic nature and think there’s always a way to overcome obstacles.”

He assembled a core group of like-minded conservationists, and in 2000 they incorporated the nonprofit Trust for Land Restoration, with Willits as executive director. The Ridgway-based organization has helped former mining communities throughout the state manage environmental remediation. TLR is now part of a consulting team for the town of Rico, which is negotiating a widespread cleanup of lead pollution from heavy metals mining.

A highlight of Willits’ legacy as mayor of Ridgway was the restoration of the Uncompahgre River corridor through town and the establishment of Rollans Park. The town received grant money totaling $850,000 for channel reconstruction, native planting and construction of the pedestrian bridge, as well as property donations from Jim Rollans and Ed and Linda Waites. “It was really exciting to see it all come together,” he said.

Over the years, Willits has received positive feedback for creating an atmosphere of openness and cooperation at Town Council meetings. “Good government at the local level is definitely a team sport,” he said. “We all worked hard during the time I was mayor to keep meetings fair, friendly and efficient, and make sure everyone gets heard. And I’m glad to see that tradition continuing to thrive at Ridgway Town Hall.”

Admission to the ROCC spaghetti dinner is $10 per adult, and free for children under 12.  The dinner includes spaghetti, a variety of homemade sauces, salad, garlic bread and homemade desserts. Beer and wine may be purchased.

The featured speaker for the dinner is Craig Childs, a southwest Colorado writer who focuses on natural sciences, archaeology and accounts of remarkable journeys into the wilderness. He has authored over a dozen critically acclaimed books as well as articles in numerous national publications.

For more information, contact Kate Kellogg at 970/626-3376 or katebkellogg@gmail.com.