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Guest Column: Accidental career in journalism started at CMC
Covering Basalt Mayor Bob Murray and soaring in a glider were just two highlights

By Lynn Burton

My years as a local newspaper guy were 1981-2017. Blame it on Colorado Mountain College’s photography program which, in 1979, offered a way out for a 29-year-old college grad whose only marketable skills were typing and driving a car.

I’d ditched job my at the Lovett Cross-Country Ski factory in Boulder for a chance to earn a living more fulfilling than standing on a concrete floor for 10 hours a day, separating defective skis from good ones. I’d bought a 35mm Minolta camera three years earlier with my income tax refund and soon realized I probably didn’t have the natural talent to become a full-time photographer, but hoped that that earning an AA in that field might lead to something better.

Starting in 1981 with the old Free Weekly newspaper in Glenwood Springs, I covered a lot of what I wanted to in articles, personal columns and photos. I would have done some of the self-assignments for free, like the time a glider pilot took me up me up in a dual-control craft to circle above the Garfield County Airport searching for thermals. He was positioned in the skinny back seat while I was in the front, with nothing beyond my nose except the windshield, blue sky and hilly horizon.

After the pilot hit a switch to unhitch us from the tow airplane, which had pulled us high above the valley floor like a struggling mule, the pilot circled the plane a time or two then invited me to reach down between my knees and take the stick. I cautiously pulled the stick back to point the glider up into the wild-blue yonder, then forward to dive us toward the ground (like a  roller coaster ride), before gladly returning control to his experienced hands.

One of my Free Weekly newspaper beats in the 1980s was covering the Basalt Board of Trustees, upon which sat a man named Bob Murray, of whom an observer once said: “He could talk his way out of a locked closet.” By the time Murray became mayor a few years later, I’d started to recognize his philosophy of politics and governance wasn’t exactly the stuff of Jimmy Stewart in the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Example: After his landlady evicted him from a tiny trailer she owned, he handed the Basalt building inspector a list of alleged code violations. At about 135 pounds, Murray didn’t have much weight, but wasn’t shy about throwing it around.

Murray was a World War II veteran; he and a Basalt school teacher had applied for the town manager position in 1983. Murray unleashed one of his most infamous political attacks a few years later when he submitted a list of 18 reasons the trustees should consider firing the school teacher-turned-town-manager. Each bullet item started with a “Did you know … ” and continued with allegations like “ …  he sometimes doesn’t come to work until 1 or 2 p.m.” As reported in Carbondale’s Valley Journal in 1988, some of the allegations were so obscure the town manager himself didn’t know what Murray was referring to.

Murray was crafty at getting what he wanted and pretty smart in some ways. Example: During a town trustee meeting about possible annexations on what would become the Basalt bypass, he cited an obscure passage from “Robert’s Rules of Order” and prohibited a local architect from reading into the record a letter from the Basalt Chamber of Commerce. This chapter in Murray’s mayoral tenure gets more intriguing. During the same time frame as the bypass annexation talks, he called a special trustees meeting to try to ram through his proposal to establish a new committee to discuss those issues. But the public caught wind of the meeting, packed town hall for it and thumped Murray’s idea so soundly, a headline in the Valley Journal said “Basalt’s backdoor man shot down, powder burned and reeling.”

Finally, in 1988, Basalt residents circulated a recall petition against Murray and he lost to P&Z member Linda Johnson 203-145 (63-37 percent). The recall petition said in part: “His persistent use of character assassination … is an embarrassment to the town.” After feeling the public’s boot on his behind in the recall election, the former tourist-guide publisher kept a low profile until his death in the early 2000s.

As for my accidental career with local newspapers, upon entering CMC in 1979, I hoped that it would lead somewhere, even if it wasn’t a full-time photography gig. It did. Covering Basalt Mayor Bob Murray and soaring in a glider were just two highlights.

Lynn Duane Burton worked more than 30 years in an accidental career as a Roaring Fork Valley journalist. He is semi-retired and lives in Carbondale.