GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Friends and family of Bob Willey confirmed on Thursday that the local running and theater icon had died early that morning. He was 66.
Willey, whose name became synonymous with the annual Strawberry Shortcut 10K and 5K race during the 37 years it’s been taking place, died in his sleep in Thursday’s early morning hours at Heritage Park Care Center in Carbondale. The longtime Glenwood Springs resident had been there since June following a severe stroke he suffered in late May and his diagnosis of lung cancer in April.
“I think the thing that I’ll remember is his positive attitude and the love that he had for everyone,” said Abbey Walters, who helped put together the Willey Coyote 5K fundraiser run that took place July 20 in West Glenwood. “He left this Earth with a lot of love and peace. He taught us all a lot.”
News spread quickly through the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond Thursday through social-media outlets.
“My father passed away shortly after midnight..... I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the outpouring of love & support from family and friends and community over the past couple of months,” Willey’s oldest daughter, Betsy Willey, said on a Facebook post.
She then moved to speaking of her father: “I am also grateful for every special memory that will keep you alive in our hearts long after today .... I love you daddy, may Angels lead you in ......”
Willey was a counselor and a performing arts instructor in the Roaring Fork School District during a teaching career that spanned more than three decades. He was a staple in numerous community theater productions, and also ran in 35 of the 37 Strawberry Shortcuts that have been held.
More recently, he was part of a production put on annually by the Frontier Historical Society during Halloween Walks in October. Willey played a gravedigger.
He missed competing in the Strawberry Shortcut this year, but still attended as an honorary starter for the race less than a month removed from a stroke that left him dependent on a wheelchair for mobility.
Willey kept a personal scrapbook full of newspaper clippings and results from the Shortcut from its inception. It also contains numbers on the total turnout of the race all the way back from its start in 1978.
“For him and Paul Driskill, the Shortcut was their main thing,” longtime Glenwood Springs resident Mike Vidakovich said.
Driskill, another local running icon who passed away in December 2010, said in 2008 that he had run 27 Shortcut races.
Prior to the stroke in May, Willey had an annual goal to run 1,200 miles per year. The route he ran was consistent for three decades, going up Mitchell Creek Road in West Glenwood and back to his home. That route wound up being the inspiration for the Willey Coyote 5K that began and ended at Glenwood Springs Middle School. It served as an impromptu fundraiser to aid in paying for Willey’s care at Heritage Park and his overall medical care.
The race was a huge success. It drew 270 registered runners, with only 80 of them preregistering prior to race day through Independence Run and Hike in Carbondale.
Vidakovich said that Willey retired from teaching at one point, but returned to the classroom to take a remedial teaching job after just six months of retirement. Willey also, for years, actively coached a slowpitch softball team affiliated with the Glenwood Springs Recreation Department.
“In my lifetime, I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone who had lived such a full life and loved being around people as much as Bob did,” Vidakovich said. “It didn’t matter if it was at a race or on the softball field. He would light up a room he was in with his smile, and he always enjoyed doing as much as he possibly could.”
Willey is survived my his wife, Michele, and daughters Cassidy and Betsy.
Post Independent reporter John Stroud contributed to this article.