On the corner of First and Elk sits a charming Victorian house with a tall bay window that looks out onto the less busier aspects of the west end, where traffic mostly makes a U-turn to head back down the main street. Lucy Zavala’s tiny home perpetually looks like a spring Easter basket with its yellow clapboards, lavender trim and an unmistakably Crested Butte picket fence. Gazing up from the front doorstep is the adorably crinkled face of her Chinese Shar Pei, Augie the doggie. Inside, every possible inch of dandelion-yellow wall space is covered in tasteful photographs of animals in the wild, original artwork and photos of family and friends, some as a tribute to those lost. Lucy’s four walls radiate the joy and warmth she imparts to her community.
Lucy grew up in California in a loving, close family. “We were dirt poor and I didn’t know it until I was in college. We always had what we needed and I never wanted for anything,” she says of the childhood she shared with a sister. “My parents were working their asses off. On Friday nights the four of us would have Chinese food, go bowling, and play pool, punching nickels into the jukebox and that was a luxury,” she smiles. “We never went hungry, we always had clothes.”
The family would go next door to their aunt’s house to use the phone. “It was a party line where you had to go through the operator to make a long distance call and wait until your neighbors finished their phone call before you could make yours.”
In the summers, Lucy’s family would load up the car and head to Mexico to visit friends and family, “We’d always go in August and it was bloody hot in August,” Lucy laughs about the family’s vacations. “I didn’t realize I was Mexican until junior high school,” she says. She grew up in Azusa, Calif., about 25 miles east of L.A. “It never affected me. It was the way we grew up and maybe I was naïve.”
Lucy’s father’s family members were migrant workers in the fields, which were once farms, vineyards and orchards—acres now covered with concrete and buildings, consumed by the sprawl of the city. “I remember my father took us to the vineyards to show us how to pick grapes. I fell asleep under the vines,” Lucy says, expressing a deep love and respect for her father. “He taught me a lot. He’d take me to pro football games when I was four years old. I’d go to [Catholic] mass with my mother and sister and then dad would throw me in the car. He’d park so far away from the stadium that I was exhausted by the time we got there,” Lucy recalls with a smile. “I learned how to sing the national anthem at those games. I couldn’t sing well but I would sing it at the top of my lungs. It was a great time to be growing up.”
Lucy loved high school. “I had no worries, my family was intact and it was all good. I played clarinet in the marching band, my sister was a banner girl, and dad was the school bus driver so he was always there at all the events,” Lucy says. She graduated in 1972 and confesses that she had no idea what she wanted to do. “I still don’t!” she giggles but adds, “I did what was expected of me and enrolled in Citrus Junior College with basic ‘whatever you needed to graduate with in order to graduate from somewhere else.’ It was just a stepping stone.”
While attending classes, Lucy worked at the concession stand at a drive-in theatre. “That was my first job,” she says. “You started out prepping the dehydrated onions and moved up, and your goal was to make it to cashier.”
Although she worked at the drive-in for many years, Lucy eventually took another job that was not typical for girls at that time. “I started working at a full-service gas station where I pumped gas, checked oil, fluids, and air pressure. I had to wear steel-toed shoes and a uniform. I pretty much learned how to take care of my own car. Most of my girlfriends didn’t even know how to change a tire. I was the only girl attendant that I knew of,” she grins proudly.
After her stint at junior college, Lucy went to Cal State Fullerton in 1978 and earned her degree in human services, which she realized, “basically meant I needed to go to graduate school if I wanted to use that. We had to go out and do things called practicums, which was going out into the field,” Lucy explains further. “My first was a state hospital’s mentally ill geriatric wing. It was horrible. The second practicum was the California Youth Authority Maximum Prison. I was tutoring reading to these kids, all young men under 18 who were felons and all the bad things you could do as a young person. It was awful also. I was so scared. I never had any issues there but I was always just afraid.”
However, Lucy’s next assignment opened up a new world for her. “I ended up as a teacher’s aid in an autistic classroom in a elementary public school. I don’t even think I knew what autism was. It was an amazing experience,” she says of her three semesters helping six- to 14-year-olds. “One of the teachers I worked with, Jean LaTourette, who married Tom Gifford when they lived in California, moved to Crested Butte,” Lucy says of the connection of the once long-time Gifford locals.
Lucy decided it was time to visit her sister Jean. “It was Christmas time and my sister happened to be living in Aspen so I flew into Gunnison then flew from the Crested Butte airport to Aspen to see my sister. That was scary in that little four-seater,” she says, but she managed and then decided to move to Crested Butte. “I packed up all my belongings into my little Mazda and moved in April 1979. I got a job at Stefanic’s making milkshakes, keeping track of everyone’s tab and watching Tony be a butcher. The town was so cool, and moving from a big city to here was a learning experience.”
