Western Slope historian, author Fay dies of stroke

Abbott Fay was a respected scholar who taught at three Western Slope colleges and penned a dozen books about western Colorado history.

But he was also an engaging storyteller who shunned the drier aspects of generations past and instead focused on the little-known facts of Colorado lore, intent on popularizing history and making it accessible to everyone.

The longtime educator, historian and author died Thursday at St. Mary’s Hospital, three days after family members said he suffered a stroke. He was 82.

“A lot of historians are either total academians or tell a lot of folklore. But he could play both sides of the field. He could garner a big audience,” said David Bailey, curator of history at the
Museum of Western Colorado, where Fay for years was a regular speaker.

Born in Scottsbluff, Neb., in 1926, Fay served in the infantry in World War II and during the Army’s occupation of Europe. He graduated from the University of Northern Colorado and took his first school job in Leadville, where he taught and served as the school principal. In the following years he moved around the Western Slope, teaching at what was then Mesa College and at Western State College in Gunnison. He retired and moved to Paonia before returning to the Grand Valley.

Dan MacKendrick took history and journalism classes from Fay at Mesa College in the mid-1950s before forming a long friendship with him. He recalled one spring day during student-body elections in which a student running for a position was creating a lot of noise with a loudspeaker. While other professors canceled classes rather than close their windows and risk having students fall asleep in warm classrooms — these were the days before air conditioning — MacKendrick said Fay kept the windows to his classroom open, jumped up on top of a desk and shouted his lecture.

“He was a great teacher. The students loved taking his classes, and the class was always over too soon,” MacKendrick said.

Former Mesa County Public Library Director Terry Pickens also recalled Fay’s prowess in the classroom, saying he was a tough but excellent professor who checked every single reference on midterm papers to make sure students weren’t plagiarizing.

Pickens remembered how Fay engaged people in his “second career” as an author and speaker.

“He was just a natural for it,” she said of his frequent appearances as a guest speaker at library branches. “It made me so happy when he would speak at the library, and people would be so fascinated to hear his stories because he was such a good storyteller and scholar.”

Fay’s most popular book, “I Never Knew That About Colorado,” sold 24,000 copies.

“The world was really a better place because of him and his passionate belief that if we don’t pay attention to history, we’re going to be sorry,” Pickens said.

Bailey said Fay not only made history interesting to others but to himself. He said he would walk into work on some mornings and find Fay there ahead of him, reading newspapers and conducting research.

“His thirst for knowledge never stopped. He was the consummate, lifelong learner,” Bailey said.

Fay is survived by his wife, Joan, and three children, Randy, Collin and Dede. Family members said on his Web site there will be no memorial service, but that they may host a celebration of his life later.


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