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Family and friends remember Toh-Atin’s Mary Jane Clark

Durango resident loved skiing, playing bridge and learning about other people
Hundreds gathered Monday at the Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall to celebrate the life of Toh-Atin Gallery owner Mary Jane Clark, who died at age 97. (Courtesy of Jackson Clark)
Apr 25, 2023
Owner and matriarch of Durango’s Toh-Atin Gallery dies, age 97

More laughs were had than tears shed during a memorial service Monday for Mary Jane Clark.

The longtime matriarch of Durango’s Toh-Atin Gallery died April 23 after suffering a stroke at 97. Family members and friends reminisced on the different ways Mary Jane touched their lives and created a positive impact.

Hundreds of community members flooded into the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College to pay their respects to the longtime Durango business owner.

Classical violinists Lauren Avery and Brandon Christensen performed as attendees entered the venue.

“I'm sure Mary Jane is floating around here somewhere because there's two things she wouldn’t miss: one is a bridge game and the other is classical music,” said her son Jackson Clark to open the service.

Mary Jane Clark was born July 1, 1925, in Blanco, New Mexico, where her parents operated the trading post and general store.

Blanco was a small town of about 23 people when Mary Jane was growing up, and she lived among a Native American and Hispanic population, Jackson Clark said.

It was that upbringing that inspired her interests in Native American art.

“That was a really important part in her life because she never judged anybody by their color,” Jackson Clark said. “She judged people by who they were.”

Clark attended junior high and high school at the St. Vincent’s Academy in Albuquerque. She graduated valedictorian at the age of 16 and attended St. Mary’s College in Omaha, Nebraska, for a year before she was old enough to attend nursing school at a hospital in Denver.

She was in training for the Army Nurse Corp when World War II ended and she moved to Durango to finish her training at Mercy Medical Center, where she worked as a registered nurse.

Mary Jane’s nephew, Shannon Bennett, shared stories of visiting the family’s cabin at Electra Lake and learning to love the outdoors. He also recounted the moment when he found out she had died.

When Bennett had discovered that Mary Jane’s health was declining he made the trek to Blanco to see where she grew up. He was attempting to find the trading post that Mary Jane had worked at as a child.

He said he drove down a county road that went down along the San Juan River and as he came upon one of the river’s dams, he received the news that Mary Jane had died.

“I looked at the water on one side of the dam and the river on the other side,” he said. “That’s the day she said goodbye to me. She was a wonderful person. She was my second mother. We all had a great time and I’m going to miss her.”

Both grandsons Nick and Ed Clark shared what it was like to grow up having Mary Jane as a grandmother.

Ed said Mary Jane taught him the importance of having grandparents as well as offering him relationship advice.

When he talked to her about marrying his current wife, she advised him to live with his significant other before marrying.

“A lot of people don’t think about it this way, but grandparents are a key part of your upbringing,” Ed Clark said.

Nick Clark said being around Mary Jane felt like being home.

He described her as one of those people you can be around without having to feel like you have to change a thing about yourself.

He recounted stories of skiing with his grandmother, who was an avid skier.

Mary Jane’s daughter, Antonia Clark, remembered learning to ski with her at Chapman Hill before Purgatory opened.

“She put a big priority on having fun with her children,” Antonia Clark said.

She recalled how excited Mary Jane was to ski at Purgatory Resort the day before it opened in 1965. And one of her greatest experiences of all time was skiing in Aspen during the 1960s.

Antonia shared an anecdote of the type of advice Mary Jane would dispense.

“I was a pretty self-consumed teenage girl and of course always looking in the mirror to make sure I looked good,” Antonia said. “She would turn to me and say, ‘Antonia, it’s important to be useful as well as decorative.’”

Mary Jane Clark was a well-known bridge player who started at a young age. Cara Lyn Lappen of the Durango Bridge Club spoke about the first time she met Mary Jane and how she was different from the average bridge player in Denver.

Lappen played bridge with Mary Jane for 21 years, and said Mary Jane would always ask about Lappen’s life in the most pleasant and genuine manner.

“I’d been playing in Denver for years before this and had learned that bridge players have a distinct reputation for being rude and arrogant,” she said.

But not Mary Jane, who asked about her husband and kids every week, even if they were the same questions.

She didn’t repeat questions because she was losing her memory; rather, she just wanted to stay up-to-date with her life, Lappen said.

She marveled over Mary Jane’s photographic memory when it came to bridge.

“There are exactly 635,013,559,600 different possible bridge hands in the world, and I swear Mary Jane has seen every single one of them,” Lappen said. “She could recall how to play all of them.”

Mary Jane’s partner, Jim Foster, was the final speaker at the event.

He had been with Mary Jane for the last 15 years and said there wasn’t a better time in his life.

“She loved to hear people’s stories,” Foster said.

He recalled Mary Jane talking about the different people she’d met from the Toh-Atin Gallery. He was dumbfounded by how much strangers would share about their lives with Mary Jane, and how genuinely interested she was to learn about people.

Because of Mary Jane’s affinity for music and her involvement with Music in the Mountains, the event closed with the playing of “The Lover’s Waltz,” performed again by Avery and Christensen.


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