Lucy moved into the little shack on the alley behind the house that Jean and Tom bought on Sopris. “I had the famous kitchen-bathroom where you could actually microwave something and take a dump at the same time. There was a shower and a sink.” She dubbed the tiny shack “the cave” because it was dark with hardly a window and cold because the only heat was a coal cook stove. “They weren’t plowing the alleys in the winter back then. The snow was so deep that I had to climb up snow steps to get out my front door.” Lucy smiles at the memory of the typical Crested Butte housing of the era.
For employment, Lucy took on babysitting gigs, “so I could watch Charlie’s Angels because I didn’t have a TV. Along the line, I started painting houses for Tom Gifford and I also started working at Hermano’s, where Mountain Tops is now.”
After Jean and Tom eventually bought Hermano’s and renamed it Juanita’s Cantina, she moved up from dish diver to cook. Her plan was to be a ski bum and work for a couple of years, then return to California for grad school. “That’s how I sold it to my parents, who thought I was nuts for moving out here.”
Then in 1981 Lucy got a phone call from the Crested Butte State Bank offering her a teller position. She grabbed it. “One day while I was working at the bank, I was told Texas Jane’s house was for sale,” she says of her home. “I really never ventured up to the west end of town and I wasn’t ever going to go to the [Sunshine’s] bathhouse and get naked,” she laughs about the popular and infamous spa.
Lucy describes the overwhelming sense of excitement she felt when she first walked into the little Victorian palace. “It was like a mansion compared to ‘the cave’ and there was natural sunlight and windows.”
Her parents helped her close the deal in 1988 and she recalls the joy of actually having simple amenities, “I had never had a real stove. There was a washer-dryer and I didn’t have to go to the Laundromat anymore and I thought I had died and gone to heaven!”
Tuesday, March 6, 1990—a day that will live in the collective memory of the entire community, but especially for Lucy, because it redefined her life. It was the day a propane explosion leveled the bank she was working in, injuring many and taking the lives of three locals. “It’s a normal day and I was working upstairs. It was at 8:58 a.m., right before we opened. We were 13 employees and Gil Gillespie had come in early to meet with a loan officer. I don’t even remember hearing an explosion. I was sitting at my desk facing a brick wall and the next thing I remember is falling down, still sitting, and seeing light between the bricks as they were coming apart. It was all in slow motion to me,” she says.
She considered several scenarios in the microseconds, possibly an earthquake or the roof caved in from snow. “I realize I’m falling and I hear my coworker in the next cubicle and he’s screaming my name in a blood-curdling way. I couldn’t say a thing, nothing would come out of my mouth. I’m still falling, he’s falling, we’re all falling. Finally I land on my butt, folded over. That’s when I realized we’re in trouble and the bank had collapsed. I don’t hear anything, there’s silence.”
And in the silence, time was skewed as she heard people above yelling for survivors. “People were digging us out with their hands. When I got carried out and I turned around, the bank was gone. The only thing there was the vault,” Lucy recalls. “Three of my co-workers lost their lives—Donna Smith, Jade Woelk, and Monica Henning.”
The community rushed in, not only to aid in the disaster but in support afterward. In the days that followed, Lucy recalls, “Many were seriously injured and trying to get well. I went back to work. I needed something to do, somewhere to be. I couldn’t just sit home.”
The bank was rebuilt with a memorial designed into its architecture. Lucy explains, “Three bricks were saved from the old bank in honor of the three people lost,” and a stained glass window was commissioned from artist Batty Barkman with 13 green stones for the workers who were caught in the explosion. There are three columbine flowers at the top for those lives lost, and at the bottom is a white stone for the community. “To see this community rally, this was the first I had experienced of the true community. I was so thankful for this community,” Lucy says. She recently retired from the bank after 33 years of service, but she’s still very much entrenched here.
“I don’t see myself ever leaving to move. All these many years, everything I’ve experienced here, Crested Butte’s gotten into my soul. I can walk out my front door and be in an amazing place in the wilderness in three minutes—Peanut Lake, the Woods Walk. I can open my front door and I can’t tell you how many amazing sunrises I’ve seen. Almost every other day when I’m out there, I think OMFG I live here, and it blows me away. When I go on vacation, or leave to see family, when I come back and I get past the turnoff for Crested Butte South and I see the open spaces and the cows and the mountains I just go, ‘Damn, I’m home!’”