Editor’s note: “Their Generation,” an ongoing series profiling longtime locals of the Roaring Fork Valley, runs every other week in The Aspen Times.
In the 24 yearssince he was first elected, Tom Isaac’s position of Pitkin County assessor has yet to be contested. Soft-spoken with a quick sense of humor, Isaac is a familiar fixture at the county courthouse, where the Assessor’s Office is located.
An accident in 1982 left Isaac paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, but his willingness to tackle any workload, combined with a strong interest in the machinations of city and county government, led him to become the county assessor.
Before being elected assessor, Isaac worked on the Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission and served two terms on the City Council.
“I’m probably the longest-serving elected official in the valley, even after taking a few breaks” Isaac said. “I’m certainly not finished yet.”
THE EARLY DAYS
Isaac, 66, grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and studied American History at Union College in upstate New York.
“Union College is the current NCAA Division I ice-hockey champion,” Isaac said with pride. “After 200 years, we finally won it.”
He came to Aspen 42 years ago to visit some college friends. Isaac had just gotten married and thought a ski trip was in order. Like so many before them, the newlyweds were seduced by the Aspen area.
“After a couple weeks,” he said, “we realized we had found the Promised Land, and I’m still here.”
Like most of the young people who came to ski in Aspen and decided to stay, Isaac needed to find a job. He ended up buying a wine and beer shop in the Brand Building at the intersection of Galena Street and Hopkins Avenue.
Isaac described it as a little hole in the wall that also had live music. He named it La Bodega, and despite not making much money, it allowed Isaac to ski during the day and work in the evenings.
“It was the quintessential way to be in Aspen,” Isaac said. “Life didn’t get any better.”
But after two years, he sold La Bodega as making ends meet became difficult.
Two weeks after the sale in June 1974, Isaac was riding his bike on Highway 82 toward Difficult Campground and had a head-on encounter with a car.
Isaac was critically injured and suffered a fractured skull in the accident. It was an hour before an ambulance showed up. After Isaac was put into the ambulance and the siren was turned on, the siren wiring caught on fire.
Isaac was taken to the hospital in a pickup truck eventually and had to be airlifted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. The doctors there gave him a 50-50 chance to live. After he recovered, Isaac was motivated to make some changes in his life.
“I was 25 and felt like I needed to do something worthwhile,” he said.
Isaac applied for an opening with the Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission and was hired. Aspen was going through a growth period, and Isaac was fascinated with the building-application process as well as the applications themselves.
A year and a half later, an opening came up on the Aspen City Council when Marty Hershey had to leave his post with the council to become the Aspen police chief. Isaac was appointed to the council by the other six members (the City Council had seven members at that time) and again found great satisfaction with his new government position.
“The city and county were looking at growth-management plans,” Isaac said. “We were controlling what was going on in Aspen and Pitkin County. There was a lot of pushing back from the developers. They weren’t used to being told ‘no.’”
Isaac also took a strong stance against the development of the proposed Little Annie ski area on the backside of Aspen Mountain. When the next election came up for the City Council, Isaac was not re-elected.
“I managed to piss off enough people so I wasn’t brought back,” he said. “I went through a lot of jobs after that to make ends meet.”
In the spring of 1982, Isaac went on a trip to Mexico that would change his life forever. As the vacation was ending, Isaac decided to take one last swim in the Pacific Ocean, literally right before his flight back to Colorado.
Isaac, an avid surfer, decided to make a couple of attempts at body surfing. The waves weren’t large at all, but there was a strong undertow just below the surface. Isaac was pulled under and broke his neck underwater.
“I knew it was broken right away,” he said. “I was lucky to get out of the water alive. From that point on, my life changed and then some.”
The accident paralyzed Isaac from the neck down.
He was in the hospital for six months after the accident. It was a year before Isaac returned to Aspen, as he wasn’t sure if he could deal with the high altitude and the snow.
BACK TO POLITICS
After the neck injury, Isaac was recovering at Craig Hospital in Denver when he decided to call a college friend, Tom Glass, who had just been elected to the state Senate. Glass asked Isaac if he would consider becoming a senator’s assistant. Isaac agreed, and he was back working in politics.
After working for Glass, Isaac returned to Aspen and got a job at Pitkin County Bank. He ran for county commissioner in 1980 against Helen Klanderud and lost by a narrow margin as Klanderud became the first woman to serve as a Pitkin County commissioner.
“There were 6,000 votes cast, and she beat me by 30,” Isaac said. “That was a heartbreaker.”
In 1985, he was encouraged to run for City Council and won, returning for a second time. For the next four years, Isaac was part of a council that saw possibly the biggest growth spurt in modern Aspen history.
During that period, the city rebuilt the Wheeler Opera House and approved the development of the Little Nell and Ritz-Carlton hotels. It also approved installing the Silver Queen Gondola on Aspen Mountain.
“Not everyone was happy with all the growth,” Isaac said. “When the next election came up, there was a strong no-growth faction that voted me down.”
In 1989, Isaac was looking for a new job while going through a divorce. At that same time, he saw that the county assessor, Dorothy Mikkelson, was retiring after 40 years of service.
“A light bulb went off, and I figured I could do that job,” Isaac said. “I ran for the position in 1990 against four other people. It was a very close election, and I ended up having a runoff vote with Georgia Taylor, and I won.”
Before starting his new job, Isaac tried to visit the Assessor’s Office but wasn’t allowed in until he was elected. It turned out Isaac was stepping into a big political mess.
“After I was elected, I found out the Assessor’s Office was under a state order because it failed the most recent state audit,” he said. “It was really unfortunate for Dorothy because she didn’t have the resources to keep up with the booming real estate market in Aspen. They were undervaluing properties throughout the county.”
So Isaac started his new position with no assessor experience. The assessor staff was mostly older employees, and more than half of them left with Mikkelson. The department had one dedicated computer, and almost all of the county property information was on index cards.
People needed to access the Assessor’s Office via a flight of stairs, and there was no elevator or lift available.
“I had to be carried to my office every day,” Isaac said. “Needless to say, I was in a bit deeper then I expected. Basically, we had to start over.”
Isaac began to hire his own staff, including Deputy Assessor Larry Fite, who still works for Isaac.
“I never thought I’d be here for 20-plus years,” Fite said. “I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting into. Tom has always been fair to work for. He’s mild-mannered with a great sense of humor. He’s been through so much in his life and still carries a wonderful attitude.”
Isaac and his new crew had to reappraise all the properties in Pitkin County but soon realized that would be a nearly impossible task. The state sent several employees to help the county, and before long, they finished the job. In general, property values went up by an average of 50 percent.
When the appraisals went public, there were lines outside the Assessor’s Office going down Main Street every day for weeks.
“People wanted to come scream at us,” Isaac said. “They were fighting mad. We had 4,000 out of 8,000 properties under protest.”
Isaac and his staff had to endure the angry public while trying to modernize the county public land records. The hard work paid off as Pitkin County passed its next audit.
“Next we had to convince the county to upgrade our computers,” Isaac said. “That was another massive undertaking. Now you know why nobody has run against me since 1990.”