"Just a real nice guy, y’know?"
Aspen Times Weekly
The late D.R.C. Brown Jr. was in Aspen well before the first ski runs were carved out of the woods, and had a great deal to do with the city’s resurgence from a nearly abandoned mining town to a world-class ski resort.
He generally seemed to accept how Aspen has evolved as a resort, and later as an international playground for the wealthy elite, although a few years before he died he was quoted as being, perhaps, wistfully critical of Aspen as it is today.
“Sometimes I wish the old man [his father, Aspen pioneer D.R.C. Brown Sr.] could come back and see what happened to [Aspen],” he told reporter Scott Condon in the summer of 2004. “I don’t know whether he’d turn over in his grave or not.”
Brown died March 10, at the age of 95, after spending a lifetime, more or less, as a larger-than-life figure in the town of his birth.
Much has been written and said about his role in re-creating Aspen for its second chance at the high life, and in raising the fledgling ski industry from its tottering beginnings.
But what about the man himself, the guy who once reportedly came close to duking it out with Joe Louis in a Golden Gloves match, who ran cattle ranching operations in Utah, Colorado and Australia, and skippered a PT boat in World War II, the boss who would invite employees to the family outpost near Creede, the father who taught his kids to ride horses and instilled in them a ranching ethic, the lover of poetry who published a book that includes some of his own poems and family aphorisms?
The story of David Robinson Crocker Brown Jr. and that of his father, D.R.C. Brown Sr., track through the same years as the history of Aspen itself.
The elder Brown piloted a wagon into the mining camp once known as Ute City in 1880 as the protege of another mining-era pioneer, H.P. Cowenhoven. Following the liquidation of Cowenhoven’s mercantile store in Blackhawk, Colo., where Brown had worked, the pair headed for New Mexico but soon diverted to the new bonanza that ultimately would become Aspen.
The two men later became partners and prospered through Aspen’s boom years in the 1880s and early 1890s.
Brown has been widely credited with being sharp enough to diversify his fortune prior to the silver crash of 1893, which ruined many of his contemporaries. That left him and his first wife, Kate (daughter of H.P. Cowenhoven), who died in 1893, with considerable holdings in an increasingly impoverished town, including hundreds of acres of mining claims on Aspen Mountain.
Brown moved to Paris after Kate’s death, where he met and ultimately married Ruth McNutt of the San Francisco McNutts. Back in Aspen on a visit, she reportedly fell in love with the place and convinced her new husband to buy up the power and water companies, a bank and a couple of nearby ranches.
David Robinson Crocker Brown Jr., was born Dec. 20, 1912, when his father was 58 years old, just as Aspen slipped into the period known as The Quiet Years, a time of doldrums and decline on various levels. He was raised mostly in Denver, graduating from the St. Paul’s School there in 1931, according to the Brown family.
But he spent many of his summers in Aspen, even while attending Yale (he graduated in 1935).
“There were things going on in the ‘teens and ’20s while I was growing up in Aspen,” he told former Aspen Times editor Mary Eshbaugh Hayes in 1979, for an article reprinted in her 1996 book, “The Story of Aspen.”
“We had horses, a tennis court. A big event was to stay a couple of weeks at Cow Camp over McClure Pass,” Brown said. He rode bareback and competed in local rodeos from an early age.
After graduating from Yale in 1935, he worked for a time as a roughneck in the oil fields of Colorado and Wyoming and, later, moved up to higher positions in the fledgling oil industry. He was a PT Boat skipper in World War II, among other duties, while his first wife, Meg Heintz, and their three kids stayed in Aspen. He went into ranching after mustering out of the Navy in 1946, divorcing Meg and marrying his second wife, Ruth Humphreys, in 1947, who bore him five more children.
In 1952 Brown was elected to the Colorado Senate on a Republican platform of fighting for the rights of ranchers and miners. He served one term of office before returning to Aspen to take over as CEO of the struggling Aspen Ski Corp. in 1957.
By the time he retired in 1979, the company was in charge of three ski areas in the Roaring Fork Valley (Aspen Highlands was still independently owned), as well as Breckenridge, two Canadian ski areas and one in Spain, according to the family’s history.
