Naturalist and teacher Paul Kunkel touched many lives
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE, Colorado – Paul Kunkel was not the type of person who can be neatly categorized.
He was quiet, yet exuded a kind of warmth that drew people to him. His closest friendships tended to be with people considerably younger than him. As a high school teacher, he often touched the lives of his students; yet he had a lifelong defiant streak that could put him crossways with principals and superintendents.
He was a naturalist with a scientific mind who preferred to be outdoors. He taught cross-country skiing to many locals and visitors as an instructor for Vail Associates and Colorado Mountain College. He could write a newspaper column that would make readers think they were walking in the woods with him. He was an avid reader of Scientific American and classical literature and relished a good conversation on almost any subject.
He was an excellent amateur ornithologist and a self-taught horticulturist who knew wildflowers as well as he did the vegetables and domestic blossoms that he tended in his home garden.
Kunkel, 91, a longtime Eagle resident, died Thursday at the Pioneer Medical Center in Meeker after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for several years.
He was born May 19, 1920, in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Louis Otto and Johanna Caroline Kunkel. His father was a plant pathologist, researching sugar cane disease. Paul inherited that scientific mindset.
His parents moved several times, raising their family in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As a child, Paul once glimpsed Albert Einstein in an ice cream parlor near Princeton University.
Paul attended the University of Missouri but eventually graduated with a liberal arts degree from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. During World War II, he served in the Army Air Corps. Although he was trained to be a gunner in B24 airplanes (his short, 5-foot-4-inch frame was suited to the task), he ended up becoming the base photographer in Walla Walla, Wash. Later, he spent several years working in photography.
It was at a candy and coffee shop in Walla Walla that he met Beverly Otterson in 1943. She was working in the shop, and he visited frequently, eventually asking her out. They married on Dec. 4, 1944.
The Kunkels raised three sons. Paul’s high school teaching jobs took them to several different states, including New York, Pennsylvania and Oregon. He taught the boys to ski and instilled his love of the outdoors in them.
“He was a natural teacher. We kids often rebelled against what he was trying to teach us,” remembered his oldest son, David.
In 1963, the Kunkel family moved to Boulder. In 1969, Paul took a job teaching English, biology and earth science at Eagle Valley High School. He introduced his now-grown sons to the valley. The Kunkel family purchased property on Salt Creek, creating a small family compound.
When Paul finished teaching high school, he turned to teaching cross-country skiing and ran a landscaping business from his Salt Creek home. He worked part-time for his sons’ business, Johnson and Kunkel Surveying.
“Paul and his family were strong believers in education and hard work,” remembers Jack Niswanger, of Eagle, fellow ski instructor.
Paul had a green thumb. Every spring, his Salt Creek property would explode into a colorful array of trees and wildflowers.
Paul and Bev continued to live at their rural home on Salt Creek until moving to the Golden Eagle Senior Housing five years ago.
Paul was a survivor. For 30 years, he successfully staved off life-threatening health issues, including cancer, strokes and an encounter with a rabid bat. Even when the Parkinson’s disease forced a move to a care facility in Meeker, Paul continued to move around, despite constant efforts by the staff to keep him secure.
“He was very independent. There was wildness to him. He really defied authority his whole life,” David said.
Yet the warmth of his personality made him a favorite of the nurses. Although confined in a care facility, he continued to make new friends, including Jim Riegel, who visited him nearly every day and often took him swimming at the Meeker pool.
Paul is survived by his wife, Beverly, of Eagle; his sons David (Gale) Kunkel, of Meeker, Jim (Marlene) Kunkel, of Eagle, and Greg (Jit) Kunkel, of Omaha, Neb. Survivors also include the grandchildren who adored him: Lisa, Ben and Erin (Danny Hess) Kunkel; Brian Kunkel and Lindsay (Dustin) Elmore; Louis (Leslie) Kunkel, Byron Kunkel and Clarissa (David) Van; and three great-grandchildren, Emma Elmore, Otto Kunkel and Molly Kunkel.