Gil Ordway

Gilman Ordway

Jackson resident Gilman Ordway died May 30 surrounded by family at his Ranch View home, overlooking his beloved Fish Creek Ranch. He was 97. The following was provided by his family.

Jackson Hole has lost a quintessential local. Humanity an exemplar. Mother Nature a peerless friend and champion.

Born on May 7, 1925, during his 97 years Gil touched innumerable lives with his wit and intelligence. Generosity and gentleness. Determination to live a life that reflected his passions, values and beliefs. His deep compassion and fierce love for Jackson Hole, conservation and the natural world.

Gil moved to Jackson Hole in 1953. He ran the Fish Creek Ranch as a both a working ranch and dude ranch until 1977, then converted the guest quarters into modest rental cabins. For guests who appreciated humble quarters in a world-class setting, summers as part of the “Fish Creek Family” became the pivot around which their year turned.

No formal obituary could do justice to Gil’s long and remarkable life. Instead, family, friends and colleagues have contributed anecdotes and observations capturing pieces of Gil’s character, his deeds, his journey on Earth. With luck these verbal tiles will form a mosaic-like glimpse into Gil Ordway – an extraordinary man who, in his own, quiet, understated way, lived an extraordinary life.

In addition to Marge, his wife of 50 years, Gil is survived by daughters Kitty and Gigi, son Griffin, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

A celebration of Gil’s life will be held at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, June 14, at St. John’s Episcopal Church. For those unable to attend the event will be streamed at stjohnsjackson.org/live/. In lieu of flowers the family asks that donations be made in Gil’s name to the Jackson Hole Land Trust at JHLandTrust.org

Family & Friends

Gil and Marge

• It was always Gil and Marge. In their 50 years together, Marge and Gil were two people inextricably folded together.

— Long-time friend

Gil and family

• Dad was deeply committed to his children. Every summer he took us on great driving trips and brought us to Fish Creek Ranch.

— Daughter

• Dad had a Cessna Skymaster (the “Push Me-Pull You”) he kept at “Fish Creek International Airport,” the landing strip on the Fish Creek Ranch. When it was time for me to look at colleges, Dad took me in his plane. We flew in and out of major airports and I can still remember being right next to a jumbo jet in that little plane. I wasn’t nervous because Dad totally had it. He was not intimidated by those big planes.

- Daughter

The gift of love

• Many years ago, Gil and I went to the Teton County Fair. In the 4-H tent we saw this beautiful black pig. I pointed it out to Gil and said, “Doesn’t it have a lovely smile.” He replied: “OK. That’s your birthday present.” And she was — Petty the Pig. How many men buy their wives a pig for a birthday present?

— Marge Ordway

• When I bought my first house, Dad’s housewarming gift was two gelding llamas. I lived in Southern California, so we loaded the llamas into an ancient Chevy van and off we went, staying in cheap motels and walking the llamas at rest stops. Naturally the llamas drew a lot of attention, but because Dad grew bored answering “Where are you going with those llamas?” he soon started making up answers. One time we were taking a pack trip; the next we were going to a wool convention in Los Angeles. Whatever popped into his head. Dad was an honest man who had no problem telling a little white lie now and then, especially for fun.

— Daughter

• My seventh birthday gift from Dad was a white burro.

— Daughter

• Dad loved floating down Fish Creek, from north of Highway 22 down to the ranch. He did it with us as kids, and continued doing it with guests until he was in his 70s, maybe older.

- Daughter

• One summer Dad picked us up in California and, on our way to Wyoming, we stopped at Lake Powell. As we were boating in a canyon, the boat’s engine started making noises, so he told me to take the wheel (I may have been 12 at the time).

Watching Dad tinker with the engine was more interesting than steering, so that’s what I did. A couple of minutes later he looked up, sprang forward and cranked the wheel, for we were about to ram full-speed into a canyon wall. The boat almost tipped over, but when it righted itself and we were headed back to open water he put me back in charge of steering and continued tinkering with the engine. To him it was as if nothing had happened.

That was Dad. He didn’t worry about much. That was just his nature. Whatever it was, he knew it would work out. And it always did.

— Daughter

He cared about people

• In conversation, Gil consistently asked about and was interested in others. He always asked about our children. When we lost our younger son in 2006, Gil and Marge arranged a private flight for us to be with him. Later the Ordways made a gift to the nonprofit I founded, Texas Winds Musical Outreach, in memory of our son. Their generous gift began an endowment.

— “Fish Creek Family” member

• When I met Mr. Ordway in 1993 he was driving an old AMC Pacer with a bumper sticker on it that said, “Affordable Housing Now or Never!” It speaks to his insightful vision and care for the people of Jackson Hole.