Along the way, Brown was inducted into several halls of fame, helped create agencies for skier safety and ski-area marketing, served on advisory boards for state and national regulatory agencies and was on the boards of numerous major corporations. The list of his accomplishments is long, indeed.
There aren’t many people around who can still speak from personal experience about D.R.C. Brown Jr.’s early days (known to most as Darcy; he dropped the “junior” from his name after his dad died when the younger Brown was 16 years old).
Family members and friends alike recall him as a humble man, despite his elevated station in the local hierarchy of personalities, and described his main passions in life as follows: Family, ranching, flying and being active in the great outdoors, with work and skiing low on the list.
As an example of her father’s humility, daughter Darcey said she was skiing with her dad once while he was president of the Ski Corp. A lift operator checked DRC’s lift ticket, then got flustered once he realized who it was and apologized for checking the ticket.
D.R.C. responded, “You’d be looking for a job on Monday if you didn’t.”
Darcey said this was evidence that her dad didn’t want any special treatment, in any aspect of life. He simply did what he felt needed to be done, including taking the reins of the Ski Corp. when it was a growing but unsteady business in the late 1950s.
He also was a “tough bird,” in the words of one who knew personally.
Former local resident Kenny Moore, who got to know Brown in the 1950s, recalled running rivers with him in kayaks, on challenging stretches of the Roaring Fork, the Colorado the Green and others. Moore said that once Brown fell while chasing a runaway raft along the shore and broke some ribs. But even injured, Moore said, Brown tried to pull his share of the rowing duties but ultimately admitting he wasn’t up to it.
On another river trip, Moore said, “It was so damned windy and cold, and they all wore T-shirts, they were shaking so much they couldn’t drink the whiskey.”
Around the same era, said rancher and valley native Wayne Vagneur, Vagneur and his brother turned up to join in the Carbondale Roping Club, which drew competitors from the area’s ranch crews. Brown, who owned a ranch south of Carbondale, was already a member, Vagneur recalled.
“He was a real personable guy,” Vagneur said, noting that Brown volunteered to be secretary of the club and sat at a deal table to take the entry forms and fees from the rodeo competitors before the weekly rodeo began.
Brown also took part in the rodeos themselves, Vagneur said, noting that “he had a little trouble with his roping, but he stayed with it, and he liked it.”
Away from the rodeo grounds, Vagneur said, “he was just a real nice guy, y’know?”
He said that one rainy day, he was trying to catch some mares he was breeding to a stud owned by Darcy’s brother-in-law, Bob Perry, and having a rough time of it. Brown came out of his ranch house, which was next door to the Perry spread, and mentioned that he had lunch on the table and waiting for someone to dive in.
“He says, you come in and help me eat it and have a drink, and I’ll have Bob Perry’s foreman run ’em [the mares] up to you tomorrow,” Vagneur remembered with a laugh, adding that he jumped at the chance to get in out of the rain.
Darcey, too, recalled her father’s penchant for ranch work. She remembered as a grown woman that she and her husband once watched as Darcy hopped in a corral to bust a bronc. The horse had other ideas and threw him; he landed hard and broke some ribs.
Looking back, Darcey contrasted his toughness with what she said was his absolute joy at being around his grandkids. He showed a patience with the grandkids that he didn’t always have with his own kids, she said.
Another daughter, Ruthie, recalled that her dad taught his children to ride, took them camping and backpacking in the mountains, and instilled in them a work ethic through a strict schedule of ranch chores ” but he would often be right alongside them.
“He was loving, he was firm, he was clear. He was always there for us, he was consistent,” Ruthie remembered, and “it was either his way or the highway, you definitely had to be attentive to that. He was adamant that he wanted all of us kids to remain on the ranch and not be … citified.”
Darcey is the only one of the children, Ruthie said, who has stayed in the ranching business, but “we all still share those values.”
One of Brown’s longtime associates, who refers to the man as a kind of father figure, is Sue Smedstad, who acted essentially as executive secretary to Darcy and his wife, Ruth, over the years.
Smedstad said one of his joys after retirement was gardening, and sitting on his big desk in his Aspen home at the time of his death was the Burpee Seed catalog. She explained that Brown always looked forward to getting the catalog each spring and making his choices for seeds to be planted in his garden.
