Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Who will enter the Aspen Hall of Fame? |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Who will enter the Aspen Hall of Fame?

Mary Eshbaugh Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Photo by Mary Eshbaugh HayesCover design by Afton Groepper.

ASPEN – John Keleher, known for his work in construction and volunteerism in the community, and Tony Vagneur, a rancher and writer, are the 2012 Aspen Hall of Fame Inductees. They will be recognized Saturday, Jan. 21, at the Hotel Jerome.

The concept of the Aspen Hall of Fame was to honor the “pioneers” who dedicated their lives to the development of skiing and the betterment of our community, and to establish a meaningful annual event during the celebration that would live beyond the season of celebration.

Below are the stories of this year’s inductees:

Tall, athletic, and very Irish, John Keleher is a builder, an outdoorsman, and a man of the Aspen community.

Outfitted in his green plaid vest, bow tie and top hat, for years he was the master of ceremonies and the greeter at the St. Patrick’s Day Dinner at St Mary’s Catholic Church.

“I was a roving piece of furniture,” he remarks. “I would walk around and talk to people and help them find a seat. Now my son, Brian, wears the outfit and is the greeter.”

John is always recognizable striding onto a construction project in his Indian jacket and his silver belt buckle with his initials, JK, cut into the metal. Linda had silversmith Jim Hayes make the buckle soon after they moved to Aspen.

The jacket is part of his heritage. He was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his father and three brothers were all lawyers. The brothers are all in their 70s, and still practicing law.

“But I was different,” he relates. “I liked the outdoors. So I was more interested in construction, in the process of building, rather than sitting in an office. Construction suited my personality.”

So he went to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and majored in architectural engineering. Then he served in the Navy Seabees for three and a half years, doing construction in San Diego, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Spain.

Back in Albuquerque, he started a small construction business. One lawyer brother was also a civil engineer and helped with it.

But Aspen called.

He had been here with his skiing brothers in the 1950s. “We were so impressed by Zeno Colo and Stein Eriksen during the FIS,” he says. “And after Linda and I were married in 1967 (they had met at the University of New Mexico) we kept coming back.”

They stayed with Joan and Steen Gantzel at the Christiania. The Janss Corporation was developing Snowmass and had just started construction that fall.

Aspenite Chuck Vidal, who worked for Janss, asked John if he would work on a hotel project Janss planned for the Koch Lumber Company property; so he, Linda and the three boys moved to Aspen over Labor

Day weekend in 1973. The hotel never got built because they couldn’t get the proper approvals. It is now Koch Park.

“So I found something else to do,” says John. He built houses and did remodels, then became owners representative for many construction projects such as the gondola, The Little Nell Hotel and Bumps for the Aspen Skiing Company; the Meadows renovation and Koch Seminar Building for the Aspen Institute; the new offices and auditorium for the Aspen Center for Physics; the Harris Hall and Benedict Music Tent for the Aspen Music Festival; the Aspen Elementary School and District Theatre; the new building for the Pitkin County Library; The Thrift Shop; the Silvertree Hotel; Lift One condos; Star Mountain Ranch Residence; and the North 40 and Headquarters Stations for the Aspen Fire Protection District.

When they moved to Aspen, the Kelehers became Aspenites immediately, with John Jr., Chris and Brian entering the school system, Linda volunteering at the Thrift Shop, and John working and volunteering his time for many community events.

Probably the thing most Aspenites connect John and Linda to is the John Keleher Writing Award that they have given every year since 1980 to students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The award is named after their son, John Keleher, who died when he was 13 of muscular dystrophy. “It is a wonderful legacy for John, who loved to write,” says John Sr. His own father wrote seven books: “It’s a gift some of the Irish have.”

John also worked with the Aspen School District, serving on selection committees for principals and superintendents, he volunteered in building the playground at the Yellow Brick Elementary School, was volunteer coach for middle school football team, organized and ran the MD Telethon for a number of years, was president of Rotary and Head Duck for the Ducky Derby some years, worked on Deaf Camp, in 1984 was Aspen High School Commencement speaker, many projects for St Mary’s Catholic Church, and he ran three marathons as fund raisers for Challenge Aspen … in Monaco, Dublin and Maui. John was chief starter for the America’s Downhill races for 20 years, assisted by Jack Reese.

“If you want to live in a community, it is my belief that you have to be involved,” says John.

He’s still working a little. He’s helping with the library renovation and doing some houses down valley. Sons Brian and Chris both live in the Valley. Brian sells real estate and he and is wife, Alicia have three children. Chris ad his wife, Brandy, both teach in the middle school in Aspen.

He is honored to be named to the Hall of Fame, especially the same year as Tony Vagneur.