— “Fish Creek Family” member

• When Dad was admitted to the UCLA hospital for a subdural hematoma, he shared a room with a gang member who had been injured in a drive-by shooting. The visitors were fellow gang members, and they had a huge, burly security guy posted by the door at all times. Someone sent Dad a basket of cookies as a recovery gift. Because it would never occur to him not to share, Dad shared the cookies with the gang boys, and they all became fast friends. He didn’t see the young man in the bed next to him as a threat; he was a guy who had lots of friends who liked cookies.

— Daughter

Jackson Hole

• Gil loved Wyoming, loved the West — its landscapes and animals and people. When I asked him why he purchased the River Bend Ranch in Bondurant, he replied: “Because I love the land.”

— Long-time colleague

• Every summer I’d pick up Gil and drive him to the River Bend Ranch for our annual conservation easement assessment. All the way down and back he’d ask me about the land we’d pass. Ranches. Forests. Conservation parcels. Rivers. It didn’t matter what the subject was. He loved our very large neighborhood, and genuinely wanted to know everything that was going on everywhere in it.

— Long-time colleague

Real Jackson Hole

• Dad liked to say he’d hiked every trail in Grand Teton National Park.

— Daughter

• Even though his birth and cultural origins were of elsewhere, Gil “got” Jackson Hole, and for 70 years was an integral part it. The genuine Jackson Hole. The community of people who look after each other and the land around us. The people who want their legacy to be “I gave more back to Jackson Hole than I took from it.”

— Long-time colleague

Gil knew who he was

• Whatever Gil got interested in he did fully.

— Marge Ordway

• Some people called Gil eccentric. That’s completely wrong. He knew who he was and he was completely comfortable with himself. What others might perceive as being eccentric was simply Gil being true to himself, and being perfectly fine with whatever anyone else might think.

— Long-time colleague

No one is perfect

• When World Wildlife Fund was much smaller, Gil’s support — both financially and morally — was vital to us. One year, though, Gil’s donation was dramatically smaller than usual. The organization freaked out. Leadership conducted a deep, soul-searching internal review, doing everything it could to figure out how we’d so offended Gil. Thoroughly befuddled, we ultimately sent someone to Jackson Hole to talk to Gil directly.

Upon arrival our staffer explained to Gil that his donation was much smaller than usual. Surprised, Gil got up, looked at his records, and said “Oh, no. I left off a zero.” Whereupon he pulled out his checkbook and wrote a second check to cover the difference.

— Long-time colleague

Old cars and an old envelope

• Gil drove his old Subaru as long as he could, with the exterior patched together with duct tape. When it finally came time to get a new car, Teton Motors had to order a special Jeep, because all the ones they had were too fancy. Gil preferred the bare minimum — crank windows instead of electric, cloth upholstery instead of leather — and a stripped-down Jeep was something few other people wanted.

— “Fish Creek Family” member

• The Land Trust was starting its initial capital campaign, and the Ordways generously offered to make the first major donation. It arrived at our office in an envelope that Gil had re-used, crossing out the first address, putting on ours. Simultaneously giving generously while conserving resources wherever he could.

— Long-time colleague

Even at his own expense

• Gil loved a good laugh. He’d flash his smile and the room would light up.

— Long-time friend

• One year the Jackson Hole Historical Society had its annual Slim Lawrence picnic at Fish Creek Ranch. As was our custom, we asked Gil, as ranch owner, to share the history of the ranch. At the time I didn’t know Gil well. He struck me as a shy guy, though, and I was worried whether he could deliver an interesting talk. Boy, was I wrong.

I’ve never heard a more charming and comedic performance in my life. Gil was a natural speaker plus he had a comic’s spot-on sense of timing. As a result he kept the crowd in palm of his hand as he recounted the story of the Fish Creek Ranch. For me the highlight was his description of how he wound up in Wyoming. After going to Yale he decided he wanted to live in the western United States. His first stop was to attend Colorado University Law School in Boulder.

After finishing law school Gil wasn’t too interested in practicing law, but felt he had to at least sit for the bar. A friend said, “You need to go to Wyoming. Their bar exam is much easier.” So Gil came to Wyoming and found so many interesting things to do that he never did sit for the bar. Turns out the friend was right – for Gil Ordway, the Wyoming bar could not have been easier.

It was a great story with a great punch line, impeccably delivered and then knocked out of the park by Gil’s timing.

