Their Generation: Bill Stirling: A different path into Aspen politics
Ryan Summerlin May 1, 2014
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 1983, at age 41, Bill Stirling tasted his first political victory in Aspen.
He and fellow activists had just shot down a mandatory tax that would have funded the Chamber of Commerce. In their eyes, the chamber should rely on the support of businesses, not on public dollars that inspire laziness.
Riding on the momentum — and at the urging of his second wife, Katherine Thalberg, founder of Aspen’s Explore Booksellers and daughter of Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg and actress Norma Shearer — Stirling ran for mayor.
“Katherine really inspired me to run for mayor,” the 72-year-old Stirling recalled last week. “She said, ‘You kind of act like you’re the mayor anyhow, the way you greet people.’”
Stirling’s background, as well as his campaign, were unusual for Aspen politics. He had never served on a city commission or board. He took no campaign contributions, and his candidacy consisted of casual conversation on the pedestrian malls and door-to-door promises about taking the power away from the “experts” and giving it back to the people. His decision to enter the race was made public only when a news reporter came across his one-man camp on the mall.
“That was the idea, to try to do it that way, instead of the traditional way, where you write a press release, you take it over to the newspaper, you persuade them to interview you. I always liked going against the grain, playing a little different tune than the rest of the band,” he said. “And there were three other candidates, and lo and behold, I won.”
He would serve four consecutive terms as mayor from 1983 until 1991, surviving a contentious recall election in 1990, the year he pushed for an Aspen fur ban. More than 20 years later, Stirling, a longtime advocate for animal rights, said people still give him grief about his failed attempt to ban fur sales, a controversy that drew national and international press to Aspen.
During the same 1990 election, Stirling found himself at the center of the town’s first major, divisive development application in the “Battle of the Ritz,” which resulted in what is now The St. Regis Aspen Resort. Stirling and other slow-growth council members helped reduce the proposal by 150 rooms.
“During many a heated meeting, I withstood the pressures of an often irate group of citizens, who were convinced that an enormous Ritz hotel would be the financial salvation of Aspen,” Stirling wrote in four-page political memoir he filed in 1991.
Stirling’s efforts in office also include the push for affordable ski passes for locals, passage of the first affordable-housing tax and the downsizing of the Little Nell Hotel in 1985 from 200 rooms to 92. Stirling also played a part in making Aspen the first smoke-free town in America, with the 1985 passage of a smoking ban for all public places.
Gainesville to Kenya to New York City
The son of a preacher, Stirling was born in segregated Gainesville, Fla., in 1942. At age 22, he joined the Peace Corps, leaving for a racially volatile Kenya, where the Mau Mau rebellion, led by Jomo Kenyatta, resulted in 20,000 dead Kenyans, 109 dead Europeans and a country free from British rule.
“When I decided to go in the Peace Corps, I asked to go to Africa because I felt I really owed something to Africa for all the wrongs that had been done by our country to their descendants,” he said. “The chance to serve in some capacity was very important to me.”
By the time Stirling arrived in 1964, the now-autonomous Kenyan government had secured a World Bank loan, which funded the purchase of European farmland. Stirling’s job was to help resettle African farmers onto 10,000 acres across 200 farms.
“If I hadn’t gone into Peace Corps, I probably would have gone to law school, and who knows what my life would’ve been like.” he said.
After Kenya, Stirling moved to New York City, where he taught English to African-American and Puerto Rican dropouts. He returned to Africa in 1968 with a group of students, one of whom drowned in an undertow in Ghana. The group also ran into trouble in Nigeria, where a civil war raged and they were refused entry. They stayed in Tanzania and Kenya, working the farms Stirling had overseen four years earlier.
One of his students would emerge as a hip-hop fashion icon in the 1980s, known as Dapper Dan, who New Yorker magazine profiled in March 2013. In the article, Dapper Dan described the African tour as a life-altering event.
“That was a nice experience to find that something you did 50 years ago had an impact on somebody” Stirling said.
Disillusioned and disoriented
Between 1967 and 1968, Stirling frequently interacted with another marginalized group: Vietnam veterans. What he saw was a disillusioned lot of young men, rebuked by the public for participating in an unpopular war.
“It was incredibly disorienting for them,” Stirling said. “No one was playing ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ like after World War II. There was fighting on the streets against the very war these guys had been in.”
This inspired Stirling to start a school at Fort Dix, in Trenton, N.J., which the City University of New York agreed to fund. Joined by a handful of his Peace Corps buddies, Stirling taught and prepared veterans for New York’s community college system. They would study in six-week cycles, filled with intense “writing, mathing and thinking.” They wrote and read aloud from their journals. They discussed the popular comic book “Silver Surfer,” which Stirling admired for its extensive vocabulary.
“Writing, in my view, was a great way to get students to express themselves,” he said. “They might not be as comfortable speaking, or they might be too comfortable speaking and not comfortable enough writing. So we wrote daily journals, and then I’d have them read aloud from their journals, and those were the ways to precipitate discussions.”
When Stirling took leave from Fort Dix in 1972, he came to Aspen with his first wife, Terry. Looking for an environment like New York City, but in the mountains, the plan was to stay for two years. But Stirling has been on sabbatical ever since, finding work as a bartender, carpenter, substitute teacher, snowplower and eventually as a property manager in 1978, when he started his own company.
By then, Stirling and Terry had divorced, and he was seeing Thalberg, who he dated for nine years before another 20 together as a married couple. Stirling described his time with Thalberg, who passed away in 2006, as a roller-coaster ride; one he is eternally grateful for. They were both independent thinkers, pushing and challenging each other.
“Maybe the smartest person I’ve ever met in my life,” he said. “And she was beautiful, and she had this bookstore that she started, and she was a writer.”
Stirling enjoyed the icons Thalberg invited to Explore Booksellers — Madeleine Albright, Ivan Doig, Gloria Steinem, among others. He’s also always enjoyed Aspen’s local characters — Ralph Jackson, Grettle and Sep Uhl, Mike Solheim, Nick Lebby, Bob Rafelson, Bob Braudis, Joe Edwards, Claire Sanderson, Peggy Rowland, Dr. Whit, Ruth Harrison, Nicholas DeVore, Hunter Thompson, Art Pfister, R.O. Anderson, Roy Reid and Mortimer Adler, to name a few.
Recalling all of these names, he made the case that Aspen has more writers per capita than any other American town.
“It’s the kind of place that attracts them,” he said. “It’s beautiful. It’s arresting. It’s exciting. You can live an undisturbed life here.”
In January, he will return to Kenya for a Peace Corps event in Nairobi honoring volunteers from the past 50 years. He’s planning on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, as well as a few fourteeners when he returns to Colorado. He and his girlfriend, Barbara Bussell, a mountaineer and artist who grew up in Aspen, have been eyeing Missouri Mountain in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. Stirling estimates he has climbed 25 percent of Colorado’s fourteeners.
“I liked the idea of moving to a smaller town that had all the amenities that New York had, except it had the wilderness, right in our backyard,” Stirling said. “Aspen was a dual-season resort, and the summer season was really built around the Aspen Idea, of the mind, body and spirit and the pursuit of becoming a whole person.”