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photo by Lydia Stern

Profile: Toni Todd

Aloha Spirit

by Dawne Belloise

Toni Todd’s smile fills the room almost as much as the aroma wafting from her oversized travel thermos filled with steaming coffee, brewed with beans she grew on her small coffee farm on the island of Hawaii.

Coffee and writing go hand in hand. It is said that behind every successful writer is a substantial amount of coffee and perhaps, unbeknownst to Toni, that is where the caffeine connection serendipitously came about. She had always wanted to become a writer and from her very first decade she created stories about the stuff that whirls around in the minds of children.

“My mom says I’ve been making up stories my entire life,” Toni says of her mother’s kidding. “Stories were something I was drawn to when I was a kid and I loved writing.”

photo by Lydia Stern
photo by Lydia Stern

Born and raised in Salem, Ore., Toni attended a tiny Catholic school. Her parents paid for piano lessons for a few years but Toni admits, “I wasn’t into it. I would rather be on my bike or outside playing sports and besides, no one in my family was a musician so I didn’t have any real role model encouragement.” However, now her passion is ukulele.

Toni was 13 when she started her skiing addiction and realized she could become a serious ski bum. “There was a bus that went from Salem to Mt. Hood and I begged my parents to help me learn to ski. I started taking lessons and kept going back. After three years, this tiny ski school ran out of lessons and classes to put me in, so they offered me a job as an apprentice.”

She was 16 by then and getting a free ski pass for instructing, “and then after that I was getting paid.” Toni grinned and collected that paycheck while she skied free and taught. When she graduated in 1977 Toni had no idea what she wanted to do but had high hopes. “I figured I’d get discovered for my creativity and make a whole lot of money.”

When fame and fortune didn’t materialize immediately, she enrolled at Lewis and Clark College. “It was the only school I applied to because I never knew you were supposed to apply to more than one. I went there until I ran out of money and had to pay them back. I wasn’t a serious student and it was a very expensive school to not be a serious student. I was spending more time on the mountain than in school.”

Honing her inner ski bum, Toni traded up for the real deal, relocating to Vail, and, as she puts it, “Squishing all of my belongings into a 1972 VW Bug.”

Midway through her second season as a Vail ski instructor, she crashed and burned, breaking her neck in three different places at her C6. Luckily, the break remained intact, but she was out of commission for a while and decided it was a good time to get serious about going back to college.

 

“I made my way back to Portland in 1985, where I met my husband, Ron Niederpruem—which is why I did not take his name,” Toni laughs, pointing out that they’ve been together for over 30 years and all dinner reservations are made in her surname. “He actually goes by Mr. Todd because it’s easier,” she laughs.

They ended up moving to southern California where Toni went to California State University at Northridge. “That was a good decision to go back to school, but the major I chose was a bad decision.” She blames her friends who told her that a business major always gets a job out of college. “But that’s not where my heart was, I was a writer.”

Nevertheless, she graduated in 1989 with a BS in business and promptly went to work as middle management for a Fortune 500 company for seven years, “Doing all the stuff you learn to do when working for a Fortune 500 company… I learned to play golf, co-ed league softball, and roller blade at the beach. I liked living there but it was so big and I’m not a city person.”

One day, both Ron and Toni were slapped with the disillusionment of their large company jobs and California city life. Ron wanted to go into business for himself and Toni still fancied herself a writer.

“So we sketched out a plan that in three years’ time we’d go to Colorado and maybe I’d pursue a degree in journalism and he’d start his own business.”

The very next morning fate took over. “I was at work and I got a message from Ron on my office phone,” she tells. “He had just gotten laid off, so we decided to move to Colorado right away.” They were packed and gone in three weeks instead of three years.

“We moved to Lakewood in Denver. Ron became a certified financial planner in his own biz and I went to DU and got my master’s in mass communications, which is essentially the study of the media and persuasive communication.”

But ultimately, Toni still wanted to be a journalist, so she started applying to small-town newspapers. “One of the towns we had passed through in exploring Colorado was Gunnison. I wrote a letter to the then editor, Steve Reed, and sent in some samples of my academic writing and said, ‘I think I can write.’ He said, ‘I think you can write too and if you come to town I can keep you busy.’”

The cub reporter started out as a stringer for several months before she spotted an ad in the paper for a news reporter at KBUT. They interviewed, then hired her. “I kept doing some freelance for the paper, but I was the news director at KBUT for 20 hours a week and I loved it.”

Toni stayed with KBUT for five years and also hosted their radio show, Town Talk, which was a live call-in public affairs show. When she received an offer to become a full-time staff writer at the Gunnison Country Times, she left her beloved community radio job.

Somewhere between their dreaming and waking realities the couple got a wild hair and thought it would be a great idea to move to Hawaii. That was 2005, and shoveling snow in that epic year may have helped play a part in their decision. “We had been going on vacation there off and on for a couple of years, exploring the non-touristy parts mostly on the Big Island. We found this little place in the rain forest we thought we could afford so we bought it. And moved.