“I’ve often thought about how families take a fork in the road,” he muses. “My family went to Albuquerque in 1880. The Stapletons and Vagneurs came to Aspen in the 1880s.”

Now Aspen can claim them all.

“The Vagneur and Stapleton Families are the two largest families in the Roaring Fork Valley, and I’m related to both of them,” remarks Tony Vagneur, who will be inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame this month.

Tony – whose grandmother was a Stapleton and father a member of the Vagneur clan – is a real honest to goodness cowboy, managing a ranch up Capitol Creek, riding his horses as he takes the cattle up to the high country for summer pasture, and bringing them back again in the fall.

He writes about the families and life on the ranch in his weekly column, “Saddle Sore” in the Aspen Times. And because he is an authentic and handsome cowboy, he sometimes writes about his romantic adventures. He is thinking of collecting the columns into a book.

“I was born in 1946 on the family ranch in Woody Creek … now the Craig Ranch. The ranch goes back to my great-grandfather, Jeremie Vagneur. He came from Val d’Aosta in the northern part of Italy … across the mountain from Chamonix in 1882.”

Tony says that Jeremie, his great-grandfather, worked the first three years for his wife’s cousin. Then he bought the homestead in Woody Creek and brought his wife and a son over from the old country.

“Eventually there were five sons: Sullivan, Ben, Louis, Jim and Dellore,” says Tony. “Each son had a ranch. There was a time when Jeremie and his five sons ranched all of Woody Creek, including the Aspen Valley Ranch and W/J. Ben was my granddad and he and my dad, Clifford Vagneur, were partners in our ranch. I always thought I would inherit the ranch.

“One day when I was about 11 my granddad and I were looking for wild horses out on Vagneur Mountain and he said, ‘Someday this will all be yours.'”

Tony muses, “But you can’t see things coming. People die and then there’s another whole new thing.

“Grandad died in 1958. Six years later, I was getting out of high school and my parents, Ferne and Clifford Vagneur, moved to Denver where they bought a duplex with the idea that some of the older relatives would come live with them.

“Dad had a bad heart and his three sisters, Eileen, Lucille and Bernice had kids that they needed to send to college. So the ranch was sold to Carol Craig.”

Tony also went off to college, first to Colorado State University where he majored in English, then to Colorado University where he switched his major to business. “Dad had said, ‘Maybe there’s something more practical than English.’ A professor had wanted me to go to New York and work for a PR company and come back and we would form a PR Company.”

But Tony came back to the valley. “I graduated in 1969 and the ink wasn’t dry on my last final when I came back to Aspen. I worked for my uncle, Vic Goodhard, in his trash business … so I could ski half a day. But I like to party and was supposed to be at work at 6 a.m. Vic fired me.”

After that for several years Tony says he did a whole mess of things: drove dump trucks, worked as a wrangler at T Lazy 7 Ranch, broke horses, was on the Ski Patrol”. All in all, it was “the ski bum routine,” he notes.

Then it was back to work as manager of the Goodhard’s trash company, Aspen Trash Service, where he worked from 1978 to 1983. “They said I didn’t have to be at work at 6 in the morning this time,” he laughs.

And then when the Goodhards sold out to BFI, he formed his own trash company, Trash World. “It was small,” he says. “I did 100 percent of the work myself. It grew phenomenonally, and BFI and Waste Managemet got into a bidding war over it. I finally sold to WM in 1999.”

All this time he was doing volunteer work. He is past president of the Valley Resource Management, a recycling group. In 1990 he was named Colorado Recycler of the Year. He helped for years with the Deaf Camp. He was an Ambassador for the Aspen Ski Company. He was on the Basalt Soccer Club board. He was president of the Roaring Fork Planning Commission. He’s past president of the Eagles, and has been a member of the Elks for 50 years. He served as vice-president of the Hall of Fame and also is president of the Aspen Historical Society. He plays the piano for benefits, having taken piano lessons for years from Blanche Kettering, Mona Frost and Bill McEachern. He even taught himself the accordion with some help from Hildur Anderson.

When he sold his trash business to Waste Management, he decided he could be a cowboy again. He now manages the McCabe Ranch (the former Abacus Ranch) up Capitol Creek.

“They run 400 cows and I can run a few … keeps me in the game. I take those cows up to Forest Service land … do what I’ve always done. The ranch is owned by Harry Collins and Family and they have another ranch in California.”

Ranching is still in the family. Tony has one daughter and she and her husband, Lauren and Ty Burgard, lease the Craig Ranch and live on the Chapparral Ranch in Woody Creek, the former Wayne Vagneur Ranch.

And Tony has a 4- to 5-acre ranch near Basalt where he can keep his horses.

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