Copyright © 1998 Henrietta W. Hay
To Meet Albert Schweitzer . . .
February 4, 1991
There he stood - the great man himself - with his shaggy hair and his
great drooping mustache. He wore an old fashioned long black frock coat
and a high, stiff winged collar with a bow tie. He looked tired and
frail and every one of his seventy-four years. But his two hands had
built a hospital in the African jungle at Lambarene and could play Bach
on the organ as perhaps only Bach himself had played before. He was one
of the great men of our time, world famous as a scholar, musician,
physician, humanitarian. His name was Albert Schweitzer, the place was
Aspen, Colorado, the year was 1949.
The leading scholars, humanitarians and musicians of the world were
gathered there for the Goethe Bicentennial. And I was there having the
experience of a lifetime reporting for KFXJ (later KREX).
The Goethe Bicentennial was a part of a dream of Walter Paepcke, a dream
which eventually became the Aspen Institute of the Humanities. Mr.
Paepcke was a wealthy Chicago businessman who went to Aspen in 1945 at
the urging of his wife. She had discovered it some years earlier as a
wonderful place to camp and to ski if you didn't mind herringboning up
the hill with sealskins on your skis. When he saw the seedy remains of
the little mining town, surrounded by such spectacular scenery he
immediately realized its potential. What he wanted was to combine the
cultural advantages of the city with the natural beauty of Aspen.
Meanwhile Paepcke's good friend, Dr. Robert Hutchins, President of the
University of Chicago wanted to organize a worldwide convocation to
commemorate the bicentenary of Goethe's birth. The two ideas came
together in Aspen with a group of scholars led by Schweitzer, and the
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos. Most of
the scholars spoke in the old Wheeler Opera House, and a massive tent
was designed by Eero Saarinen and built for the musical portion of the
Dr. Schweitzer and his wife stayed in the Paepcke guest cottage while
they were in Aspen, and it was on the lawn of the Paepcke home that he
held a press conference before his lectures. One thing we learned was
that the altitude was bothering him, scarcely a surprise since the
distance from Lambarene to Aspen is about eight thousand feet straight
up. Actually, the altitude was a surprise to him because all of the
cables he had received concerning arrangements had originated in
Chicago. The atlas at the hospital in Lambarene did not show Aspen and
he assumed it was a suburb of Chicago. When he finally arrived in Aspen
he commented that, "Aspen was built too close to Heaven and was not good
for his health," or, if you must have accuracy, "Aspen ist zu nach an
den Himmel gebaut."
He gave two lectures in the music tent, one in French, the other in
German. I heard the German one, and although it was carefully
translated by Thornton Wilder, I was so awed by being in the same space
with this man that I really couldn't tell you what he said. I found
later that my reaction was quite universal. So serious a scholar as
Norman Cousins commented that the most important aspect of Schweitzer's
presence in Aspen was, "the simple pragmatic fact that he was there."
Albert Schweitzer was the greatest but not the only notable in Aspen
that June. The Hotel Jerome was full of scholars and thinkers. The
one I remember best was the Spanish philosopher politician Ortega y
Gasset, sitting in front of the hotel with a huge great dane at his feet
and talking to anyone who could understand him and many who didn't.
Some forty years later The Aspen Institute is still deeply involved in
human and social issues, and Walter Paepcke's wife, Elizabeth, is still
considered the First Lady of Aspen. (Note: Mrs. Paepcke died in June,
1994.) I will never forget that sunny day in June in 1949 and the
excitement and stimulation of being present at such a magnificent
gathering -- with Albert Schweitzer. It is a long way from the jungles
of Africa to Aspen, Colorado, but wherever you are, "The goal of Man is
to become more human."