“Meanwhile, we kept our cabin just north of Gunnison,” Toni says, but they eventually discovered why their Hawaiian house was so affordable. “It was in the rain forest. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest so I thought, how bad can a little rain be? As it turns out, there’s a big difference between the 180 inches [average rainfall] in Hawaii as compared to about 45 inches where I grew up. And it’s miserable,” she laments. “It’s always raining. It’s not like it’s just always a little misty… it’s pouring rain day after day after day. And then, when the sun does come out, you’d think everyone would go to the beach… but no … you mow your lawn or weed whack because it might be another three months before you get another day again so you do yard work and then it starts raining again. You don’t get a winter break, because yard work… it’s always there! And there’s mold everywhere, always… and rust, everything rusts, it doesn’t matter if it’s indoors or outdoors, it rusts… the toaster, the refrigerator… if it’s made of metal it’ll rust! A dehumidifier is a great idea until you realize how expensive electricity is in Hawaii.”

And furthermore, Toni realized, they were located only ten miles from an active volcano, in Volcanoes National Park. Although they weren’t close enough that lava would reach their home, they had the pleasure of discovering the uniquely Hawaiian “vog,” or volcanic smog.

“Depending on how the winds are blowing, the vog can be bad when you live close to an active volcano.” She wrinkles her nose in considering the full scope of the situation. Her tale is laced with a mixture of headshaking, reality and comedy, like an unwritten I Love Lucy Goes to the Rain Forest episode, but they persisted and endured and nobody voted them off the island.

Fighting boredom and wet sandals, Toni headed off to the farmers market where she picked up a couple of small coffee trees with the intention of growing just enough for their own morning brews. The one thing they had going for them, in addition to all that rain and natural composting, was that their property had deep, rich volcanic soil, instead of lava with shallow soil. The coffee trees thrived after planting, and the encouraged Toni picked up a couple more trees, which thrived as well so she planted two more.

One day, they noticed that the dropped seeds from the half dozen planted trees were sprouting new baby trees. In such a lush environment, things develop pretty quickly and their small grove blossomed to 500 trees, suddenly becoming a tiny coffee farm that now produces anywhere between 80 and 200 pounds of beans a year.

Toni brings the coffee back to Gunnison with her to sell privately and online on the Gunnison Marketplace on Facebook.

Meanwhile, the recession had hit and the couple’s income suffered, as it did for many people, including their local Gunnison renters, who ended up having to leave town. “So there we were with reduced income and two houses. I came back to temporarily live in the cabin with the intention of selling it,” Toni explains, taking a banking job to help pay the mortgage.

It was 2011 and the market was still really depressed and Toni and her husband were competing with all the foreclosures, which meant offers for their cabin were unacceptably low. They decided to hang on to the house a little longer until the market improved.

“I got an email from a friend associated with the college [now Western State Colorado University] who asked if I wanted to teach a class. I quit my full-time bank job to teach one class, which was crazy in the middle of a recession, but it worked into a full-time job there,” she says of her teaching position as a communications and media writing lecturer.

Toni’s temporary stay turned into a most-of-the year resident with summers and extended holiday trips back to Ron in Hawaii, who’s keeping the coffee beans going and running his own small CFP business. Last summer, their beans were voted Best in the Creative Class at a local competition.

Now fully entrenched in Gunnison valley life, in 2012 Toni was offered the Aloha Connection radio show on KBUT and has been hosting it since, which led to her love of the ukulele.

”A musician friend said if you get a decent instrument you’ll sound better and you’ll be more inclined to pick it up and play. So I got a nice tenor uke from Castle Creek Guitars in Gunnison and sure enough, because it sounds better I play it more. I play whatever, expanding my core repertoire so I play a lot of different things. Last year for my birthday, Ron bought me a sweet little mango wood soprano ukulele, so the collection has begun,” she smiles.

Toni also hosts The West Elk Word on KBUT, “which is wonderful. I love being back and more involved in radio. I’m a community radio junkie. I say I don’t have time for writing but I usually squeeze in a story here and there for publications in the valley.”

Additionally, Toni’s been president of the Gunnison Arts Council board for three years and is co-founder of the Headwaters Poetry Festival, a fest she and David Rothman started last spring, bringing poets from the Western Slope.

“I go back and forth [to Hawaii] when I can but who knows what the future will bring. We feel pretty fortunate to have come out of the recession as well as we have and still be able to have that connection between the mountains we love and the islands we love. I love my job at the university. I love the students, they keep me on my toes. And I love the sense of community here. I have always felt a part of the Gunnison community,” Toni says.

Toni carries the Aloha spirit, which in the Hawaiian language means much more than hello and goodbye. It is definitively a way of life that embraces the joyful (oha) sharing (alo) of life energy (ha) in the present (alo).

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