ASPEN, Colo. — Back in her youth, she used to peddle the Aspen Times Weekly on the streets for a quarter, usually drawing more in tips than the paper’s face value.
By 2003, she had joined the newspaper as an account manager, gradually climbing up the ladder until she was named publisher, a role she relished and embraced.
Gunilla Asher’s friends were many, from the bartenders at the J-Bar to the sheriff of Pitkin County. She had an affinity for tequila, conversation and socializing, and thrived on the rush that comes with closing a deal.
Around 4 a.m. Monday, Asher died at Aspen Valley Hospital following a lengthy battle with cancer. She was 42.
Asher was hospitalized Sunday morning as a result of liver failure that stemmed from cancer. Observers said Asher did not suffer after she was admitted to the hospital. Her husband, Mark, drove from a family reunion in Nebraska to be by her side in the final two hours leading up to her death.
“I don’t know if I can add anything to say that everyone doesn’t already know,” he said. “She was brave, and every doctor that she went to and looked at her chart would say there was a mix-up. Her presence spoke volumes about her.”
Asher is survived by her husband and two sons, David and Charlie, ages 5 and 6. Other survivors include her father, Charles Israel, and his wife, Sandy; sister Linda, stepsister Rachel Hahn and stepbrother Josh Goldman. She is preceded in death by her brother, David, who died in a car accident in 1995, and her mother, Gunn Agell, who passed away in November.
The family will hold a private burial service this week. A celebration of her life, which will be open to the public, also is in the works and will be announced in the coming days. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Aspen Valley Hospital or Pathfinders, which is an Aspen nonprofit.
News of Asher’s death spread quickly Monday by word-of-mouth and on social-media websites such as Facebook. A common thread spread among her well-wishers was her zest for life, toughness, fun-loving spirit, competitive nature and sense of humor.
“She was always a go-getter,” her father said. “I have to say that in college she wasn’t the greatest student, but she worked hard as a bartender in college and subsequently in life.”
Asher was born on March 7, 1972, in Long Island, New York. But she considered Aspen her true home.
“She was a wonderful skier,” her father said. “All of the children who grew up in Aspen were great skiers, but Gunilla was as good as anybody.
“And she just was very much into Aspen. She loved Aspen, she loved the people and she maintained relationships from high school and college, too,” her father said.
Asher spent her formative years in Aspen before attending high school in Washington state. She graduated from high school in 1990 and would go on to graduate from Fort Lewis College in Durango in 1994.
By 2003 she would join The Aspen Times sales team, eventually being promoted to the department’s director. In November 2009, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy and had a double mastectomy as a preventive measure to keep the cancer from returning.
But after she suffered a broken rib around New Year’s Day in 2013, she began to feel pain in other parts of her body. It prompted a visit to her oncologist, and on Feb. 19, 2013, Asher, then the paper’s general manager, learned she had Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer throughout her body.
She received treatment at MD Andersen Cancer Center in Houston, the University of Colorado Cancer Center in Aurora, and Aspen Valley Hospital. Many of her friends would often take her to AVH for treatments. Among them was Aspen Times office manager Dottie Wolcott, who was often at Asher’s side, routinely visiting her at her home outside of Woody Creek and lending a hand however she could.
Asher also sought alternative methods of healing.
“I don’t want to die, and I want to do everything it takes,” she told the Times for an article in March 2013. “I’m embracing Western medicine and a bunch of other things — meditation, prayer, Buddhism. I’m embracing everything and the whacky stuff, too.”
Her sister, Linda, said, “She mixed the East with the West because she was looking for another miracle. ... The illness caused her to open herself to another spiritual realm.”
And there was also 11:11 — that was the time, whether in the morning or evening, that she asked people to think about her. It became the battle cry throughout her fight with cancer.
“The more people thinking about me at the same time, ... I believe it brings a moment of healing,” she said. “I love people thinking about me. It feels like it makes me stronger.”
Asher’s health began a steep decline over the past few months; she had relinquished her day-to-day duties at the Times but continued to maintain the publisher title. Near the end of April, she and her family took a trip to Isla Mujeres in Mexico, a country she visited often.
“It was a great experience,” said friend Christian Henrichon, who brought along his family for the vacation. “Being Gunilla, she was going to be the life of the party either way. She was adamant that she was going to have a great vacation because she’d been through a lot. She’d been fighting 24-7 for nearly the last year and half.”
Henrichon echoed the thoughts of many mourners on Monday.
“She has strength in anything, whether it was for the love for her friends, the love for her family, the love for her work, whatever,” he said. “Whatever she dove into, she was just the rock. She carried herself with so much confidence and compassion. She had that ability to really have an impact on whoever was around her. She was happy and positive.”
Asher’s father noted that when he looked at her phone, he marveled at the number of contacts she had.
“From business, I possibly have 50 names on my phone. She had 500 names and everybody she knew was part of her business, part of her life. The one thing she could do was manage her business and manage her people,” he said.
One of Asher’s good friends was Barbara New, who recalled her wit. When New worked at the Times in production, Asher was in sales. The two often had to join forces to create display advertisements.
“We used to call ourselves JAPS, not for Jewish American Princesses — we were both Jewish — but for Jiffy Ad Productions. She just had that personality.”
Asher’s husband, Mark, said June 2 holds added meaning now.
“Ironically today, when she passed away, was my (deceased) dad’s birthday,” he said. “That’s why we would have the big party in Nebraska. And next year, we’ll have another reunion.”
— Rick Carroll is editor of the Aspen Times.