Fighting for something bigger than himself

Caitlin Row
Grand Junction Free Press
Aspen, CO, Colorado
George Falk, left, Lesa Thomas, executive director of the Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Mike Adler and wife Pam Adler in Aspen. Mike Adler spent countless hours volunteering for the Aspen Camp and serving on its board, right up until his death on April 17.
Grand Junction Free Press file |

GRAND JUNCTION – Grand Junction resident Mike Adler is many things to many people. He’s a dad, a husband and a great-grandfather. He’s an avid volunteer, a man of principle and a Vietnam veteran. Some may even remember him as a youthful troublemaker.

And he’s a fighter. After diagnosing him with terminal cancer in 2009, doctors projected that he only had months to live. But years later, he’s still energetic and vibrant, crediting his dedication to the Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing as a substantial reason he’s beating the odds.

He’s also celebrating his 73rd birthday on Monday.

“The reason I’m still alive is because I have this drive to make the Deaf Camp work,” Adler said.

Since the 1970s, Adler has been connected to the Aspen Camp, and he fondly remembers volunteering at early benefit events. It’s an organization Adler respects, and he supports it because of its positive impacts on children.

Plus, it keeps him connected to Aspen, a community he grew up in and cares about deeply.

In September 2009, Adler was diagnosed with Stage 4 malignant cancer, after his doctor told him “something wasn’t right.” They ran tests, and then came the bad news.

“I only had four to six months to live,” he said.

Around the same time, a completely unrelated (and equally impactful) letter was delivered to Adler’s door.

“In December (of 2009), the Board of Trustees (with the Aspen Camp) sent a letter saying they were closing the camp, that they financially couldn’t make it,” Adler said. “Well, I went roaring up the road and said, ‘The hell you are!’ Since then, we’ve exploded.”

Mike’s first words after reading the closure letter were, in fact, “over my dead body,” his wife, Pam Adler, recalled.

“When he’s passionate about something, he goes for it,” she said. “It’s given him so much purpose.”

Morgan Leeson, Adler’s youngest daughter, added, “I am very proud of my dad for all that he’s achieved. I want to share how wonderful he is with other people.”

Adler’s daughter isn’t the only person who’s recognized him for his good works lately. In 2012, he was the first-ever recipient of the Aspen Camp’s Harris Award.

According to Aspen Camp Executive Director Lesa Thomas, the award was specifically created to honor Adler for the countless hours he has put in to save the camp. Now, it will be given every year to the most active camp volunteer.

“Mike has been instrumental in creating the camp we have today,” Thomas said. “He has brought it back to life.”

Currently, Adler spends as many as 10 days in Aspen each month, working on the camp’s organizing committee and current capital campaign. It’s his goal to raise $8 million over the next three to five years to upgrade the nonprofit into a “true, year-round facility.”

“The board and I have this goal of not being the biggest camp but the best camp,” Thomas said. “To do that, we need high-quality, appropriate, safe and comfortable facilities. It would mean renovating our entire campus.”

This summer will boast another great accomplishment for Adler, too. For many years, his friend and fellow Aspenite John Denver organized the Deaf Camp Picnic, a benefit concert that supported the organization’s operating budget until his death in 1997. Now, the event will return to Snowmass this summer, with Adler as its champion (along with Mack Bailey, who’s “the finest tenor alive” and in charge of booking the event, Adler said).

“It was a big part of the community,” Thomas added. “Everyone is excited to have it back.”

This year’s Deaf Camp Picnic is set for July 19 and 20, and it’s expected to continue on as an annual event as it did for two decades. Thomas also said she hopes it brings in at least $200,000 or more (a significant part of the yearly budget).

“Deafness touches many,” Adler said. “The camp allows kids to succeed.”

Though Adler remains connected to his Aspen roots, he’s been glad to call Grand Junction home since the mid-1990s.

“I just got tired of the snow,” he said.

Adler was first introduced to the Grand Valley as a much younger man, while attending high school at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. Community service was a school requirement, so he participated in trail-building projects throughout Colorado National Monument and Arches National Park. (His father, Mortimer Adler, a well-known philosopher/writer moved his family to the Aspen area from Chicago in 1949 to co-found the Aspen Institute.)

“He started going to Aspen when he was just 7 years old,” Pam Adler said. “In the summers, he’d work for the various ranchers moving cattle up and down from the high country on horseback.”

Adler’s vast life experience includes a potpourri of employment, too. From running a Colorado art gallery in the middle of nowhere to working as the underwriting manager for Mutual of Omaha in Nebraska, he counts 114 different jobs on his resume.

“When you live in a resort community, you just have a lot of jobs,” Adler said laughingly.

Pam also remembered him being a taxi driver, a Zamboni driver and working at Aspen’s Hotel Jerome. Fly-fishing is a favorite escape for the outdoorsman as well.

“He likes to do it by himself,” Leeson said. “The Frying Pan River near Basalt and Crystal River near Redstone and Marble are his favorites.”

Adler is also a shy man, though his daughter said many may not know it.

“Now, I would say he’s become very outgoing, especially when he has a mission,” Leeson noted.

Adler, now retired, lives in the Redlands with Pam, and he’s heavily involved with Monument Presbyterian Church. He has four children (Morgan Leeson, Sandi “Treasure” Elliot, Peter Adler and Jennifer Adler), many grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and a corgi named Jordan.

“It’s been a good life,” he said.