Catherine Mary James: In Memorium

Catherine Mary James: In Memorium

Cathy James, mother of three super smart, productive adults and four awesome grandchildren, was a fixture in the Telluride community, her home for nearly four decades. Cathy’s most visible, professional legacy is Bright Futures for Early Childhood and Families, the Telluride-based childcare resource and referral agency for San Miguel, Delta, Montrose, and Ouray counties. Her professional history also includes teaching kindergarten at the Telluride Elementary School and writing grants for the school district. Those are just a few of the hard facts of the very rich life of a woman Clint and I knew as our friend, an outdoor adventurer and traveler to her marrow, to the end.

Cathy James died September 18, leaving a giant hole in town. We will all miss her warm, ever-present smile and bold-faced energy. A celebration of  Cathy’s life is scheduled for October 20, 2:30 – 5 p.m,. just outside Oak.

Telluride Inside.. and Out is honored to post the following tribute to Cathy James, penned by her daughter Jesse James McTigue. And, for dear friends, really anyone who knew and loved Cathy, in addition to this tribute to her mom, in 2012, Jesse blogged for TIO about a very special day on the mountain skiing, just the two of them.  Find “Throw Amah from Mountain Quail” here. 

Catherine Mary James died peacefully in her home in Telluride, CO Tuesday night September 18 surrounded by family, friends and the mountains she loved. She was 74-years-old.

She will be remembered by everyone who knew her, her beloved family, and friends across the globe, for her magnanimous personality, spontaneous generosity, fierce independence, loyal friendship, addiction to travel, and endless energy. Additionally, in Telluride, Cathy will be remembered for her contributions to early childhood education, her engagement in the community, and her joyful presence on the ski area and hiking trails.

Cathy was born Catherine Mary Reiss in Detroit, MI on December 18, 1943. Her father was a media director of a large advertising agency;  her mother was a homemaker. Cathy was the second oldest of six children. She was athletic and adventurous and played basketball and tennis, often taking on, and beating, her eldest brother and her father. In the summer the Reiss family spent time on the lakes around Detroit; in the winter, they ice-skated in neighborhood parks and skied in the hills of northern Michigan.

Cathy attended Immaculata High School (IHMs, graduating in June 1961. She spent her high school summers working as a camp counselor teaching swimming and sailing. Cathy attended the University of Detroit where she graduated in June 1965 with a teaching certificate and a bachelor’s degree in history.

After graduation, Cathy headed West with two friends to the Bay Area where she spent one year teaching. In 1967, she returned to the Midwest and her college boyfriend, Mike James. Cathy continued to teach while the young couple moved around the Midwest as Michael completed his medical training. Between 1969 and 1972, Cathy and Mike had their three children: Kimberly Catherine, Todd Michael, and Jessica Cherie.

In 1974, the family made its first trip to Telluride. Family lore tells of the group camping in Town Park where Mike and Cathy entered a mixed doubles tennis tournament  – they always include the fact that they won –through which they met two local couples with whom they would become life-long friends (and who were with Cathy during the final weeks of life). Shortly thereafter, Mike and Cathy purchased a Telluride Lodge unit for which Cathy received a lifetime pass to the Telluride Ski Area. She loved boasting that after skiing Telluride for 32 years, she never bought a lift ticket.

From 1978-1983, the family lived in the suburbs of Lansing. During these years, Cathy remained active and spearheaded a move to a 16-acre ranch where the family boarded horses, raised chickens, and hung an infamous rope swing over the river. Cathy took the kids skiing every chance she got and introduced them to a new sport at the time, windsurfing.

In 1983, Cathy and Mike divorced, but Cathy continued to visit Telluride in the winters.

To help her with the drive, she recruited a local ski patroller, and a member of her children’s ski team (who was old enough to drive) respectively in exchange for a free place to stay. Those recruits became lifelong friends and formed their own connection with the San Juans. Family lore has it that one of her children asked where they would have Christmas if they didn’t make it all the way to Telluride and Cathy responded: “We’ll strap that Christmas tree on top of the van, and wherever we land baby, that’s where we’ll have Christmas.”

They always completed the whole trip.

In 1985, Cathy was ready to leave the Midwest and suburban life. Again, family lore has Cathy pulling out a map pointing to Hawaii and Telluride and asking her kids, “Do you want to be windsurfers or skiers?”

They moved to Telluride.

Cathy fell in love with Telluride as many fall in love with a person – and not only with the mountains and physicality of the area, but with the community and the culture. In 1986, she bought a lot on Primrose Lane in the East End of town by the cemetery. She built her home – looking out at Bear Creek and Ingram Falls – and a place that housed many friends and hosted spirited dinner parties. It became her favorite spot in the world.

At the direction of her youngest child, in 1988, Cathy retired her Ski School jacket and applied for a job teaching kindergarten at the Telluride Public Schools. For almost two decades, Cathy taught kindergarten and third grade, and then began writing grants to bring new initiatives (at that time) to the schools such as a gifted and talented program in the elementary school and a mentorship program in the high school.

Professionally, Cathy was known as an untraditional teacher and maverick. Memories of Cathy’s teaching include using tents in the classroom instead of table groups, creating documentary mentorships on the mountain for snowboarders, leading a trip to Nepal, and finding as many out-of -the-classroom excursions as possible.

