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Shirley’s hands are at the root of everything we are as a family and as a farm. We are sad to share the news that she passed away this January. Her consistent message of, “Be who you are” shared her soul. She brought heart and vitality to everything she did, a part of farm operations throughout the entirety of her life.

She’d joke and smile while pitting prunes or taking grapes off the stem even in the years when her sight had faded to seeing only blurs of light. In her last days she told us over and over again, “Don’t be sad. Be happy. I’ve had a beautiful life and I’ve been lucky. I’m ready. Don’t be sad. If you feel a breeze on your cheek maybe that’ll be me. I’ll get to be part of everything.” She has been part of so much. It’s kind of lovely that her greatest sense of peace came from the idea of getting to be part of even more of everything.

Shirley Phillips Ela passed away at age 98 on January 18, 2023. She passed away in a sunny
room of her own home overlooking the orchards, surrounded by family and in the tender,
thoughtful care of Hope West Hospice. She was born July 15, 1924, the third of four children of Nelson N. and Lois Burns Phillips. Her husband of 70 years, Judge William M. Ela, predeceased her in 2016. She is survived by her children, Beth Wilkens (Jeffrey) of Rochester, NY, Wendell (Karen Kerr) of Perth, Australia, Thomas of Grand Junction, Daniel Schultz-Ela (Lynea) of Hotchkiss, and Steven (Regan Choi) of Hotchkiss, seven grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren. Two sisters and her brother, Dean Phillips (Irene), predeceased her.

She attended grade school in Clifton, and graduated valedictorian of Grand Junction High School in 1941. During World War II she was a volunteer Red Cross nurse’s aid at St. Mary’s Hospital, earned her A.A. at Mesa Junior College, and worked in engineering at Boeing Aircraft in Seattle before returning to finish her B.A. at University of Colorado. Upon her marriage, they moved to Cambridge, MA where she worked as a professional typist supporting Bill as he earned his law degree at Harvard. They returned to Grand Junction in 1949, where she played French Horn in the symphony, received the Lioness of the Year Award, and was a charter member of the League of Women Voters. She was President of the Mesa County Community Foundation, served on the Colorado State Water Quality Control Commission, was a board member of the Western Colorado Community Foundation, helped expand Hope West to Delta County, and was a long-time member of PEO and Reviewers Club.

Her life was deeply rooted in fruit farming. She worked closely with her father and brother with family orchards near Clifton until 1996 when Bill and Shirley moved to newly purchased orchards near Hotchkiss, where she and her son built Ela Family Farms until her passing.

She  was passionate to the end about agriculture and the land, and in 2010 received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Horticulture from the Western Colorado Horticultural Society.


In her inimitable fashion, she wrote for her own obituary, “She cared deeply about her family, but could also be a pain in the neck and hard taskmaster, worked her children too hard, bossed her husband around, and liked to argue too much at times. So, generally, good life and good riddance.” Notwithstanding her own words, she will be greatly missed.

Here is a link to a StoryCorp interview with Shirley, Steve, and Bill from 2009.

Shirley Ela, Wiliam Ela, and Steve Ela

Toast in the Orchard with Shirley Ela and her sons, Dan (left) and Tom (right)

Toast in the Orchard with Shirley Ela and her sons, Dan (left) and Tom (right)

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