Linda Criswell, Mary Lilly's close friend, with a memory album Lilly made for her. Photo by Paula Mayer.

In the summer of 2018, in the midst of the calamitous Lake Christine Fire and as a persistent drought gripped the region, an extraordinary thing happened in our community. 

Checks began arriving at various organizations in the area from the estate of Carbondale grand dame Mary Lilly, who had passed away two years earlier just after her 100th birthday.

One of the recipients was The Sopris Sun. “We knew something was coming,” former Sun board member Debbie Bruell remembered, “but we didn’t know when.”

Lilly’s gift to The Sun was but one of dozens to organizations throughout the Valley and beyond. Linda Criswell, a close friend of Lilly and executor of her estate, noted, “Matt Trinidad [Lilly’s lawyer] had never seen so many beneficiaries in a will, more than 70.”

Shortly before her death, Lilly had conferred with Criswell about designating bequests. “I went through a list, reading off names, and she would indicate yes or no. When I got to The Sun, her eyes lit up.” Two other organizations which also prompted that particular spark were KDNK Community Radio and the Aspen Music Festival and School (Aspen Music’s annual reports lists her name each year as one of their legacy givers).

Who was Mary Lilly?

Articles about Lilly appeared shortly before she died and just after. She was the first wife of the renowned physician, researcher and counterculture figure John C. Lilly, known for his work studying sensory deprivation and dolphin communication. 

Although John is credited with inventing the isolation tank and first realizing that dolphins had a vocal language, Mary made it clear that she should share the credit for both innovations.

After she and John divorced in the mid-1950s, Lilly moved to the Carbondale area and lived here for many years with her younger son, Charles. In the 1990s, when John’s health was failing, she and Charles joined him in Hawaii (she and John had maintained their friendship) to care for him. After his death in 2001 and the death of Charles shortly after that, Lilly moved back to Carbondale.

Criswell met Lilly soon after her return, and they became fast friends. She observed, “Mary was gruff — honest but not mean. She always wanted to have interesting people around her.” In a 2019 biographical essay on Lilly, Criswell wrote, “Mary loved good conversation. In a notebook she kept she wrote: ‘Small people talk about other people, average people talk about things, and great people talk about ideas.’ Mary was the third type of person, and so were her close personal friends.”

Criswell continued, “She was really healthy, and she continued to drive and cook for people until she was almost 100.  She put out more than she got, and it probably kept her alive.” And, in reference to our Town, she noted, “Mary loved this place and wanted to give something back.”

The legacy

The amount Lilly gave to The Sun was significant. “We had never received a gift of this size before,” Bruell recalled. The paper, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has relied on contributions for a significant portion of its income since its founding in 2009. 

A program established by Jim Calaway in the mid-2010s called “Honorary Publishers” has made a difference. Its members each donate $1,000 or more annually to The Sun and are listed every week in the paper’s masthead.Lilly’s gift prompted the decision to identify a new category of donor, called “Legacy Givers,” whose names would also be listed in the masthead. To date, Lilly’s is the only Legacy Gift.

Criswell noted that “Mary hoped others would follow along” with giving to the paper. Former Sun board president Barbara Dills, under whose tenure both the Honorary Publishers and Legacy Givers programs were set up, affirmed that wish. “Mary’s gift helped boost interest in giving to the paper,” she said, noting, “Jim Calaway was very happy that it had come from elsewhere in the community.”

Lilly’s bequest came at an opportune time for The Sun. The paper, not quite a decade old, was “not in dire straits, but was definitely touch-and-go,” observed former Sun Editor Will Grandbois. Lilly’s gift and the Honorary Publishers program “gave us some peace of mind that we never had before,” he added. “We could plan ahead and invest in the organization.” Grandbois continued, “We took it very seriously to be part of someone’s legacy — to use it wisely and do something she would be proud of.”

One of those investments was hiring Todd Chamberlin, who had been The Sun’s advertising director since 2019, to the new position of executive director late last year. 

“Others have promised Legacy Gifts when they pass, and I certainly would welcome the opportunity to talk to others about legacy giving and the many other ways one can donate to help make The Sopris Sun more sustainable for years to come,” said Chamberlin.

One who has heard the call is longtime Sun proofreader Lee Beck, who, in addition to being on the board, is, with her husband John Stickney, an Honorary Publisher. 

She explained that she had always had legacy gifts in her will and just happened to be redoing it around the time of the Lilly bequest. “It was a good time to add The Sun to mine,” Beck said. She continued, “We need to give back to our community’s local nonprofits that make Carbondale what it is, and newspapers are really important to that.”

For those considering a legacy gift, Criswell — who recently stepped down as secretary of the board — has a suggestion: “There are several ways to make a legacy gift to The Sun, but an easy one is to purchase a CD and name The Sopris Sun as beneficiary upon your death.”  Another simple way, she noted, is through an IRA charitable gift, which can be up to $100,000 annually.