— Long-time colleague

Road trips

• In the early 2000s Gil was on the board of the Nature Conservancy of Wyoming, and he would drive to Lander and other meeting locales with the Jackson-based staff. Marge would tell us not to make any stops along the way, for she didn’t want him spoiling his appetite. But Gil loved any messy food, from tuna melts to drippy ice cream cones, and he knew all the best spots in small towns across western Wyoming. There was no rushing Gil, even if we were running late. His delight at selecting treats at the Jackalope store in Dubois or sitting in a tiny diner could not be rushed.

On the way back, after meetings full of talking, he’d turn on Classical Wyoming and say “It’s quiet time.” That was his way of telling us to let the splendor of the music replace the cacophony of the meeting.

When we’d get back to Jackson, Marge would ask whether we stopped and ate. Gil would always say “No,” which all of us — especially Marge — knew wasn’t true. And we’d all smile, the perfect happy ending to a perfect day with Gil.

— Long-time colleague

Reserved but not shy

• I always thought of Gil as the Columbo of the Land Trust board. Columbo was a television detective who seemed to be clueless for most of each episode. Then, at the very end, it turned out he wasn’t clueless, just patiently waiting, gathering and processing information until the time was right.

In so many of our board meetings, Gil would have his “Columbo moment.” Most of the meeting would go on, and Gil would sit there quietly. Then, at the end, he’d ask a basic question. So basic that you’d think “Uh, oh. Gil wasn’t following the issue.” Then he’d ask another basic question or two. Then, the big reveal. It wasn’t that Gil was struggling with the issue. Instead he was asking a few basic questions to confirm his understanding, then he’d ask the important question that would identify the real issue at hand, often changing the whole conversation. He did that time and time again. His Columbo moment.

— Long-time colleague

He knew something about everything

• When we were little, in an age before the internet, Dad was our Google. We could ask him a question about anything and he had some kind of answer.

— Daughter

• Knowing I was a member of the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra, one afternoon Gil invited me into his office. “Before I donate these, you might want to see them,” he said, handing me a manilla envelope full of papers. I opened it up and my hair stood on end, for I was holding a trove of letters from the great composers of history. Wagner, Mendelssohn, even a bill of sale signed by Beethoven. Imagine! That was decades ago, in little Wilson, Wyoming.

— “Fish Creek Family” member

Philanthropy

• In the history of Jackson Hole, there have been three great philanthropists: John D. Rockefeller Jr.; Mr. & Mrs. Old Bill; and Gil and Marge Ordway.

— Long-time colleague

• There is true elegance in the simplicity of Gil and Marge’s philanthropy. It is checkbook philanthropy. They don’t have a foundation, a staff, a sheaf of analytics or metrics. Instead they focus on just a few basic points: Do they believe in the cause? Believe in the project? Believe in the advocate? Especially the advocate. If they do, they’re in. Always

- Long-time colleague

• Gil loved nature. Loved animals and wild places and vistas. What distinguished him from other donors is that it didn’t matter where the project was. Local. Regional. National. Global. If he understood the project and believed in it and its champion, he’d support it. Every time. I can’t tell you how unique that is. And how tremendously valuable. His conservation philanthropy has been indescribably important — not just locally, but regionally, nationally, globally.

— Long-time colleague

Testimonials

Leslie Matson

• I feel very fortunate to have known and worked with Gil Ordway for over 30 years. He served as a board member during my time running the Jackson Hole Land Trust. He was always part of the conversation but because he was humble and quiet, he did not dominate.

All of us who worked with him respected him immensely. His commitment to conservation and to the important things is inspirational. I will miss him and I am so glad he was home on the ranch he loved so much.

Laurie Andrews

• Gil was an active conservationist. He lived and breathed conservation, serving as a role model for preserving land before it seemed at risk. His understanding of land and wildlife decades ago means we have open vistas today in Teton County and across Wyoming.

Mike Wardell

• Gil left us with not just a great philanthropic legacy, but a challenge to take care of our planet and each other.

Bruce Gordon

• Gil was the most down-to-earth man I had met in a long time. A man of curiosity, a man who deeply cared and shared, a Renaissance man who had so much enthusiasm for our world, who loved to get out into it and know more about it. We would hop into my small Cessna and fly and land anywhere he thought might be interesting and exciting. Always the conversations in the cockpit were stimulating.

During the past few years, we would seek out driving trips, whether to his favorite places like the Desert Museum near Palm Springs to look at the critters, seek out a remote oasis in Joshua Tree, or head up to the Murie Ranch to revisit his old stomping grounds. A man of integrity, grit, passion and care.

Karen Skaggs

My heart is full of gratitude for his influence in our community and world. Godspeed to Mr. Ordway.

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