Exemplifying the  Pioneer Spirit: Mary Lilly

Recently, the Mount Sopris Historical Society (MSHS) honored Mary Lilly with the Hattie Thompson award in recognition of Lilly’s love of learning, appreciation for the land and dedication to the community. “Mary’s indomitable spirit, kind heart and practical resolve exemplify the pioneering spirit that gave rise to the American West,” says MSHS Executive Director Beth White.

Mary Lilly first saw the Roaring Fork Valley in 1951, when she and her former husband, research scientist Dr. John Lilly, traveled from Philadelphia and camped near the Crystal River with their young sons Johnny and Charlie. There they befriended fellow campers John and Anne Holden, who had taught at Vermont’s Putney School and planned to start a similar school here.

Two years later, local rancher Harald “Shorty” Pabst donated 350-acres to the Holdens. Mary’s son Johnny was invited to come help build the new Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS). As Mary Lilly recalls, “They spent the summer digging holes for privies and building all kinds of things, which was pretty good for a city boy.” Both Johnny and his brother Charlie eventually attended CRMS.

Back east, Mary Lilly spent years supporting the work of her famous husband – only to be abruptly and wordlessly abandoned by him. In 1958, Mary was attending graduation ceremonies for her own, long-deferred bachelor’s degree in Washington while Dr. Lilly was presenting a conference speech to the American Psychiatric Association in San Francisco. Following the conference, John Lilly disappeared with the wife of a colleague. The Lillys divorced soon after.

In that era, more than a decade before the modern women’s movement, society was distinctly unfriendly to divorcees and partnerless mothers, and few career options were open to women. Nonetheless, Mary Lilly was undeterred in moving on with her life. Shortly after her divorce, she began working on a graduate degree in art at American University.

Over the next decade, Mary Lilly used that degree to teach art at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland. She chaperoned students to the World Academy for Study Abroad, telling the girls all about everything in Rome and Florence and Greece. “I didn’t know very much,” Mary recalls mischievously, “but I told them!”

In 1971, Mary returned to Carbondale. She bought a ranch and ran it with her son Charles. She also taught art at Colorado Mountain College, and renewed local friendships going back 20 years or more. Soon, Mary was actively involved with the Mount Sopris Historical Society and the Methodist Church. She also helped establish the local chapter of the League of Women Voters and co-founded the Crystal Valley Environmental Association.

While serving on the Mt. Sopris Historical Society’s board of directors, Lilly curated the community’s first oral history archive. The collected oral histories aired weekly on a KDNK radio program called “The Way it Was.”

Mary Lilly, who is now 99, received the Hattie Thompson award at the Historical Society’s annual Shindig in August.

Author David Troxel is a native of Carbondale, where he recently founded his mediation practice, Higher Ground Community Mediation.