A life of overcoming obstacles
In a town full of people who have overcome big challenges to fulfill their desire to be outdoors and a vital part of their community, Fay Ward stood tall.
Fay lost the use of both legs from complications while giving birth to her first daughter 52 years ago. Even so, she was a role model for people with and without disabilities. The word “can’t” wasn’t part of her vocabulary, according to those who knew her best. Fay passed away Jan. 25 at the age of 76.
“Fay’s whole life, it seems like, was about overcoming obstacles,” said Marty Ames, Pitkin County senior services director and co-worker of Fay’s for 15 1/2 years.
Despite requiring a wheelchair for most of her adult life, Fay was more active in the outdoors than a huge share of Americans. She was a river runner, cross-country skier, downhill skier, bicyclist, avid camper and all-around adventurer.
Fay’s husband of 54 years, Jim, said the Finnish word, “sisu,” went well with her Finish roots. It essentially refers to the Finnish people’s determination, guts and persistence.
“That’s the one word that basically explains her personality,” Jim said.
Perhaps her tenacity is best told through her skiing adventures. Fay’s love for skiing was reignited after she retired about 10 years ago. She first returned to the slopes using a seat fitted on two skis. About three years ago, at age 73, she decided it was time to switch from a biski to a monoski. She was tethered to someone accompanying her, but she was making her own turns.
“It wasn’t good enough for her [to use the biski],” said Houston Cowan, co-founder and CEO of Challenge Aspen. “She wanted to independently ski on a monoski.”
Challenge Aspen, which has a mission of helping people with disabilities, had 26 models of sit-skis available.
“She, sure enough, would pick the brightest color and the fastest one,” Cowan said.
It’s fitting, Jim said, that she was on the slopes when her life ended. She was skiing with Jim and their daughter Natalie when she suffered a stroke. She died two days later in a Grand Junction hospital.
Fay and Jim moved to the Aspen area in 1964, pulling a small trailer into the Woody Creek Trailer Park. They had no intention of laying down roots.
“We decided we were only going to be in town for a year,” Jim said.
It wasn’t their first trip to Aspen. They visited in 1958 while living in Lakewood. They met friends from the ski club at University of Minnesota, from which they both had graduated. Jim quipped that they knew the base of the mountain was appropriate for a luxury hotel because they slept in their station wagon at the future site of The Little Nell Hotel. They brushed their teeth at a nearby gas station.
After moving to town, they were convinced by a new acquaintance to purchase a duplex on Snowbunny Lane in Aspen, a transaction they managed despite a lending firm’s doubts that the ski town was worth the investment.
The Wards were soon the hit of the neighborhood, known for the haunted house they set up in their basement each Halloween, according to Marsha Brendlinger, who was one of their first friends. Snowbunny was the place to go for trick-or-treating at that time because the houses were close together. Kids from throughout the town were welcome at the Wards’ haunted house.
Brendlinger said it was evident from the start that Fay was strong-willed. She was able to walk with crutches when she first moved to town, relying on her incredible upper body strength.
Fay immersed herself in youth activities as her oldest daughter, Kimberly, grew older and children Natalie and Casey were born.
“She was behind anything that involved youth,” Brendlinger said.
She helped with Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and helped start a Pitkin County 4-H program.
“She always promoted doing things outside, no matter what the weather was,” Jim said.
She helped at school plays and was an early member of the booster club. She and Jim had kids in the Aspen school system for 29 years straight. She helped create a youth center in the basement of the Wheeler Opera House in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Some of the floors in the basement were still dirt,” Jim recalled.
She was also a life-long volunteer at Aspen Community Church.
One of her greatest joys as she grew older was attending community events where she would run into adults who were once the kids she encountered, according to Jim.
“One of the things I’m going to miss is her memory – she remembered the stories,” he said.
Fay also had a spirit of adventure throughout her life. Fay graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1957 and then embarked on a bike trip across Europe, topped by a visit to extended family members in Finland.
“She got a dose of Europe in ’57 and a dose of Aspen in ’58,” Jim said. She liked Aspen so much because it shared some qualities with Europe. She and Jim made sure their children also got a feel for the European flare, taking them on extended camping trips in 1972 and again, with the younger ones, in 1985.
Kay’s loss of her legs didn’t mean a loss of her life. She and Jim were on their third tandem bicycle, wearing out the first two through the years. Three years ago she got a hand cycle and was soon riding the Rio Grande Trail between Woody Creek and Carbondale.
She had a sit-ski specially suited to cruising the cross-country ski trails, such as those at the Aspen Golf Course.
While remaining active outdoors required skill and determination, so did raising three kids. Jim said he always encouraged Fay to write a book about raising a family from a wheelchair. Her composure provided their kids with some good lessons.
“They learned she needed them and they needed her,” Jim said.
Later in her life, at age 50, Fay shifted her focus from youth to seniors when Ames hired her to work at the senior center part-time 25 years ago. She started in a part-time position and worked her way up to program director. More importantly, Fay and Marty became close friends.
“We laughed every single day for 15 1/2 years,” Ames said. “And we laughed about the fact that we laughed that long.”
Fay worked so well with senior citizens, Ames believes, because she was a good listener. She realized that at least half the time a person just needs someone to listen, not necessarily to solve a problem.
Fay also was an inspiration for people – young and old – because she kept such a positive attitude despite losing use of her legs, a fact raised by everyone interviewed for this story.
Lest anyone think she was infallible, Brendlinger noted there was something Fay didn’t do well.
“She was absolutely never known for her ability to cook,” Brendlinger said.
Challenge Aspen’s Cowan said Fay was inspirational not only for persevering despite her disability but also because she expanded her horizons as she aged. More and more, he said, Challenge Aspen sees older clients pushing themselves and trying new things.
“She never questioned what she could do, she just did it,” Cowan said. “Literally, the Nike statement ‘Just Do It’ – that should be her middle name.”
Challenge Aspen will make sure Fay stays on the hill, in spirit. The organization will ask the Ward family to come up with some words that will be inscribed on a small plaque to be attached to a sit-ski.
As tough as his loss is, Jim is philosophical about Fay’s passing. There is a saying that there are two types of river runners – those who have been tossed from their craft and those that will be, Jim said. Dealing with the death of a spouse is the same, he said.
His time with Fay goes far beyond their 54 years of marriage. They met in the second grade in Osseo, Minn. It was a small enough town that all the kids hung out together. Their first official date was when Fay was selected as homecoming queen. That’s a lot of memories to draw upon.
“She was an amazing person,” Jim said. “She was one tough lady – no doubt about it.”
The Ward family is seeking contributions to help defray the cost of Fay’s memorial service. The Fay Ward Memorial Fund was established at Wells Fargo.
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