By Gaily Binkly
The phone rang early the other morning, and for just an instant I thought, “It’s Marilyn.”
Then I remembered that, of course, it couldn’t possibly be. She had died on July 15.
She was 84 and irreplaceable.
I don’t recall the first time that Marilyn Boynton telephoned me. I think it was some 15 years ago, while I was still working at the Cortez Journal, and it was probably in reference to gravel pits on the Dolores River Valley, or maybe another concern of hers.
She quickly took to calling me on a regular basis, and made it clear that we were going to be friends and I really had no say in the matter. And so we became friends.
Over the years she phoned many, many times. She would say, “Gail, it’s Marilyn,” and I would smile, because her piercing, lilting Texas twang was unmistakable – I could have identified it anywhere.
When we first knew each other, she was living in Cortez. Later, she moved to Bluff, Utah, and then to Blanding. Everywhere she went, she immediately became involved in local affairs.
In Cortez, she worried about the treatment of elderly residents in a low-income housing complex and the absence of stairs at the Cortez Rec Center’s swimming pool. She argued vociferously, but to no avail, that it was undignified for disabled swimmers to have to be hoisted out of the water by a crane-like device.
In Bluff, she waded into the debate over the town’s hodgepodge of individual septic systems, arguing that a central system was needed. When she moved to Blanding, she really hit her stride and began attending the twice-monthly meetings of the San Juan County Commission, painfully clambering up the stairs to the meeting room despite her bad knees. Two Mondays a month I’d get a phone call: “Gail, the pot is about to boil here. You won’t believe what the commission did today!”
Marilyn never became computer-savvy and never hooked up to the Internet, but she didn’t need Facebook or Twitter. Equipped with only a telephone, she ran a one-woman news bureau out of her home. She wasn’t afraid to talk to anyone. She called county commissioners and bigwigs with the Bureau of Land Management, Navajo Nation dignitaries and heads of environmental organizations, representatives of the state attorney general’s office, politicians, journalists, and of course her many friends and family. On the morning in 2005 that the news broke about Hurricane Katrina, she phoned the headquarters of the NAACP in Washington, D.C., to tell them, “You’d better do something! – black people are dying!”
At times, her phone calls could be overwhelming, I’ll admit, coming at any time of the day or night if she thought something was really important. But you ignored them at your own peril, for one way or another, she would reach you. Not too long ago, a Navajo official was driving on the rez when a tribal police officer pulled him over. He was bewildered, wondering what offense he could possibly have committed. Instead, the officer told him, “Marilyn Boynton has been trying to get hold of you – she really wants you to call!”
Marilyn was passionately interested in a plethora of issues: the tamarisk beetle and the Gunnison sage grouse, public lands management, oil and gas drilling, air pollution, water quality, dust on snow, uranium mining, open-meetings laws and government transparency, Recapture Canyon, human rights and racism. She peppered me with so many story ideas, the New York Times could not have kept up with them.
She told me she’d once had a spiritual experience that left her convinced that life has meaning and our actions have consequences, and thus she had a driving desire to better the world. She’d already done that by raising four children as brilliant and talented (in their own right) as herself, but she never rested, always wanting to do more.
One other thing she was passionate about, to our great benefit, was the Four Corners Free Press. You couldn’t ask for a more ardent supporter — she sometimes pulled over in a parking lot to read a story when she got a copy of our latest edition.
In addition to writing occasional articles or opinion pieces, for years she drove to Cortez so I could load a couple of bundles of papers into her little white truck, and then she distributed them all over southeast Utah, from Monticello to Mexican Hat, Aneth to Montezuma Creek – even sometimes to Window Rock, Ariz. This was a task she volunteered to do – it certainly wasn’t something I asked of her. She gamely hobbled in and out of buildings with each month’s issue, asking only a little compensation for the cost of gasoline.
Three or so years ago, an aneurysm burst in her brain. Somehow she managed to get help, and although things were very dicey for a time, she slowly recovered.
The process took months, and she told me she couldn’t continue distributing the paper. I said I certainly understood and we would have someone else do it, which we did.
But before long, she decided she could go back to her paper route.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Gail, I want to,” she insisted. And so she did.
After that, I kind of believed she was indestructible. And in many ways, she was. She never lost her conviction that she could help right wrongs and resolve conflicts.
Although her views were very liberal, she held enormous respect for many conservatives, including a number of officials in San Juan County, and heeded their opinions. And although she voiced her own ideas forcefully, she remained civil. So it was appropriate that her memorial service in Monticello brought together people from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Today, the phone in my house no longer rings at all hours. As with many things that you take for granted until you lose them, I miss those calls.
Gail Binkly is the editor of the Free Press.