Aspen icon Ruth H. Brown dies at age 90
December 31, 2010
ASPEN – Ruth Humphreys Brown, an Aspen icon who helped shape the community after World War II in a much quieter way than many of her contemporaries, passed away at her home Thursday night, Dec. 30, at age 90.
She is best known as the namesake of Ruthie’s Run on Aspen Mountain, but she was also a major donor with many and varied philanthropic interests. When asked how her mom will be remembered, her daughter Darcey Brown said, “Almost everybody would mention her generosity. She helped family and friends and even strangers.”
Ruth Brown provided seed money and ongoing grants to numerous nonprofit organizations in the Roaring Fork Valley. She was a patron of the arts as well as a participant in workshops at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village. She helped create the BOLD ski program for blind skiers; the first Outward Bound Program in the country; the Brown Ice Palace, later known as the Aspen Ice Garden; and the first drug and alcohol treatment center in Aspen.
“She was just always there and so unobtrusively,” said Sue Smedstad, a longtime family friend who said she felt like a surrogate daughter to Ruth and her husband, the late D.R.C. Brown. “Everything she did she did quietly and unassumingly.”
One of Brown’s greatest achievements came early in her life. After the outbreak of World War II, she learned how to fly planes and was accepted into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) at age 22. “The war started and everybody wanted to do something,” Brown recalled in an April 2010 Aspen Times article.
She was stationed at a military base in Texas and piloted aircraft like the B-17 during training for bombardiers. At other times, she flew with a target behind the plane for shooting practice for ground artillery. Brown served from 1943 to 1945. She and other WASPs were finally honored last year for their service with an award of the Congressional Gold Medal.
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Brown came from the well-known Humphreys and Boettcher families of Denver. She was part of a Denver ski crowd that included Bill Coors and Willy Hodges, according Darcey. They took regular trips to ski areas in the Colorado mountains. She assumes that’s how her mom discovered Aspen.
Shortly after World War II, Ruth moved to Aspen, bought a small house on West Hyman Avenue and painted it pink. She also started the Smuggler Boutique gift shop, which eventually ended up in the Hotel Jerome, the hub of the sleepy little town.
“Her parents thought she was nuts,” Darcey said.
The pink house became well-known for its parties. One story, said Darcey, is that the revelers commandeered a horse from the arena across the street and brought it into the house as a centerpiece.
In 1947, Ruth married D.R.C. Brown, whom she had known in Denver. He would later become president and general manager of the Aspen Ski Corp. and steer the company from its formative years into a world-famous resort during 22 years at the helm.
During the early days of skiing on Aspen Mountain, Ruth didn’t like taking the only route back to town. “Spar Gulch was just a gnarly, gnarly gully,” said Darcey. Her mom offered to foot the bill for cutting a gentler trail as an alternative to Spar. Ruthie’s Run was born.
Soon after they were married, the Browns bought a ranch in Carbondale, where they would raise their five children. They kept the pink house for weekends in Aspen.
Ruth Brown was as comfortable at a cocktail party for well-heeled directors of the Aspen Ski Corp. as she was puttering around the ranch, Smedstad said.
“This is a woman of elegance and quintessential taste,” she said. “Yet she could raft a river and get down and dirty with the best of them.”
KNCB Moore, a longtime family friend, recalled taking a Colorado River trip with the Browns years ago. D.R.C. fell and broke his ribs in Cataract Canyon. “Ruthie had to row their 10-man raft, a very heavy, old World War II surplus,” Moore said. “I would run the rough white water stretches for her after I had kayaked through them.”
Moore also has found memories of the Brown’s weekend parties at their Wagon Wheel Ranch in southern Colorado, which remains in their family. One such gathering included Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier.
“Ruthie Brown was a kind, generous and strong woman who made history and many of my Aspen memories. She will be missed,” Moore said.
D.R.C. Brown is often remembered as an Aspen icon for his many accomplishments, Smedstad noted. “Ruth, in her own way, was equally an icon,” Smedstad said.
Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, former Aspen Times editor said Ruth Brown was out-going, fun-loving and warm. “She was certainly a Grande Dame of Aspen,” Hayes said.
But she wasn’t flashy, Hayes said, and she didn’t seek credit for her philanthropic endeavors. During a 60-year career that started in 1950, Hayes interviewed nearly everyone that played a major role in Aspen’s formative, post-World War II era. Yet she recalled Friday that she never interviewed Ruth Brown. While Brown certainly warranted coverage, that wasn’t her style, Hayes said.
Because of that, her contributions aren’t as well known as Elizabeth Paepcke.
“She wasn’t as visible,” Hayes said of Brown. “A lot of people didn’t know her.”
D.R.C. retired in 1979 and they sold their place in Carbondale. They moved to Denver but missed living in Aspen full-time, so they built a house in Meadowood and moved back in 1991.
In later years, they spent part of winters in Arizona, but Aspen was always home. D.R.C. passed away in 2008. Ruth remained in their home.
“She was very devoted to the community,” Darcey said. “She started a lot of programs here.”
Darcey said her mom always laughed a lot, and she loved picnics. While the kids were growing up, their mom would often pack them up at the spur of the moment and head off into the hills on a picnic. She and D.R.C. were able to go on a picnic together toward the end of his life. Even this year, when Ruth was in a wheelchair, she wanted to go on a picnic on her birthday, Nov. 11.
Brown is survived by Darcey, of Moab, Utah, and four other children: Boots Brown of Hesperus, Colo.; Lorni Cochran of Brattelboro, Vt.; Charla Brown of Creede, Colo.; and Ruthie Brown, of Aspen. She also has three stepchildren: Marti Garvey of Salida, Colo.; Dave Brown of Denver; and Scott Brown of Grand Junction.
A memorial service will be held in Aspen sometime “in the near future,” the family said.