Putting One Word After Another: My Life Lessons from Ed Quillen

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Today I received sad news that Ed Quillen, a longtime columnist for the Denver Post, died suddenly yesterday. At 62, he seemed too young to be taken away from his family. Love him or hate him, his humor and encyclopedic knowledge of history and politics made him a much admired voice in Colorado.

I was lucky enough to know Ed personally. In 1988, I moved to Salida, Colo. with my parents from Las Vegas, Nev. It was like I had just stepped off of a spaceship and my fellow eighth-graders confirmed my belief. I was shy, all knees and elbows, and incredibly lacking in self-confidence. Miraculously, one girl started talking to me at lunch. She didn’t seem to mind that I was dressed weird or that no one dared sit next to me in the cafeteria. Her name was Columbine Quillen. She invited me to her house after school and that was when I met her dad, Ed, and realized why aliens didn’t scare Columbine.

Ed had a Santa Claus beard and just as kind of a smile. He could spout off random facts about Colorado history or the Iran-Contra affair. The only thing he seemed to love more than writing was his wife and two daughters. Those three people and his typewriter were all he ever needed.

If you asked his opinion, he gave it to you. If you didn’t ask his opinion, he gave it to you anyway. He was another alien of sorts in our little conservative town with his extremely liberal views and his suspicion of almost everything. As a writer, he had a special talent of blending biting criticism with humor. In what was to be his last column, he took on birthers, pointing to Mitt Romney’s appearance with Donald Trump last week in Las Vegas: “The Donald is quite talented at attracting attention, and having him around helps Romney look sane by comparison. Romney can keep the high ground by graciously conceding that Barack Obama is a natural-born citizen of the United States, and Trump plays the ‘bloviating ignoramus’ who revs up the birthers.”

Not everyone agreed with him, but as the growing comment streams on the Post’s website and Facebook pages attest, nearly everyone respected him. He was passionate about what he believed in and 99 percent of the time, he had facts to back him up. As the Post changed over the past few decades, he became part of a disappearing breed of journalists, one that was fearless, never afraid to ask tough questions or raise uncomfortable subjects.

Ed was a great writer, not just a journalist. He wrote a handful of novels under pen names. It was through a creative writing class at Colorado Mountain College that I got to really know him. He was usually short and to the point. “I’m not here to teach you plot structures or theories about modern literature. It’s all bullshit. I’m going to teach you how to write a novel, pitch it to an editor and get it published. If anyone has a problem with that, you should drop this course.” I learned more in that one class than I did my entire time as an English major at Colorado State University.

What I remember most about Ed was that he was an amazing listener. During breaks in the middle of our writing labs, he would stand outside with us while we each gave him a little piece of our life story. He could stand quietly enough to make you comfortable talking to him but remain engaged enough that you knew he cared. So few people are good at listening. He could be very passionate about what he said, but he was also just as passionate about listening to your opinions. With all of the unruly discourse that exists in the media today, it’s a skill I wish more journalists would master.

When I left Salida and went off to college, he didn’t forget me. He wrote me long scrawled letters that were sometimes hard to read but always full of encouragement. He wanted to make sure I was staying true to myself. He wanted to make sure I was still writing: “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the end of the story. Just keep putting one word after another and you’ll get there.” It was great advice, not just for writing but as a metaphor for life.

In this world where talk show hosts accuse women of being whores for taking birth control and people yell over each other on cable news networks, I will miss Ed Quillen’s voice of passionate opinions mixed with respectful dialogue. Whether you agreed with him or not, you had to admit the man never wavered from him convictions. We should all be so brave.

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