Experienced Aspen: It’s just part of our being
Cherie Gerbaz Oates embraces beauty of Aspen, love of family to get through difficult time
Editor’s note: This feature is one in a series we call “Experienced Aspen,” a special section recognizing the life and experiences of Aspen’s most well-rounded citizens.
Cherie Gerbaz Oates was there for arguably the most important moment in Aspen’s history.
It was the winter of 1946-47 and the mining town had just started operating its newest crown jewel — Lift 1 — a milestone that forever changed the trajectory of the community and made it into one of the world’s most prized skiing destinations.
“My folks were very anxious to hear what this skiing was going to be all about,” Oates recalled. “When that lift opened, Mom, Dad and myself went up the lift. It was like a total new invention, really. So anyway, that kind of began a whole different picture on things here. Lots of people came from other places.”
Oates, now 79, was only in the first grade when she took a chairlift up Aspen Mountain for the first time. Her mother’s family (surname Tekoucich) hailed from Slovenia and her father’s family (surname Gerbaz) from Italy, and it’s a family with as deep of roots here in Aspen as any other.
Cherie, who married Lennie Oates in 1967, remembers the Aspen of her childhood as being much different than today. That is, a simpler Aspen that in her mind was not nearly as rough as the current generation may be led to believe.
“I must have been blind, but I never felt those times were so hard. I know they were for some people and for our working parents, but it was what we knew. That was what we knew,” Cherie Oates said. “There were pleasures in that we had wonderful friends and they would always help if you needed help.”
Cherie and her brother, Jim Gerbaz, grew up on South Seventh Street in Aspen, a house he still lives in to this day. They had a wonderful view of Red Mountain from their home, which included mom’s garden and a chicken or two roaming the area. They always had plenty to eat — including lots of wild meat — and found ways to manage the cold during the winter.
“In the morning Dad would get up first, because until he lit that stove, it was cold. It wasn’t while you could keep a little ember going, but it was cold,” Oates said. “We didn’t have a shower or anything like that. We just bathed in a tub. This was in the 1940s. We did not have indoor plumbing.”
Cherie, as well as the entire Oates family, has left quite an imprint on the Aspen community and has been recognized for it multiple times over. This includes Cherie’s 2014 induction into the Aspen Hall of Fame, as well as the family’s 2019 induction into the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club Hall of Fame.
One of Cherie’s children, Cody Oates, currently manages AVSC’s Stapleton Training Center at Aspen Highlands, while Cherie herself had a stint skiing with the U.S. national team and trained with them ahead of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley.
“It’s just part of our being. It’s several generations, as you know,” Cherie said of her family’s love for Aspen and for skiing. “Where in the world do you have a million things in your environment that you can do? With snowshoeing and the skiing and it’s right out the back door.”
Cherie, who has lived in the same home in Aspen with her husband for the better part of four decades, knows how blessed they are to have continued the family’s legacy for so long in the Roaring Fork Valley. Along with Cody, their daughter, Sarah Oates, works for the Aspen-based OKGK&M law firm — of which her father is part — and the oldest of the siblings, Jeremie Oates, spent 22 years in the military before returning home.
Then, of course, there are the grandchildren (a list that should grow by one sometime in January). This includes a recent Aspen High School graduate in Ellie Oates, who attends college in Utah and is a rising big mountain skier.
Not to deny anyone the Aspen dream, Oates welcomes newcomers with open arms, but admits making it work can be difficult, especially for families without an extensive income. Her advice for those wanting to make the Aspen jump is to think it through and embrace the lifestyle once here.
“Be sure to make a mindset to be able to take advantage of the good things that are here and the activities and to participate in the community,” Oates said. “Getting involved right now is very hard with the COVID thing.”
Yes, the pandemic has impacted the Oates family as much as any other. Cherie has a fondness for concerts and theater, hasn’t seen her book club members since it celebrated its 100-year anniversary back in the spring, and she can’t just walk into the senior center to help out because of the health risks COVID-19 imposes on the older generation — all things Cherie Oates uses to help balance out her life view and find perspective during a trying time.
“A lot of us in the same vein would say we realize the simplicity and the simpleness of life, and our friends and our families are what really count,” she said. “We can have fancy stuff and we can do all that, go to concerts — I love concerts — but being with your family, you just realize how important that is.”