Mark Esper, the longtime editor and publisher of the Silverton Standard & the Miner, reportedly the oldest continuously operated newspaper on the Western Slope, was found dead last week at his home in Silverton. He was 63..
For more than a decade, Esper reported, wrote and photographed stories for the Standard, and once a week delivered the final product on foot to the townspeople of Silverton.
San Juan County Coroner Keri Metzler confirmed Esper died Feb. 16. She said Tuesday an official cause of death is pending. Metzler is awaiting toxicology results, which could take another couple of weeks to be returned. She said neither foul play nor suicide is suspected.
Melody Skinner of Silverton said Esper was a tremendous writer with a quirky sense of humor who made an impact on Silverton. Esper walked everywhere he went in town and was physically short, Skinner said, who herself stands at 5 feet 2 inches and always felt tall around him. She doesn’t know why Esper chose to move to Silverton, but she guesses it was for the small mountain town atmosphere.
Writing in a small town can be a challenging job, Skinner said. She described Silverton as a goldfish bowl – a small, isolated community in the mountains. Even those who live on the outskirts of town are considered to be part of that bowl, she said.
“It was hard on him to be in such a small town, because his writing skills were very good,” she said. “No matter what you were writing, it’s a town of 600 people and you’re going to run into them.”
Skinner said she is sure residents were vocal to Esper about his work. Reporting on small town controversies to a small town audience can lead to people getting angry and withholding their advertising from the newspaper.
“It’s hard to cover anything controversial in Silverton, because we are all in a fish bowl,” she said.
Nonetheless, Esper reported on town and county scandals, controversies and other sensitive news items. If an argument was unfolding at the courthouse, Esper would be in the middle of it, trying to write it all down, Skinner said.
Esper was good at writing news stories without letting his own opinions on the subject bleed into his work, she said. She called it a “monumental task” for reporters to write a story without injecting their own feelings into it.
Skinner said many people never gave Esper the credit he deserved for his work. She knows people who don’t respect that the press has specific rules to stick to, she said.
She recalled one story Esper wrote shortly after he moved to Silverton. The story was a one-page special feature about the winner of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, although Skinner couldn’t recall what year it was published. She said the story might have been the only example of a one-page special edition ever printed in Silverton for something such as a bicycle race or any other competition.
Esper had visited Skinner in her office – she worked for San Juan County Sheriff’s Office then – and asked her to print copies of the one-page story he’d written earlier that day. Skinner did, and Esper went around town passing around the Iron Horse story.
Skinner also recalled a time when Esper vied for a columnist position with The Washington Post. He submitted two columns to the Post and was one of about three remaining candidates before being rejected. Skinner said the columns he sent, which were more “serious” in nature than his usual quirky but still informative style, displayed Esper’s true caliber as a reporter.
Esper was no stranger to covering serious topics. He told The Durango Herald in a 2014 interview that he reported from war-torn Bosnia and Northern Ireland. He even interviewed Fidel Castro, the late leader of Cuba from 1959 to 2008.
“I will miss him tremendously,” Skinner said. “I’m very sad to hear of his death.”
Freddie Canfield, another colleague of Esper, knew the newsman for at least a decade, he said.
Canfield worked on a column for the Silverton Standard with Esper. He said they talked a lot and Canfield respects Esper’s approach to journalism.
“Personally, I liked working with Mark,” Canfield said. “We could talk about a whole lot of things. He’d be looking at it from a serious journalistic standpoint and I’d be looking at it from the standpoint of a guy that’s been here since 1984 and pretty much knows everybody in the community.”
Esper brought a “real, solid journalism background” with him to Silverton, Canfield said.
Esper’s death marks a big loss for the tiny mountain town, he said.
Most recently, Esper worked on the Standard’s back page section called the Caboose, covering the town of Silverton’s history.
Skinner said Esper had been having a “very hard time” working, possibly because of a back injury.