Aspen loses legendary prankster
July 6, 2009
ASPEN – Ken Sterling, one of Aspen’s old guard and among its most renowned practical jokers, died June 28 in Basalt.
A July 18 memorial celebration at the base of Aspen Highlands is planned for the man who ran the old Heatherbed Lodge across the road from the ski area, later founded one of the town’s two insurance agencies and once filled a boat with Jell-O. Sterling’s hijinks are likely to get a fond retelling at the gathering.
“Ken and I were the very best of friends, but we constantly played practical jokes on each other,” recalled Jack Brendlinger, a cohort in the Jell-O caper.
The two men had borrowed, and sank, a boat. The owner was after them to replace it so they put the new vessel in the owner’s Suburban at 3 a.m. and mixed enough grape Jell-O inside of it to fill the boat, according to Brendlinger.
Other times, they directed their pranks at each other.
When Sterling sold the Heatherbed, Brendlinger recalled, he also sold most of the horses the lodge kept for guests to ride. He kept two old nags that his kids wouldn’t let him part with, so Sterling began prodding his friend’s 6-year-old son to buy them (the boy had come into some money by appearing in a soup commercial). Brendlinger forbade the purchase, but on Christmas morning, the family found the old horses tied up out front – presents from Santa to Brendlinger’s children.
Recommended Stories For You
“They cost me a fortune,” Brendlinger said. “I had to hand feed one of them because he had no teeth. They were a pain in the neck.”
Naturally, Brendlinger got Sterling back. He spied his friend cutting trees without a permit on Independence Pass and later, disguising his voice as a forest ranger, called Sterling to ask if he might come over and look around Sterling’s home for evidence of the alleged illegal activity.
Brendlinger called back about 20 minutes later, still pretending to be the ranger, and explained there had been a mistake. Sterling figured out his friend was pulling a fast one, but not until after he’d burned his Christmas tree – ornaments and all -in the fireplace in his haste to destroy the evidence.
“There was lots and lots of stuff that went on like that,” Brendlinger recalled.
Longtime Aspen resident Mary Eshbaugh Hayes remembers partying with Sterling and his wife.
“He was just a lot of fun – he was real warm-hearted,” she said.
Sterling would tell partygoers he’d been Hayes’ roommate at Syracuse University, which raised a few brows since such co-habitation did not occur in those days. They had actually both attended Syracuse – years apart.
“He was probably one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known in my life,” said Dave Hoff, who will recount stories at Sterling’s memorial. “There’s some things I wouldn’t want in the newspaper … we stole a cop car once (actually, they just moved it a few blocks). Well, it was his idea.”
Sterling was a great family man, and he always saw life from the lighter side, Hoff said.
“He said, ‘God, if you can’t have fun when you’re young, what would you talk about when you’re old?'”
The Sterlings and their four children moved to Aspen in 1957. Martie won a jackpot on a TV quiz show and planned to take her family to Europe, but her husband convinced her to instead take the family West to find a ski area to call home. They purchased four acres overhanging Maroon Creek, built the Heatherbed Lodge at Highlands in 1958 and resided there until they sold the business a decade later, relocating to a house on Cemetery Lane. The couple also had a fifth child, daughter Sarah, born in Aspen.
After the Heatherbed, Sterling founded his own insurance agency, which two of his children took over when he retired before selling the agency that still bears the family name.
After a 12-year retirement in Arizona, Ken and Martie moved back to the valley, settling in Basalt, in May. “They wanted to be back with family and friends,” Sarah said.
A full obituary for Sterling appears in The Aspen Times’ online obituaries.