John Ross, 12, gazes across Pleasant Valley west of Ridgway
while riding the Rio Grande Southern on May 28, 1949.This was
the last steam passenger train to Telluride. The photo was taken
by Bill Jones’ grandfather, Morris W. Abbott.
By Mark Esper
I met John Ross about two and a half years ago when I moved here to serve as editor of the Standard.
It was in early May 2007 when I got a call from some guy in Lewis, Colo. He said he was headed back up to Silverton in a week or so and wanted to make sure the address was changed for his newspaper. He made it sound as if it were the most important project imaginable.
And that voice. Where had I heard that voice? Then it occurred to me that Foghorn Leghorn may be a summer resident of Silverton.
I dashed off a note to the circulation “department” in Telluride, but of course, needless to say, the change of address was not processed in time for the annual spring arrival of John Ross.
Of course that meant another phone call from John. He failed to understand how such an atrocity could have occurred. The following week, the Telluride office had still failed to make the change. Another irritated call from John.
Then I showed up at the Miners Tavern one night, and there he was, with the scruffy beard, overalls, denim jacket and old army hat.
He scolded me for the circulation snafu.
I assured him he would be getting his paper delivered to his Silverton post office box, and I started writing out a separate label for his newspaper by hand each week to make sure it got done.
I soon learned that John Ross was one heck of a storyteller with an amazing memory.
In fact, he once wrote in this newspaper that he had been accused by his friend Phil Dodd of being like Mark Twain, with an ability to remember things that never happened.
After listening to some of his stories about Silverton down at the Miners Tavern that summer, I encouraged him to write a feature column for the Standard. He procrastinated.
But John was never slow to let me know when I had made an error. I remember when I messed up the caliber of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s cannon used for avalanche control.
Realizing my mistake, I awaited the inevitable phone call from Lewis, Colo.
The phone rang.
“Mark, you’re a good editor,” John said. “But you don’t know a damn about munitions.”
In June 2008, I ran a brief item on the Casey Jones rail bus arriving back in Silverton for the summer. Apparently I got something wrong regarding when the Casey Jones had been built and subsequently restored.
That set him off.
John told me he was going to write a letter to the editor setting the record straight on how the Casey Jones was rescued from the scrap heap.
That “letter” turned into a 5-part series chronicling the Ballad of the Casey Jones.
After that, there was no stopping him.
He next produced a lengthy series on his rail trip in 1949 when he was 12 years old, just as the Narrow Gauge Circle Route was meeting its demise.
That series too was well received.
Then things got a bit rocky. He told me he wanted to continue the story of his experiences in the San Juans, starting with his arrival here after being hired as a teacher in 1962. Well, that sounded OK to me.
But then I received in the mail two lengthy manuscripts chronicling the Ross family history from Scotland in the 1600s up until the Civil War.
It was rather obvious that John was trying to serialize his autobiography in the Standard.
I told him I actually wouldn’t mind him doing that — for the part about Silverton — but that his ancestors’ role in the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666 was probably not going to make it in the paper.
He argued vehemently that it was all quite relevant and would be of the most essential interest to our readers.
In the heat of the discussion, he even mentioned his fondness for what he claimed was the Southern tradition of “caning the editor,” but ultimately he did not prevail.
Nonetheless, subsequent episodes came in, chronicling his arrival from Oklahoma to the San Luis Valley.
And just in the last couple weeks, he had gotten to where he had arrived in Silverton and was about to start his job as a teacher in 1962.
The story was just about to get to the good part.
I called him on Sept. 4 when I realized I had yet to receive his column for the next week’s paper. I caught him as he was just headed out the door to the hospital.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he said.
I wished him a speedy recovery and told him our readers were eager for more. That was the last time I spoke with him.
John Eddie Ross died on Friday, Sept. 11, 2009 at age 72.
It was when I started to compose this week’s newspaper that it really hit me. I looked at that space on Page 2 where John’s colorful prose had run each week for well over a year. It sure looked awful empty. My heart sank.
His writing had become such an iconic feature of this little newspaper.
One word came to mind: Irreplaceable.
Yet I certainly hope we find others who want to share their Silverton memories with Standard readers from time to time in their own writing styles.
Perhaps we can start with memories of John.
Back at the Miners Tavern, the Round Table has lost one of its great, booming voices echoing Silverton’s rich past.
Yes, it seems unfair that John, the great storyteller, has been silenced just as he was about to share with our readers some really juicy stuff about Silverton in the 1960s. I was looking forward to it.
But I’m grateful that I was able to get so much of John’s writing into the paper over the last year.
I know it meant a lot to him. He was often inquiring about whether I had gotten any feedback on his column. I let him know that he was well-appreciated.
And when I told him how much our readers loved his writing, I had no need to invoke an ability to remember things that never happened.
Mark Esper is editor of the Silverton Standard & the Miner.
"If anyone disagrees or takes umbrage (with what I write),
I am too old to fight, and too fat and stove up to run,
so I will challenge them to settle our differences
in a dark basement with sawed-off shotguns."
J. Eddie Ross
Silverton Standard & the Miner
May 14, 2009