Combative Hastings had gentle side, too |

Combative Hastings had gentle side, too

Scott N. Miller
Special to the Vail TrailMerrill Hastings, longtime Eagle County resident, died last week at the age of 85.

Merrill Hastings never backed away from a fight.

From his prep-school days in New England to his time with the 10th Mountain Division to his role in boosting the state’s ski industry and, later, its conservation movement, Hastings never hesitated to tell people exactly what he thought.

“If he thought he was right, he’d say so, and if he thought you were wrong, he’d do what he could to help you see why you were wrong,” friend Kerry Braatz said.

Hastings died Wednesday at his home near McCoy. His reputation as a battler is well-known, but friends and family described another side.

“He had great softness and a great heart,” friend Gerry Rea said. Over the past few years, that was obvious whenever Hastings talked about his first wife, Priscilla, to whom he was married for more than 50 years.

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“He had a love of nature, a love of animals and a love of community,” his second wife, Joanne Hastings, said.

That love of animals applied particularly to Hastings’ horses and dogs. He moved out of Vail in order to have his horses nearby, and to his final days, watching his horses was one of his great pleasures.

“Even when he was dying, he would get wheeled out to his porch, and he’d lie there and watch his horses,” longtime friend Sandy Treat said.

Joanne first came to Hastings’ place at McCoy to take a job as a caretaker after Priscilla’s 2005 death. Her job, which included long horseback rides in the pinyon-sage country around the ranch, soon blossomed into a relationship and, eventually, a surprise for Rea and his partner, Bonnie Carroll.

“He called and said he wanted us to come up for Jo’s birthday, that he had a big announcement,” Carroll said. “It turned out they’d been married up in Steamboat a couple of days before.”

Treat said that’s just like Hastings.

“He was a man who made decisions in a hurry,” he said.

Rea and Carroll are in the real estate business, a profession that Hastings had little use for in his later years. Still, they became good friends after meeting when Rea and Carroll were starting a project at Enchantment, just inside Routt County, north of Hastings’ place.

Rea recalled that Hastings first went to a meeting of Routt County officials to express his opinion ” mainly that he wanted to see road improvements around the project.

“At the next meeting, I said I have to respect Merrill for standing up for his rights and his willingness to stand up and be counted,” Rea said.

When Rea was proposing a project near Eagle, Hastings would sometimes tip off his friend before important meetings.

“He always called and warned me, ‘Gerry, there’s going to be a lynch party tonight; be ready,'” Rea said.

Described as a loyal friend, Hastings also could be a formidable foe.

“He could be quiet and gentle like Gary Cooper,” Joanne said. “But he could be a tenacious wildcat when he needed to be.”

Braatz has been part of a simmering controversy about creating a fire department, or at least fire protection, for the Bond/McCoy area. He remembered one meeting when a resident stood up to give Hastings a piece of his mind. Hastings gave it right back.

“To see that from a man his age was really something,” Braatz said.

Hastings’ reputation for feistiness was built over decades, and friends and foes were clearly defined.

In a 2007 article in the Vail Trail, Morten Lund detailed Hastings’ life in the publishing industry. He quoted former Skiing magazine Editor Bob Parker as saying, “Anybody who represented another publication was ‘the enemy.’ Anybody who bought ads in his magazine was a friend.”

Hastings carried that attitude to the state stage in the early 1970s. As a member of the Denver Olympic Organizing Committee ” which won the bid for the 1976 Winter Games ” Hastings got involved in a fierce battle with Richard Lamm, then a member of the Colorado House of Representatives.

Lamm believed that the games would be a financial disaster for the state and organized a political drive against them.

“Merrill Hastings started out hating me,” Lamm wrote in an e-mail. “He was a man of strong convictions and beliefs, and he could not hide his feelings against me. … Merrill thought I was being unpatriotic, and I remember we debated the Olympics a couple of times in 1971. He was always a gentleman, and yet we both had deep-felt beliefs.”

State voters eventually turned down the Olympics, and Lamm was elected governor in 1974.

“When I won, Merrill came to me and said the voters have spoken and he wanted me to know he was available for whatever he could do to help the state. That was the beginning of our friendship,” Lamm wrote. “He loved Colorado more than he disliked me, and gradually we became friends.”

Those who counted themselves among Hastings’ friends had a true ally.

“He was a good friend,” Treat said. “But he could be demanding, though. I remember once he called me and I didn’t call him back. He called again and chewed me out.”

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