Friends remember Albie Kern as man who always thought of others
When her husband of 47 years died Wednesday, Sue Kern wrote an email to her closest friends that ended with a short, simple tribute that said, “He was one of the good ones.”
Sue said she immediately received email after email with comments about her husband, Albert “Albie” Kern. One stuck out. It said, “He wasn’t a good one. He was a great one.”
That’s the way a lot of people feel about Albie Kern. According to numerous friends, he achieved at an early age what eludes many people all their lives — inner peace.
“He was probably the most contented man in his own skin that I ever met,” Sue said.
He took pleasure meeting new people and hearing their stories, helping people and spending time with his friends.
“He never started a sentence with ‘I,’” Sue said.
Ski bum cum lawyer
Albie Kern, who died at age 85, grew up in the Chicago area and attended the University of Colorado to play football. He started traveling to Aspen in his early days at CU, working at the kitchen at the Hotel Jerome to earn enough money for room, board and lift tickets.
That was the start of a lifelong love for Aspen and Aspen Mountain. Sue said Albie was an avid skier late into life. Even up to the 2014-15 season, he skied every bluebird day. And almost always at Aspen Mountain.
Albie earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1953 and his law degree, also from CU, in 1955. He spent time in Aspen and on the California coast after graduation — having fun before aiming to settle somewhere in a law practice. He worked as a ski patroller on Aspen Mountain for two seasons. He worked the 8 to 11 a.m. shift tending bar at the Red Onion, listening to the stories of old miners.
Sue said Albie decided in 1959 to hang up his shingle in Aspen. There were only two other lawyers and one judge at the time, she said.
Albie opened an office on the second floor of the Woods building and maintained it for the next 50 years. Sue said he often boasted to his friend, Bil Dunaway, that he had Aspen’s longest-running single-owner business.
Known for compassion
Albie was hired as a contract attorney by several special districts during his legal career. He also worked as an assistant district attorney from 1965 to 1967 and was hired as the city of Aspen’s attorney in October 1968. He resigned four years later when the Aspen City Council approved a controversial change to the city charter that led to the ouster of Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Robert Molny.
Albie’s letter of resignation was short and simple but packed a punch.
“I cannot sanction nor align myself with the actions and attitudes of some members of the council which are totally alien to my values,” he wrote.
He demonstrated his values through his private practice. Dottie Wolcott, a longtime Kern family friend, said Albie was genuinely interested in helping people.
“He very quietly helped a lot of people who otherwise couldn’t afford it,” she said.
The essence of a ski bum
Kern was ruggedly handsome and the epitome of the original ski bums, according to Tony Vagneur, who looked up to Albie when they were younger and later befriended him.
“He was like the big eligible bachelor around town,” Vagneur said. “He was the essence of the ski bum.”
Albie drove around town in an open-air, white Jeep, complete with a dog riding in the front and a broom. A pipe was often hanging from his mouth.
A 1967 article in the Aspen Illustrated News featured Albie’s small and architecturally interesting house in Pitkin Green. It was cantilevered from the hillside and overlooked the Roaring Fork River, where Albie often fished. The article dubbed it the ultimate bachelor pad. Another article in the same publication, now defunct, labeled Albie “one of Aspen’s more eligible bachelors” in the late 1960s.
Sue, who came to Aspen to ski as a 19-year-old in 1963, took notice of Albie. They met in the bar scene and were wed in June 1969, when Sue was a ski instructor on Aspen Mountain.
“The joke was that he got a ski pass and I got employee housing,” Sue said.
The Kerns had one child, Nick, who lives in Hawaii with his wife, Christine, and their children, Benjamin and Madelaine.
Legacy of friendships
Albie, who died of heart failure, leaves behind a lot of friends. Longtime friend John McBride called him “a rare soul and a true local.” McBride said Albie was very involved in and committed to the community and his friends. He wasn’t out to make a buck on the Aspen name.
“Aspen was people like Albie,” McBride said.
“He was a great observer of life,” McBride said. “That was coupled with a sense of humor.”
Albie had the rare ability to laugh at himself.
Ron Austin said he became Aspen’s 10th lawyer when he moved to town in 1967. Instead of spurning new competition, Albie embraced many newcomers.
“Albie became a dear friend and took me in immediately,” Austin said. “Every lawyer I know loved him and respected him.”
Albie was 10 years Austin’s senior, and Austin said he always looked up to him through their various phases of life.
Joe Zanin, a friend of more than 40 years, remembers Albie as “a very honest and caring guy. He was an attorney but never a pushy attorney.”
They were avid bird hunters and also went on fishing trips together.
“He was always singing,” Zanin said. “He’d just blurt it out.”
And another thing — Albie was a chocoholic, Zanin said.
Vagneur and Albie had a bond as alumni of the Aspen Mountain ski patrol. They crossed paths frequently on their mountain of choice. Vagneur said he would count on finding Albie eating lunch at Bonnie’s. Almost without fail, Vagneur would meet someone interesting whom Albie had befriended.
Austin said Albie befriended everyone. He recalled a gambling trip to Las Vegas back in the day when hotels had elevator attendants. Albie would be in deep conversation with the attendant, getting all details of the person’s life. Austin said he had to ask to be let out after the conversation went on so long.
But Albie remained humble to the end. Sue said he didn’t want a memorial service where the community would show up and people would talk about him. Instead, the family is planning a life celebration for a later time.
In her email, Sue informed friends that Albie died “very much at peace” at their home, overlooking the Roaring Fork.
“His last words before his heart stopped beating were about hearing the river below the house ‘roaring’ for the last time,” she wrote.
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Studies by Colorado Parks and Wildlife show the survival of elk calves in the Roaring Fork Valley has dropped about 33 percent in the last decade. White River National Forest officials said they need to act to try to reserve that trend. They are seeking public comment on their plan.