by Katie Klingsporn
Today, he is an unassuming gentleman in a white cowboy hat and matching beard, a lawyer in a small Western town who defends those who have gotten themselves into trouble. But back in the ’70s, when Telluride was an unpaved mountain hideaway inhabited by old miners and a clutch of ski bums, Dick Unruh was a cowboy hippie in the thick of it—the antics and lifestyle that have become the stuff of legend. Once or twice along the way, he even found himself in a little trouble of his own.
Unruh has lived in Telluride off and on since 1972, which, by the standards of transient Telluride, makes him a bona fide oldtimer. He has the rare distinction of being here before Telluride was given a resort makeover of mansions and opulence and sky-high real estate prices—back when lots were dirt cheap and things were a little looser. “It was a very free place, maybe too free,” Unruh says with a little chuckle. “We had a lot of fun.”
Many Telluride originals from the ’70s have moved on or faded away, while Unruh has remained, carving himself a cozy little niche in the fringe West. But it’s not just his duration that makes him notable. Unruh has worn many hats in this county, besides the 10-gallon kind: town attorney, KOTO DJ, skier and wrangler. He was among those who wrote the Home Rule; he sat on San Miguel County Planning and Zoning when plans for Mountain Village were drawn up; and he’s been chair of the county Democratic party for six years.
Unruh often wears boots, and there’s always a cowboy hat atop his head (he buys spectacular lids from Nathaniel’s in Mancos). His face bears the ruddiness of years under the mountain sun, and when he smiles, his steely blue eyes twinkle mischievously.
Born in 1940 in Kansas City, Missouri, his father was a farm boy who went there during the Depression to work in an automobile assembly plant; his mother, a country girl, was a school secretary. They lived on the outskirts of town, grew a huge garden and lived simply. He was an only child, a star football player in high school and an Eagle Scout.
After high school, he went to the University of Missouri to study political science and attended law school there. Once he passed the bar, he worked for a federal judge in Kansas City, then served as a prosecutor for the city before throwing his energy at gaining legal rights for indigent people. He supervised a legal aide program in 11 states and set up another in the Virgin Islands before heading West to set up the Colorado Rural Legal Services for agricultural migrant workers.
Soon, he found himself in Aspen, at that time a young ski town, free and wild. He took up skiing, practiced law, found a lifestyle he loved. Then one day, he heard an enticing rumor of a fledgling ski area in the southern mountains. Soon after, he was hired to represent Ed Smart and John Wayne (yes, that John Wayne) in a land transaction in what would become East Ophir.
And so he ended up in Telluride. The year was 1972. It was a town of 400 souls, most remnants from the mining era. There was one television station and no radio. Long hairs hung out at the Roma or the Sheridan, went skiing and played softball in the park.
Unruh lived in the little Victorian that still stands in Telluride Town Park (the present-day Nordic Center and campground check-in). With roommate and fellow roustabout Roudy Roudebush, he opened the Unstable Riding Stables. They had a bunch of horses they pastured in the park and Bear Creek. They hired out the horses, took the occasional star riding, enjoyed the freedom.
“The softball players didn’t like us,” Unruh says. “They had to sweep the road apples off home plate.” he says. “We had the place all to ourselves. It was like being out in the country.”
In 1975 when KOTO was inaugurated, it became a centerpiece of communication and entertainment. Unruh started to DJ on Sunday nights, calling his slot “The Open Road Show with the Old Road Hawg,” a parody of late-night radio for truck drivers. He featured outlaw country, such as Merle Haggard and Waylon and Willie. The show still airs today.
During the early bluegrass festivals, back when locals did concessions, Unruh and friend Tex Mex sold ribs wearing just diapers and cowboy hats and boots. The message was, “Mama, don’t let your cowboys grow up to be babies.”
He has shaken hands with three presidents (Truman, Johnson and Carter), but it’s the memory of meeting Willie Nelson that really lights him up: Unruh drove to Aspen to meet some friends, and they ended up hanging out with Willie in a hotel with 200 other people…. He trails off. The details are not for print.
Somewhere amid the horses and bluegrass festivals and whole outlaw country-boy lifestyle, Unruh had a couple run-ins with the law, including a drug-sting operation that resulted in him losing his license to practice (he regained it a few years later). He doesn’t like to talk about it, but says it made him take a sabbatical from Telluride for a few years to teach. The break, he admits, allowed him some breathing room and probably saved him from getting carried away.
For a couple years, Unruh did the wrangling thing. He ran cattle and horses on 80 acres on Wright’s Mesa, raised goats and chickens, lived under a big sky. Eventually, in 1994, he built a cabin in Ophir, where he still lives. These days, he enjoys cross-country skiing on Lizard Head Pass, going to the Norwood Rodeo and Horse Races, hiking and being a DJ on KOTO. He has a private practice and specializes in defending locals in trouble with the law. “I try to help people out when they screw up,” he says simply. His three children are grown: Christian is an entertainment lawyer; Anders works in the environmental field; and Jessie attends college in Kansas.
Unruh’s known a lot of old-timers and characters and has a genuine love of this county. But he’s got a granddaughter who’s half-Peruvian and a desire to perfect his Spanish, and a move to South America is likely in his future, he says. With him will go a colorful and unruly piece of Telluride history.