Sometimes writers think about assuming a pen name to grant themselves a distinguished air. But “Jim,” a writer from Vernon in Texas, needed none of that. His given name, Sterling, would do just fine.
So when Jim crossed the state line and got lost in Colorado, he became Sterling James Greenwood — or simply Sterling. His first column, which ran around 1980 in the tiny Aspen Daily News, required no name. He was already “Lost in Colorado.”
All writers are a little crazy, and one day Sterling and I began discussing writing our own obituaries. What fun it would be, we decided, to script out the remainder of our lives.
When his illness — he battled cancer for nearly two decades — took a recent turn for the worse, I decided to raise the idea with him again. Sadly, time intervened, and took him from us early Saturday morning after 70 years on the planet.
The job of fashioning his obit has fallen instead to Karen Day, his wife of 19 years, who’d already finished a graceful draft before his departure, with plans to distribute it Monday. I get to use this space to have fun just remembering him.
Sterling didn’t need to be noted as “eccentric.” He could play the part with no training at all. When I first saw him chewing on some paper, I thought little of it. Then, I observed him actually eating it. I thought he was supplementing his diet, but Karen insisted the habit was Sterling’s cover for deep thought.
Chewing or not, Sterling was a brilliant writer, whether helping edit, write or distribute the Aspen Daily News, which I’d helped start. He was at silky ease with words, and was fun to read. His style reminded me of a serious Hunter S. Thompson before the good doctor adopted his “gonzo” style.
Sterling and I collaborated in 1981 on stories about Herb Paddock, Pitkin County’s take-no-prisoners building inspector, who became such an icon that T-shirts soon sprouted with the likeness of an actual red “stop-work” tag on them. Mine ran on the front of the Denver Post; his in the Rocky Mountain News (the Rocky, Denver’s second paper, died five years ago). Now we were for real outside town.
I was constrained by the daily realities of putting out a newspaper. Sterling had no such limitations. So when he began publishing the occasional Aspen Free Press, it appeared whenever he wished. Deborah Frasier, a Rocky Mountain News writer who profiled us both in 1985, asked Sterling about the difference between us.
“Dave has deadlines,” he instantly observed.
Sterling was also free to go after causes and stories that interested him. He prodded police to investigate the death of Glen McGehee, a local whose body was found in the semi-frozen Roaring Fork near the No Problem Bridge in 1984. The persuasion was simple; his Free Press didn’t accept the police description of an “accident.” He declared it a murder, prompting a renewed probe and later a confession.
He decided after extensive reading that the snow-melting compound mag chloride would kill us all. He applied the same in-depth analytic style after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, directing his own treatment in a course that may have prolonged his life by at least a decade.
Sterling’s classic trench coat and cap — he must have had several — were such fixtures that he needed no calling card.
Mostly, I can’t remember a moment when the mention of Sterling’s name didn’t evoke a laugh. He often appeared lost in a mystery, and was always dressed for one. For a time in the 1980s, Sterling inhabited an apartment above what is now the Cantina at Mill and Main streets. He could emerge in a flash, already downtown, whenever either curiosity or the Daily News summoned him. I often mused that my lost story notes had snaked their way over there and were about to become his next meal.
Sterling never needed an actual phone until the Free Press required him to get one and later, the dawn of Karen’s cell phone intervened. He did not travel much outside what we called the Big City. His standard reply to queries about his residence referred to the third parked car (usually a cream-colored Cadillac) from the corner of Main and Monarch.
He was such a good source of police notes that I doubt the police would ever have hassled him had his Cadillac had become an immovable fixture.
In later years his terse emails would tip me to a story or ask my opinion about it. He was my only friend who could deliver such a tip by phone in 15 seconds and then summarily hang up.
When I last visited him the day before he left us, it was to say both hello and good-bye. I am not good at the art of a permanent good-bye — who is? But this was hardly a moment for “have a nice life.”
So I instead asked him to look up a few reprobates and other lost souls and I enumerated a few mysteries he might solve. If he became bored, I advised him to look up a college girlfriend who’d left the planet far too young. I reminded him he probably wouldn’t need to pay at the ballpark, but if so, how much? I’d leave it to him to figure out how to get back to me, and he grunted his approval.
Sterling Greenwood will be hard to forget. But I don’t have to. I can just reread the nearest installment of “Lost in Colorado.”
The writer is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.