Christine McKelvie: Remembering the Pilot’s iconic editor Dee Richards as ‘fearless, fierce and funny’
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Dee Richards was the heart and soul of the Steamboat Pilot. This diminutive dynamo with the severe haircut, bold spectacles and uncompromising sense of right and wrong held sway at the newspaper from behind an enormous rolltop desk for more than two decades.
She was fearless, fierce, funny and fast. Whether charging up and down Lincoln Avenue in search of interviews for her “Along the Bounding Main” column or clacking away at the typewriter keys to craft a hard-hitting editorial, Dee never did anything at half-speed.
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Her recipe for a life well-lived included writing a cracking good news story, handing around freshly baked cookies and sharing hearty laughs. We considered ourselves among the luckiest reporters on the planet to have shared the newsroom with Dee in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Dee held people accountable, including young reporters. We didn’t agree with every stance she took, or the intensity with which she sometimes expressed herself. Yet we admired her perseverance at analyzing local government decisions and asking tough questions on behalf of her fellow citizens.
If Dee held a strong belief that nobody was above scrutiny, she also thought that no task was beneath her. While we reporters were sleeping in on Wednesday mornings to recover from our hectic Tuesday night paste-up sessions creating the newspaper pages, Dee was crawling around on her hands and knees, scraping up bits of waxed paper that were stuck on the grimy carpet.
Dee had a truly generous heart. She was especially welcoming to young people who came to town to ski for a winter, attend college or work for the newspaper. A number of now-graying senior citizens are grateful graduates of Dee’s basement accommodations. She also created a family atmosphere at the newspaper, hosting holiday parties, an annual volleyball match that concluded with a potluck meal and at least one wedding rehearsal dinner.
A native of California and graduate of Oberlin College, Dee moved to Steamboat Springs in 1951. In the mid-1960s this mother of five was making ends meet with office jobs, having worked for the Selective Service, Steamboat Springs Chamber and Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. Pilot Publisher Chuck Leckenby had to do some sweet talking to lure Dee into the world of journalism.
“Me? A newspaper reporter? I don’t think so,” she told Chuck. “I’m not a writer.” But Chuck saw promise in this smart, articulate and sometimes sharp-tongued woman. When Dee reluctantly stopped by the Pilot to talk it over, “I saw those two beautiful roll-top desks in the office, and he offered me $300 a month,” she said. That sealed the deal.
On-the-job training was brief. “Just go out and get the news,” Chuck advised. He thrust a boxy Graflex camera into her hands and suggested that she hustle across town and snap a picture of the high school principal’s home before it burned to the ground.
“I rushed over there, fell on the ice and the camera shattered,” Dee recalled with a laugh. Fortunately, there was a spare, and in 1968, Dee won a Colorado Press Association award for photography. Seventeen years later, she used that venerable camera, which dispensed Polaroid pictures, to photograph the dapper and world-famous former New York City Mayor John Lindsay on the steps of the Routt County Courthouse.
Dee had a lively writing style and natural instincts for news gathering. She never shied away from a tough story or potentially intimidating personality. As she grew more comfortable in her role, she began to write feisty editorials that took local government and community institutions to task. She became the conscience of Steamboat Springs. Some of the targets of her criticism couldn’t handle it, but others grew to admire her principles, her courage and her intellect.
After serving on the City Council herself, Dee knew how to make a monetary request. “Dee’s Trees” became a city budget line item for years, and we all enjoy more greenery thanks to her efforts. Dee also enhanced the legacy of Steamboat Springs with her 1976 history book, “Steamboat ’Round the Bend,” which chronicles the first 100 years of the town’s existence.
Before her newspaper career was over, she had gained the respect of her peers in Colorado, and her network of professional contacts literally spanned the globe. After joining the International Society of Newspaper Editors, Dee visited China in 1983. The small group of editors stayed in Chiang Kai-Shek’s summer palace and had audiences with high-ranking government officials.
Dee quickly developed a taste for exotic and even dangerous travel. She visited Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa and East Berlin during troubled times. While in Jordan, she met with King Hussein. In Austria, Dee met with both the president and the prime minister.
A major change in Dee’s professional life led to her biggest adventure of all. After a national media company purchased the Pilot in 1988, Dee was asked to lay off a significant number of employees to whom she felt great loyalty.
“I grew depressed over changes at the newspaper,” she said. “I always thought I’d live and die there, but it wasn’t to be.”
She left the Pilot in 1990 and volunteered for the Peace Corps. After learning new skills at the age of 70, she was on her way to Sri Lanka where she taught English to schoolchildren, in part, by singing American folk songs.
When Dee returned to Steamboat, she worked for the Routt County Planning Department and later for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. The woman who personified love of her community died in 2007 after an adventuresome and service-centered life.
The next time you walk, bike or drive along Howelsen Parkway, take a moment to appreciate the long row of crabapple trees, one of Dee’s lasting legacies.
Christine McKelvie is a former Steamboat Pilot & Today reporter and copy editor.
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