Brown also was noted for reciting snatches of poetry, at any moment and under disparate circumstances.
“He knew all kinds of poetry,” said former Ski Corp. planner Larry Beidleman, who was a close friend as well as an employee and who turns 85 this year.
Beidleman described his former boss and friend as “a prince of a guy. He was a Scotsman who was very careful with his money; he was shy, not an outgoing person, and he could condense his thoughts into a few brief words. People thought that was gruff, but he just didn’t waste words. He never really got excited about anything. He might get mad, but he wouldn’t really show it.”
Beidleman recalled being told by Brown that, in Brown’s Yale days, he was a light heavyweight collegiate boxing champion and after graduating he once nearly made it to the finals of the national Golden Gloves amateur title competition. If he had, Beidleman said, “he would have fought Joe Louis,” who held the Golden Gloves title at the time and later went on to become heavyweight champion of the world
Daughter Darcey said boxing also played a part in the family dynamic.
“He would read to us girls every night,” she remembered, “and then he would take turns boxing with us. He’d get on his knees and we’d box him in our nightgowns.”
Pulling out yet another anecdote to illustrate Brown’s rascally side, Beidleman pointed to Brown’s habit of signing his name on hotel registers as “D.R.C. Brown.” Beidleman said that once Brown was in his hotel room when a hotel clerk pounded on the door and said something like, “Dr. Brown, one of the guests is sick, could you come and look at him?”
Awake enough to seize the moment for a witty rejoinder, Brown calmly replied, “I’m not licensed to practice here,” and after a while had straightened out the confusion, Beidleman said.
Biedleman also said Brown was passionate about flying. He owned a twin-engine plane that could land on the ranch, and daughter Ruthie recalled that her dad “used to buzz the house if he was coming in after dark. And Mom would get into our old station wagon and drive out to the landing strip to shine the headlights on the runway so he wouldn’t run off the cliff at the end.”
As for the poetry, daughter Ruthie confirmed that her dad “loved to recite poetry” from Robert Browning to Shakespeare, E.E. Cummings to Robert Service, and a host of others.
“To the very end, I heard poems that I’d never heard before,” said Darcey.
“He also wrote poetry,” Ruthie confided, admitting that some of it was a bit on the bawdy side. She said he published a small volume that contains some of his own work, as well as examples from some of his favorite poets and a selection of family aphorisms.
Ruthie also recalled that “he and I used to be on the opposite ends of the political spectrum,” he a staunch, old-school Republican and she a liberal Democrat.
But in recent years, she said, “we both came to the center, and we would read the paper together and cheer, or curse together” over what they agreed were the misdeeds of President George W. Bush.
In his later years D.R.C. took to writing letters to the editor that Smedstad said “were just sizzlers,” taking off after Bush, the war in Iraq or some other national policy he disagreed with.
Althought Brown tried to get in at least an hour of skiing nearly every day, it was not at the top of his list of priorities, his family confirmed.
Still, as he approached his 90th birthday in 2003, his only wish was to ski with his family one last time before hanging up the boards.
So the calls went out, the flights were booked and, while not actually on the big day itself, a large portion of the extended Brown family took to the slopes together one day, after which the family patriarch hung up his skis for good.
He did not, however, give up on outdoor activities.
Daughter Darcey reported that, as late as last summer, he was still riding horseback at the ranch outside of Creede. But at the end of one ride, she said, her father remarked, “Well, I’ve been needing help to get on, and now I need help to get off, and that hasn’t happened since I was 3 years old. I think it’s time to give it up.”
He also didn’t stop with the poetry, Darcey said.
About a month ago, after a minor stroke, he was at home watching the news on television, complaining about President Bush and engaging in conversations, when he recited the entire poem, Kubla Khan, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
And when Darcey’s husband, Ken Helfenbein, mentioned a recent television program he’d seen that involved ravens, D.R.C. remarked that “it reminded him of a poem.
“And of course, we all expected to hear Poe, but instead he starts in on this off-color poem about a raven-haired beauty,” said Darcey with a laugh. “That’s just how he was.”