Pastor, scholar, outdoorsman, historian
April 30, 2015
EAGLE COUNTY — All of us affect the lives of others. Don Simonton's life touched more than most. That life also forged a bond between his family and the place he loved.
Simonton died March 17 at his home in Grand Junction. His wife, June, preceded him in death in 2013.
A Lutheran minister and missionary who had already founded two congregations in New Mexico, Simonton arrived in Vail in 1967 with a unique assignment: developing a ministry for a mountain resort community focused on serving the leisure/recreation industry. In collaboration with the Catholic church already in Minturn, and an established Lutheran parish in Glenwood Springs, he began holding services in whatever spaces he could find; interdenominational services for all of the fledgling town's faithful, regardless of their following.
Thus began the remarkable story of a multitalented and multifaceted man.
Born in Chicago and raised in Pennsylvania, Simonton traveled west during college to work as a ranch hand and seasonal ranger for the National Park Service in the Tetons of Wyoming. Following graduation from Gettysburg College in 1952, now a minister, he returned west with his new wife June, and answered a call by the Board of Missions of the Lutheran Church in America to start a church (Saint Luke's) in Albuquerque. In 1962, he answered a second call, moving to Santa Fe where he gathered a congregation and eventually built Christ Lutheran Church.
During this time he also founded Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp, located southeast of Salida in the Wet Mountain Valley. He served as camp director during Rainbow Trail's formative years and in doing so fell in love with the mountains of Colorado. When a new call came in 1967, he didn't hesitate.
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His true calling
"When I was in seminary, I remember wondering why the Lord had gotten me so interested in the Park Service and outdoor interpretive stuff," he once said. "Fifteen years later came the opportunity to start a ministry in this place called Vail, a place where my experience in the Tetons has combined with my talents as a minister in a truly wonderful way."
From the start, Don and June held fast to a love of the outdoors, and Don brought that love to his ministry. Working with the ski school (he was a part time instructor) and the Thorne Ecological Institute of Boulder, he started the Meet the Mountain Program, which introduced skiers to the ecology and history of the area as part of their skiing experience.
Longtime valley resident Bob Dorf was Simonton's supervisor at the ski school and recalled his friend's enthusiasm for Meet the Mountain and other work.
"When he got into something, he got in 100 percent," Dorf said.
With Meet the Mountain, Simonton's presentation never faltered.
"It was fresh every time he did it — he never tired of it," Dorf said.
Simonton also started an annual summer pilgrimage to Mount of the Holy Cross, leading groups as large as 50 to the spot on Notch Mountain where photographer William Henry Jackson took his iconic photo of the cross of snow.
Vail Daily writer Marka Moser went along on the annual trip in 1992. She wrote that during the mountaintop service, Simonton talked about the importance of faith, hope and love.
"A faith is needed in the world today, and a hope for restoration and cure. This symbolic cross on the mountain stands for the love that brings it all together," Simonton said. "Remember those who may not make it to the mountain tops, those who may be in need of God's special touch."
Tom and Blondie Vucich were married by Don in 1977 and hiked the pilgrimage many times.
"Don was a pioneer, spiritual leader and friend," remembers Tom, "and our relationship with him evolved into something deeply personal and long-lasting. Many can say they love Vail and the mountains, but Don added the dimension of an ever-present and loving God whose work can be seen in all that we do and experience in our community."
Spreading the story
Longtime Vail resident Rod Slifer said he always enjoyed the way Simonton brought both nature and the state of the world into his messages.
"He brought (the message of Christ) into current times," Slifer said. "And he was always available; he made time for people."
Most people in Vail's early days found themselves doing a bit of everything as the need arose. Slifer said Simonton was one of those people, and tackled whatever came his way with enthusiasm and purpose.
Writing in 1999 to Allen Best, a former editor of The Vail Trail, Simonton said, "The pioneers who shaped the character of our communities in the past are in a sense still with us today. In that same sense, I am a part of the story of wherever it is that I call home. I inherit the story that precedes me, I'm one of the characters in its latest chapter, and I am responsible for passing the story on."
In addition to his work with the church, Don was a founder of the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum. He was active with the Eagle River Scholarship Fund, the Eagle County Historical Society and the Soil Conservation District. With June, he co-authored four books on local history. For a time, the Simonton Citizen of the Year Award was given to deserving locals by the Vail Rotary Club.
In honor of his legacy, Rainbow Trail and the Simonton family this year started the Don and June Simonton Seminary Scholarship Fund to help camp staff and alumni attend any Evangelical Lutheran Church of America seminary school.
Scott Beebe is the current pastor of the Mount of the Holy Cross Lutheran Church.
"His fingerprints are everywhere," Beebe said. "He was the right person, at the right time, on the right bus, in the right seat, with the right skills. He saw what was being started here and had an eye for what was to come."
Pastor Carl Walker succeeded Simonton as Vail's Lutheran pastor in 1993. Walker recalled that Simonton left "incredibly big" shoes to fill. But, Walker added, Simonton was always helpful as Walker learned about his new congregation.
"He had the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar and the eyes and ears of a historian, and he saw possibilities where others didn't," Walker said. "That combination made Don Simonton a true visionary."
A life of adventure
Simonton also loved horses and all things cowboy. Local outfitter Steve Jones recalls many horseback trips, including an ascent of Notch Mountain one year when Don had a bad ankle.
"He was fun to be with," Jones said. "He was one of the guys, and he knew quite a bit about (wildflowers) and trails."
Sons Denny and Cliff remember a life full of adventure. "There were always new projects, new investigations and so many fun stories," Cliff said. "When people met my dad, they liked him, they trusted him, and they fell in step with him. His mission became their mission, and it all became this big community team effort."
Denny recalled a great dad who was always there to comfort, guide and support.
"Perhaps his greatest legacy to Cliff and me was the many wonderful family friendships that he (and mom) developed through the years that we became part of. Those relationships remain strong for us, enriching our lives each and every day."
Those relationships started early on. The Simonton and Dorf families were close neighbors in West Vail, and Dorf recalled that the Simontons were like a second family to his two children.
Retired and living in Grand Junction, Don mentioned once to his boys that he wanted to be remembered as the "cowboy minister who loved to ski."
So happy trails to you, Pastor Don. This community will be forever sustained by your spirit, your imagination and your love.
Editor's note: Cliff Simonton provided many important contributions to this story.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.