Vail pioneer June Simonton: ‘Delightfully unique’
Ryan Summerlin February 27, 2013
VAIL, Colorado – Vail lost a kindred spirit and companion with the passing of June Simonton Feb. 19. June was born in Albany, N.Y., and raised in New Jersey. One of three sisters, she spoke often of summers spent with her family at Swartswood Lake, where she learned to fly fish, sail and canoe.
At Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, she met her future husband, Don. The two sang together in the prestigious Gettysburg College Choir. They were married in 1952, and spent a summer honeymoon living in a cabin seven miles up rugged Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park, where Don was working as a park ranger. The wild places of Wyoming served as June’s introduction to the Rocky Mountain West, and she was hooked.
Following their graduations from college and seminary in 1953, June and Don headed for New Mexico to organize and build a Lutheran church in Albuquerque, where sons Cliff and Denny were born. In New Mexico, the Simontons founded another church in Santa Fe.
In 1957, Don founded Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp near Westcliffe and became camp director. The family spent summers on a ranch near the camp for many years, and fell in love with the mountains and ranching lifestyles of Colorado. When Don was offered the opportunity to provide ministry to this “new ski resort town called Vail” west of Denver, he and June didn’t hesitate, arriving in the Gore Valley in the fall of 1967. At that time there was no TV, and a herd of elk were known to bed down for the winter where Safeway presently sits. To call any of the 200 or so residents in the valley required dialing just the last four numbers on the phone. What a cool place!
A family, a congregation, a community
Don began building a congregation which later became the Mount of the Holy Cross Lutheran Church, while June busied herself raising her two boys, organizing church functions, making friends, and participating in as many of the activities available in her new home as she possibly could. She loved hiking, skiing, fishing, camping, gathering wild mushrooms and digging for old bottles, as long as there was someone to share the adventure with.
“She was my best friend,” early Vail resident Ellen Jacobsen said. “We would spend days digging for bottles in old mining towns and at places like the Leadville dump. Our excavations were sometimes very large, and it was so exciting when one of us would call out ‘I think I have something!’. We would then work like archeologists to extract whatever it was – and many, many treasures were found. Her enthusiasm and energy and sense of humor made her so much fun to be around.”
Enchanted by the colors of the New Mexican landscape, June began painting the mesas and mountains of the southwest when she lived in Albuquerque. She later took lessons at the Santa Fe School of Fine Arts and continued her studies at numerous workshops with renowned artists including Lorenzo Chavez, Gerald Fritzler, Jack Kephart and, most recently, with Gerald Merfeld in his studio workshop near Westcliffe.
Talented in all mediums, her oils, pastels and watercolors won many awards in art shows both in Vail and in the Wet Mountain Valley near Westcliffe. She recently earned Best of Show in the professional class at the Palisade Art Show in Grand Junction. Friends and family remember her “waking up with a paintbrush in her hand, and having it with her when she returned to bed at night.”
She frequently challenged her friends by asking them to list the colors that were actually present in a shadow, or on a distant mountain ridge, or a snow covered hillside. It was never what you thought it would be.
Sydney Summers, a longtime friend and painting companion, recalled June’s loyalty and commitment to both friends and family. “She was delightfully unique, and her friendship was such a precious gift to me. I feel honored and privileged to have known her, and to have shared so many wonderful experiences, and so much laughter, these past 30 years.”
June was one of the first people Susie Kincade met when she arrived in Vail in 1981. “June and Don opened their home and hearts to me and my family,” Kindcade said. “It was like we had always known each other. She became my spirit mom, inspiring me and guiding me throughout our friendship. June taught my two daughters, Meadow and Haley, how to draw and paint, where the wild raspberries grew, how to hike through the woods and see the natural world through an artist’s lens, and she sang us her favorite songs in that melodious voice that was her special gift to the world.”
An amazing mom
Sons Denny and Cliff remember an amazing mom.
“Her greatest joy was family and friends, stories and laughter,” recalls Denny.
She was a great cook, and could fix anything on her sewing machine. If the house needed a new rug or pillows or Christmas ornaments, even clothes, she didn’t buy them, she made them with her own hands.
“She was our greatest critic and an ever-present comforter,” Cliff said. “Mom saw things as they really were and there was no messing around when it came time to make decisions and get things done.”
Her sons remember a classy lady who set the bar high, who emphasized happiness and balance and relationships as the most important goals.
“She always encouraged us to try new things. We are so lucky to have had her as our mentor and mom,” Cliff said.
A prolific writer, June’s interest in Vail expanded into research about the history of the Gore and Eagle River Valleys, and she eventually authored or co-authored four books, including “Beaver Creek, the First 100 Years;” “Vail, Story of a Colorado Mountain Valley;” and “Living on the Mountain,” which she wrote with Don.
June helped organize and served as curator and docent of the Colorado Ski Museum, and she chaired the “Save our Schoolhouse” committee, which resulted in the move and restoration of the Gore Valley Schoolhouse from its original location near Buffehr Creek to where it sits today in Ford Park. She saw the magic in wildflowers, and served during the formative years on the board of directors for the Betty Ford Alpine Garden.
June wrote articles and poems about nature and about life in Vail, many of which were published locally. Both her painting and her writing reflected a genuine love and appreciation for the land, and the people so intimately attached to mountain lifestyles, both past and present. She spoke often about how painting paired with writing in the sense that they both required seeing, learning, expressing and the process of creating.
“It’s a rare privilege” she used to say, “to venture out with fellow artists and stand before a stunning scene in some valley, hoping to catch its light and its beauty. For challenge, adventure and just plain fun, there is nothing like it.”
Don and June lived in Vail for 26 years, retiring in 1993 to Grand Junction. They continued to spend their summers at their cabin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp, where they developed many close friendships. As her health began to fail, June loved to hear the stories of Vail, and would always finish with “That was so much fun – we sure did have a good time, didn’t we?”
June employed a wonderful sense of humor, and was loved especially for her kindness, her compassion and her desire to listen. Always assuming good intent, she exhibited the very best of human nature. She is survived by her husband Don; sons Denny (Holly) and Cliff (Teak); and five grandsons, Riley, Schuyler, Koby, Kyle and Sands. Cliff, Denny and the boys continue her legacy and love, choosing Vail and the Eagle River Valley as the only place anyone would ever want to live.