Cathy retired from the public school in 2003, then went back to work in 2007 as the Executive Director of the regional chapter of Bright Futures, a nationally and state-funded organization dedicated to improving access and resources for early childhood education throughout all demographics of a community. She significantly improved the growth, visibility, influence, partnerships, and financial growth of the organization, from which she retired in 2014.

Cathy James, image, Melissa Plantz.

Although Cathy will be honored for her contributions to education in Telluride, she will be remembered most for her free-spirit and sense of adventure. Cathy was an avid traveler and adventurer both regionally and globally.

Her travels over the last few decades include excursions to Tahiti, Thailand, Cayman Islands, Italy, Croatia, Turkey, Africa, Nepal, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Peru and Mexico – each of which included an element of hiking, biking or snorkeling. Even as recently as last November, Cathy walked an average of 10 miles a day in Bhutan instead of riding in the Land Rover. And, on one such adventure, together with local educator Laura Kudo, Cathy started Tiny Seeds, a Montessori learning center in Katmandu, Nepal.

Cathy also loved introducing people to Telluride and hosted countless visitors and newcomers.

When her kids left for the summers or for college, she rented their rooms to the 20-something crowd living, working, and most of the time skiing, in Telluride. During off-season, she often traded rent for whatever was offered—an old mountain bike, sanding of her hardwood floors, fixing of the deck, or painting her house. One night when she couldn’t sleep, she listed everyone who had lived in her house; she came up with 150 names  –and later realized she had missed many.

In the early 2000s, Cathy’s sense of adventure led her to Nelson, British Columbia, where, using the same intuition and luck that guided her in buying a condominium in Telluride in 1974, she bought a second-home. Over the last 15 years, Cathy spent significant parts of the year skiing, paddle-boarding, sea-kayaking, and hiking in and around the Nelson area.

But most of all, Cathy loved her friends, children, their spouses and her grandchildren.

When her first grandchild was born in 2001, Cathy renamed herself Amah. She said “A-mah going skiing, A-mah having a cocktail, A-mah taking the kids camping,” and her title became “The Amah” regardless if grandkids were around or not.

In 2013, Cathy was diagnosed with Primary Central Nervous System (CNS) Lymphoma that metastasized in her brain: she had brain cancer. She underwent chemotherapy at The University of Colorado Anschutz Cancer Center in Denver. She went into remission for four years, during which time she returned to her healthy and active lifestyle.

In April of this year, the cancer returned.

Cathy underwent chemotherapy again, but to no avail. When she realized her battle was over, her family and friends made sure she would live her last days in her favorite place in the world—her home. Over the last week of her life, hundreds of people came to spend time with Cahty, share a Moscow Mule, and give a final toast.

Cathy is survived by her five siblings, three children, and four grandchildren. She was cremated at Crippin Funeral Home and Crematory in Montrose, Colorado. Her ashes will be spread across her favorite places in Telluride and Nelson and a ceremony to honor her life is to be held on October 20. Plans are for there to be a scholarship in her honor.

  • Kip Kozly
    Posted at 18:05h, 08 October

    Cathy was a true wild child, and as full of life as a person can be. She Is the spirit of Telluride to me. Sending love to you all and great appreciation of Cathy.

  • Kip Kozlowski
    Posted at 18:06h, 08 October

    Cathy was a true wild child, and as full of life as a person can be. She Is the spirit of Telluride to me. Sending love to you all and great appreciation of Cathy.

  • Bev McTigue
    Posted at 19:45h, 08 October

    What a wonderful tribute to your mom…she will be dearly missed!

  • Todd
    Posted at 20:09h, 08 October

    Perfect. She was beautiful

  • Abby Altshuler
    Posted at 07:50h, 09 October

    Jesse what a beautiful read, I could have gone on reading as much as you or anyone could write about Cathy. What a tornado she was and I expect is still! 1:00 would come, kindergarten ends, I go home and take a nap, Cathy’s on the hill. I feel quite privileged to have known and worked alongside her, we were close then and spent time together outside of school too. She is ???? surrounded by love.

  • Kristine Hilbert
    Posted at 14:05h, 09 October

    Such a beautiful accounting of an enviable life lived with passion and purpose. Cathy has always been someone I admired and will continue to admire. Her grace, ease, joy and energy with which she moved through her days and embraced her life are something we should all aspire to. What an incredible woman and what a huge loss to our community and those who loved her so dearly.

  • Jim Crimmins (1st cousin)
    Posted at 08:43h, 13 October

    She is my 1st cousin. She was born when I was 11 years old.
    Sorrow and pride.

    Love Forever.


  • James W Crimmis
    Posted at 14:53h, 13 October

    I was 10 years old when she was born. We were first cousins. She always seemed delighted by her surroundings and. By the world around. her. To me (a first cousin) she was always a delight you tresured seeing again.

  • Debi Bacon Sapolin
    Posted at 17:40h, 18 October

    Kim, Todd & Jessie,
    Such a beautiful tribute to your mom. You are all in my thoughts through this difficult time. I pray a lifetime of wonderful memories give you strength and turn tears into smiles and laughter! I have so many wonderful childhood memories with your mom front and center!