Copyright © 1998 Henrietta W. Hay
The Paepke's Aspen
On a sunny day in June in 1949 I attended a press conference with Dr.
Albert Schweitzer. It was held on the lawn in front of the home of
Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke in Aspen.
On a sunny day in July, 1994, I sat in the Music Tent in Aspen and heard
beautiful music and words of love and respect for Elizabeth Paepcke, who
died on June 15.
I witnessed the beginning and the end of an era. Between those two
events, a great cultural experiment took place in western Colorado,
which changed Aspen from a decaying silver mining town into a world
famous center of ideas and music and intellectual stimulation. The
Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies was created, and to a great
extent it was the vision and leadership of the Paepckes which brought it
The Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival brought scholars
and musicians to Aspen from all over the world in 1949. I was so
overawed to be breathing the same air as Dr. Schweitzer that I have
absolutely no idea what he said. He was a little startled to be
breathing that air, too, since it was much too thin for him. All the
correspondence about this trip had come to him from Chicago, and he
thought the convocation would be held there. He decided that, "Aspen
was built too close to Heaven and was not good for his health."
Walter Paepcke died in 1960. It is his widow Elizabeth who has kept the
dream alive: the dream of the body and soul and mind coming together in
nature. The Aspen Institute was one of her passions. She defined its
purpose and gave it its character. Some 1300 people from all over
America cared enough about her and that dream to fill the big Music Tent
last Thursday to remember and honor her.
Loren Jenkins, publisher of the Aspen Times, wrote, "Her passing from
our midst creates a vacuum and, alas, closes that rich, creative Paepcke
Era that shaped our community ...Elizabeth Paepcke was a giant of our
One writer commented that, "few of us are ever strikingly beautiful,
terribly charming or fabulously rich. Elizabeth Paepcke is all three."
She knew her own mind and spoke it without hesitation, and we learned
at her memorial service that she was also delightfully funny.
Two of her three daughters and six of her grown grandchildren spoke with
tears and laughter about the fun and the challenge that they had growing
up with this unique woman.
Her daughter said that the only time she ever heard her mother use the
word God was when she was telling Mortimer (Adler) how to think about
One of her grandsons remembered best her sense of fun and her
unwillingness to accept mediocrity in her life.
Her friend Fabienne Benedict said that being with Elizabeth was like
being in a fairy tale. Aspen has lost its fairy godmother.
Concern for the physical environment was an integral part of her dream
and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies became one of her major
projects. Tom Cardamone, the Director, said, "...our most endearing
memories include her thistle-pulling crusades, goose-dropping holy wars,
dirty-hands-and-knees tree plantings and (most fondly) our shared
stories of wild adventures from Antarctica, New Zealand, the Alps and
her beloved Colorado mountains."
She deplored the "new" Aspen with the monster houses, the ostentation,
the glitz, the wealth, the people who care only for image. She said
once, "They haven't an inkling of what Colorado is, and they don't give
anything to the town, they only take."
Her daughter spoke emotionally of the need to keep her mother's dream
alive. She said that she cannot fill her mother's shoes, nor would her
mother want her to. But is terribly important that the dream not be
lost in the trendiness of today's Aspen. It is up to the community, to
all of us, to remember. Elizabeth was a unique woman, a woman with a
dream of blending body, mind and soul in nature. She believed, in her
own words, in "leaping into life."
The Aspen Idea even more important in today's world than it was in
1949. We can only hope that her death does not represent the end of an
era, but that we can keep her dream alive.