Former Vail mayor Paul Johnston passes away

Paul Johnston arrived in Vail during its first winter. He later served as a Town Council member and mayor.
Special to the Daily |

VAIL — Legend has it that Paul Johnston rode into town on a motorcycle during Vail’s first winter, 1962-63, with a grin on his face and hair out to here.

He rode away for good on Monday, when he died after a long illness. The celebration of his life is scheduled for April 11. Details will be forthcoming.

If you’ve been around long enough, then you remember Johnston’s tireless work to bring to Vail the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships.

As a Vail mayor and Town Council member, he advocated for a convention center, a cemetery and roundabouts to replace the town’s legendary and occasionally laughable four-way stop.

“I never drive through one of those roundabouts without thinking of him and smiling,” said Michelle Maloney, Johnston’s daughter.

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You might even remember the Nu Gnu, Vail’s first rock ‘n’ roll bar and one of Vail’s original iconic libation locations, along with John and Diane Donovan’s Copper Bar.

“John Donovan kicked ’em out of his bar at 10:30 p.m., took his money and went home, then they stayed at the Nu Gnu until we closed up. We’d shovel ’em out at 2 a.m.,” Johnston said, reminiscing about when Vail was a more rough and tumble place.

The Nu Gnu was Vail’s first and only rock ‘n’ roll bar. It wasn’t on the Vail social circle’s list of must-see places. The garden club and the Junior League did not meet there.

“It was a lot different then,” Johnston laughed years later. “Many of the guys who are pillars of society now were falling off my bar stools then.”

Johnston left Vail for a while to return to Oklahoma and his family’s construction business. Somewhere in there he met Sally, his second wife, and they moved back to Vail and bought the Christiania Lodge.

His first tenure with the Vail Town Council ran from September 1980 through November 1987, serving as mayor pro tem and mayor from 1983 to 1987. He served again as a council member from 1993-1997.

Johnston has been described by friends, and friendly foes, as a man before his time.

He was never afraid to speak his mind, especially when he thought it was what the town needed. He jumped into the middle of Vail’s convention center debate with a passionate and detailed explanation about why the town needed one.

The anti-convention people made it a campaign issue in the next Town Council runoff, and Johnston lost. Every economic study done since then points to a convention center that Johnston said was needed.

In the 1980s, he also advocated for a cemetery in Vail, reasoning that people are born there, live there and die there. Opponents argued that no one ever dies in Vail.

Then there was the following-the-bouncing-boulder incident. The Vail Town Council postponed an ordinance that would have required notifying property buyers that they were buying property in areas threatened by landslides or rockfalls — places like the Booth Creek Falls area, where there were lots of homes for sale and lots of commissions to be earned.

The decision to postpone came as an organized contingent from the Vail Board of Realtors staged a last-minute grandstand play to delay the ordinance.

Mayor Paul Johnston cast the only vote to approve the ordinance.

A week or so later, after being skewered by Front Range media, the Vail council passed a version of that ordinance.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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