Former Aspen ski bum eyes the White House |

Former Aspen ski bum eyes the White House

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

In Gerald Ford, we had a president who skied, if only in Vail.

In George Bush the elder and Bill Clinton, we had presidents who came to Aspen, but didn’t ski.

In Howard Dean, we could have a president who spent the winter of 1971-72 washing dishes at the Golden Horn and pounding bumps on Aspen Mountain.

A former ski-bum president might sound far-fetched, but a few months ago so did Dean’s run for the White House.

But now Dean, the governor of Vermont, is considered a legitimate Democratic presidential hopeful.

This week, when The Associated Press reported on where the next potential presidents stand on invading Iraq, the news agency checked with Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean.

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He may be last on the list, but, hey, he’s on the list.

A fiscal conservative and social liberal (except on gun control), Dean was a doctor before becoming Vermont’s chief executive 11 years ago. Articulate and direct, he can touch a crowd, especially when talking about health care.

And Dean’s been out running for president in Iowa and other politically fertile locales with as much energy as he put into skiing in Aspen when he was 23.

“I always wanted to ski, and Aspen was the skiing capital of America,” Dean said. “I paid $250 for a ski pass and skied 80 days on Ajax. It was the greatest mountain.”

Brought up in Manhattan and on Long Island, Dean graduated from Yale in 1971.

“I got out of college and was casting around,” he said. “I was trying to figure out what made sense in my life.”

And like so many other recent college grads before and since then, Dean decided to go to Aspen and weigh his options.

“I went to work pouring concrete for a small company, and when they went out of business I got a job with Hubert and Trudy Erhard at the Golden Horn.”

Which means it is possible America could next elect a pearl-diving president.

“I started off as a pot washer and pot scrubber, and then I got promoted to dishwasher and washed dishes until the end of the ski season,” he said.

Dean rented a cabin up near Ashcroft and remembers skiing up to the passes under full moons. And he loved skiing bumps on Aspen Mountain.

“I was pretty good by the time I left.”

Aspen in 1972 was a pretty loose party town, with plenty of hippies on the Ridge of Bell.

“The town was totally nuts,” Dean said. “My dentist once offered me laughing gas. And I turned him down.”

Known as a straight arrow who shuns alcohol and coffee, Dean doesn’t view his time in 1970s Aspen as a campaign liability.

“It actually wasn’t that wild for me,” he said. “I lived 12 miles out of town. And I all did was work and ski.”

But for the record, yes, Dean has inhaled. In 1995, an eighth-grader at the Woodstock Union Middle School asked him, “When you were a kid, did you smoke pot?”

Dean answered, “Not in my adult life.”

That response may beg the question as to whether Dean’s adult life started after Aspen. But more telling perhaps is that for Dean, one winter in Fat City was enough.

“I enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t give it up,” he said. “But it taught me that I really had to work to be happy and that I needed some purposeful work.”

In the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Dean went to work as broker on Wall Street. But after two years, he turned from finance to medicine and graduated from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1978.

He did his residency at the University of Vermont Medical Center and then set up a practice in Shelburne, just outside of Burlington.

Then Dean mixed politics with medicine and was elected to the Vermont state Legislature in 1982. He was elected lieutenant governor three times in the 1980s. In 1991, Gov. Richard Snelling had a heart attack and died in office. And when Dean then became governor, he gave up his medical practice.

Dean returned to Aspen recently for a Democratic governor’s conference. If he was 23 today, he said he would probably go to a more funky resort.

“The charm of Aspen then was that the Jerome, before it was fixed up, was the fanciest hotel in town,” he said. “Aspen has changed dramatically.”

But Dean fondly remembers his season in Aspen and still has a framed front page of The Aspen Times from the winter of 1971-72.

“It was a great time to be a kid and do something relatively fun.”

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is]

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