Sitting around Randy Kelley’s kitchen table in Steamboat Springs last week, friends and family took comfort in reminiscing about Mary Kelley’s life, which brought them so much joy and happiness.
“She was just a light,” said Randy, who married Mary more than 34 years ago. “The thing about Mary is that she’s super practical and always thinking of others.”
Randy was joined at the table by family friend Marilyn McCaulley, Mary’s sister Christy Parsons and her husband Kim. They had come together to support each other and share their stories of Mary, who died on March 24 while rafting the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park.
Those close to Mary remember the 63-year-old as genuine, honest and kind with a lively sense of humor that could put a smile on almost anyone’s face after a full day of hard work. She enjoyed reading, gardening, cooking, and taking care of Randy and their boys, Ryan and David.
“She was happy, cheerful and kind,” Parsons said. “She was really generous and practical. She was exactly the kind of person you wanted to have around you.
Since moving to Steamboat Springs in 1980, Mary has made quite an impression, along with a long list of close friends. She held jobs at Remmington’s at the Sheraton, as a night baker, at the Steamboat Resort ticket office, and as a lunch lady at schools in Soda Creek and Strawberry Park. Most recently, she worked for Colorado Mountain College until her retirement with the arrival of COVID-19.
“She touched a lot of lives,” Randy said. “She made a home for me and the boys – and her friends, she always took care of her friends.”
Mary was the youngest of five siblings, who spent most of their childhood in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. The family moved to Tacoma, Washington for a brief period when his father, Walter Spidahl, worked as a salesman for Northland Skis. However, the family ended up in Fergus Falls soon after.
“There were four of us in a row, then when my mother was pregnant with the fourth, she got polio,” Parsons recalled. “The vaccine had just come out. She had my brother Oscar, and then they put her in an iron lung and took her to Minneapolis. She left for six months.
Four years later, the family grew again when Mary, whom Parsons calls “the miracle baby”, arrived on June 6, 1958. Despite the advice of doctors who feared for her mother’s safety during childbirth, Liz Spidahl gives birth to her fifth child.
Mary enjoyed her childhood growing up alongside John, Christy, David and Oscar. The children would help out in their father’s dealership business, working on a number of events each year, including the Minnesota State Fair.
Mary was active and became an accomplished skater and member of one of Minnesota’s first women’s hockey teams. She graduated from Ferguson Falls High School in 1976. She briefly lived in Bellingham, Washington, where she worked at Crystal Mountain before finally landing in Steamboat Springs in 1980.
Randy and Mary met soon after he arrived, but their romance took a few years to develop as Randy was married at the time and Mary had a boyfriend. It wasn’t until after Randy’s previous marriage ended that he noticed the young woman from Fergus Falls at a broom hockey game.
“She was super cute and fun,” Randy said. “It was the first time I really started to think about asking him out.”
The two didn’t really meet until they bumped into each other outside of the Unique Shop in downtown Steamboat Springs.
“I walked out of the health food store and she walked out of the Unique Shop with a teapot,” Randy recalled.
The two talked and Mary asked Randy if he wanted to come over to dinner at Wayne and Linda Kakela’s barn, where Mary lived.
At the time, Randy planned to go to Boulder, but when the invitation turned into an opportunity to steal Mary’s heart, his plans quickly changed. In 1987, the couple got married and started building a life together. Randy still has the teapot Mary bought that day.
That life included a house in the Riverside neighborhood, Randy’s music career, and many, many friends. Mary was a perfect fit for Steamboat. She loved camping, going out, bird watching and sharing adventures on the river.
Mary’s first nighttime river trip came when Randy, who had worked as a river guide in Grand Junction, was invited by Friends of the Yampa on a river trip with activist Katie Lee. He invited Mary to join him on the San Juan River trip in 1983.
“Since then it’s been river travel our whole lives,” Randy said. “It was our passion. We absolutely loved getting out on the river and being in these beautiful places. We knew there were risks, but we were doing something we love to do.
In recent years, the couple have had adventures in Spain with Christy and Kim, then in Guatemala.
“Mary was very aware of nature and her surroundings. She was noticing and pointing out things no one else saw, especially birds and birdsong,” McCaulley said. “In any setting inside or outside her home – camping, shelter trips, travel – she was the ultimate hostess and caregiver for everyone. She created an ambiance with scarves, candles and lighting to make every event memorable and special.
Annette Seiler and Mary had been friends for 33 years.
“When we got together, regardless of the length of time in between, it was like we got together yesterday,” Seiler said. “It never got old and it was such an integral part of the fabric of my life all these years that I just can’t imagine it won’t be the case in the future. It’s so hard to grasp.”
The two had their children around the same time and the families grew up together. When Ryan and David turned 16, they traveled overseas with Seiler to Denmark.
“Having Mary trust me to bring her children to Europe and take on this responsibility was just a relationship full of trust,” Seiler said.
Seiler, owner of Dreamboat Chef Services, often brought her friend on board to help out when needed.
“I couldn’t imagine having a more helpful person with me at work,” Seiler said. “She was such a helpful soul, and she was so good at anticipating the needs of others. So when we went to work together everything went smoothly.
Seiler said that whether it was her or a client, Mary could anticipate people’s needs and, in most cases, had already done what needed to be done before it became an issue. Seiler remembers packing for a camping trip and being afraid he had forgotten something.
“’Don’t worry, Annette. It’s amazing what you can do without,” Seiler recalls, recalling what her friend told her. “I’ve always had that in mind since then, and now that she’s gone, I’m just wondering, can I do without her?”
Services for Mary Kelley will be held from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. April 23 at Olympian Hall inside Howelsen Hill Lodge.
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.