Kenneth Robinson Sterling, 1922-2009
July 6, 2009
Those who believe Down Easters are strait-laced and austere never encountered Ken Sterling. Skier, sailor, horseman, tennis player, golfer, hunter, father, lover, friend and world-class prankster, he was happily at home anywhere on the map. Greek fisherman or local ranch hand, men loved him. No one was a stranger, simply someone to bring home to the family.
The descendant of Revolutionary War captains, deep water fishermen and lighthouse keepers, Kenneth Robinson Sterling was born in Portland, Maine, and grew up in Claremont, N.H. His mother was a Mount Holyoke graduate, his father a state legislator. He and his sisters Elinor and Barbara grew up in a haven of home cooking, hospitality, and laughter.
Ken spent childhood summers robbing lobster pots at his grandparents’ summer cottage on Peak’s Island, Maine; hunted, fished, skated and skied with his dad, who also taught him the art of practical joking. In high school he worked weekends at his town’s stylish haberdashery, and was wont to borrow his dad’s best shirts and ties for dates. The night of his junior prom, the new suit he’d earned laid out neatly on the bed, he looked out the bathroom window to see his father escorting his mother to the car – attired in the prized suit. “First one out’s the best one dressed!” Dad called merrily as he drove away.
Ken was a gifted athlete. A member of his state’s all-star football team, he opted for an athletic scholarship to Syracuse University, where he rowed on the crew. Unhappily, a blizzard on Lake Onondaga felled him with viral pneumonia, which morphed into tuberculosis. In those pre-antibiotic days, he spent 29 months in a New Hampshire sanatorium. His sense of humor undoubtedly saved him from the death surrounding him. While recuperating, he broke so many rules he was nearly evicted, became an opera addict and played a mean game of bridge. His mother also taught him to knit.
Recovered, he returned to Syracuse to become president of Sigma Phi Epsilon and of Interfraternity Council, chairman of the Student Council and of Winter Carnival. During a political science lecture, coed Martie Whitcomb was knitting an argyle sock. Her bobbins were tangled, her knitting a quagmire. Ken reached across two seats, tore out the stitches, and – to rounds of applause – neatly re-knitted the heel. They were married two and a half years later.
It was Christmas 1946, and Martie had planned a warm, sandy honeymoon in Bermuda. Instead, Ken lured her to the rarefied ski world of Canada’s Mont Tremblant, where he enrolled her in beginner ski classes, then soared off down-mountain with a gaggle of Dartmouth boys. Eleven years later, now the mother of four, Martie won the jackpot on an NBC quiz show and gaily planned a year in Europe for herself, Ken, and the children. Instead, Ken seduced her into traveling west to find a ski area to call home. When they stumbled on Aspen, it had a population of 800, no airport, a rutted two-lane access and very few customers.
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In 1958 American skiing was still in its infancy. When they bought four acres overhanging Maroon Creek and built the Heatherbed Lodge at the Highlands, they soon – like all early Aspenites – grasped at anything they could put a hand to. In the offseason Ken dug ditches for the city. They catered to hunters in the fall, started a children’s ride and swim camp and founded a summer dinner theater in collaboration with Walt Smith and Freddie Fisher at the Aspen Highlands. Though Ken scarcely knew a hoof from a hock, they gradually acquired horses, he learned his way around a saddle horn and soon took pack trips into the high country and across East and West Maroon passes.
Along with horses, he also acquired more family. Fifth child Sarah was born in the old Aspen Hospital. Martie’s brother, Dr. Whitcomb, joined the Aspen Clinic and he and children Deirdre and Michael became part of the Heatherbed. Dave Guthrie, aged eight, came to camp for three weeks and stayed for three years. Stein Eriksen imported young Norwegians to teach skiing, and they too joined up. Ditto unwitting college kids who made guest beds for a ski pass, room and board, and all the snow they could eat. Lodge guests, despite an unhandy location away from the fleshpots of town, returned year after year. Celebrities like author Leon Uris became lifelong friends. So did Basque sheepherders and school bus drivers. There were seldom fewer than 16 at the dinner table.
Ken taught skiing for Stein Eriksen, presided over apres-ski gluehwein and over a lodge fraught with drama. When the pipes froze, the guests cheerily brushed their teeth in gin. The septic tank had been installed wrong-side-to. When the shake roof caught fire, the entire fire department arrived in tuxedos from an Elks initiation dinner, doused the fire, took all the guests and kids on engine rides, then cleaned out Ken’s meager liquor department. Between crises, he always found time to cuddle a kid or counsel a friend.
After 10 years of sturm und drang, the lodge was sold and Ken opened the Sterling Insurance Agency. Much of his life now revolved around coaching, chauffeuring and raising money for junior ski racers. Kids then were maniacally clever about hanging wet sheets out lodge windows to freeze, then breaking them into small shards. Only Ken’s diplomacy persuaded innkeepers to accommodate Aspen skiers one more year.
Forty years ago, tennis was little known in these mountains. Ken, Dave Hoff, Dave DeSorcy and Frank Kirk went into hock to build the Smuggler Racquet Club and the town broke out in tennis balls.
Martie is a writer. When their last child went off to school, Ken delighted in acting as Man Friday on travel assignments from the Great Barrier Reef to Sulawesi to St. Moritz. The two became enamored of sailing and bareboated in Greece, Turkey, Maine and the British Virgin Islands. Martie remembers: “In 64 years of marriage, we never had much money, but we were rich in family and friends and adventures.” Klaus Obermeyer, Ken’s longtime tennis buddy, says “Ken was a very special Aspen pioneer. He had heart and he had humor.” He also had no pretensions and was renowned for dropping his pants in the Hotel Jerome or the post office to demonstrate how a moron pulls up his socks.
Ken and Martie, after a 12-year retirement in Arizona, had recently returned to be with children and old friends in Aspen. On June 28, 2009, Ken finally succumbed to the ravages of diabetes. His family was around him and, with the help of Hospice, his death was peaceful. He is survived by his wife, Martie Whitcomb Sterling; his five children: Robinson Sterling, Whitcomb Rogers Sterling, Gwyneth Ann Sterling Gosney, Daniel Sutton Sterling and Sarah Millard Sterling. By his grandchildren: Erica Jane Sterling Gosney, Jacob Wyatt Levy and Miles Sterling Levy. Niece Deirdre Morgan and nephew Michael Whitcomb. Sister Barbara Bullock. He is predeceased by his parents, his beloved brother-in-law Harold C. Whitcomb, M.D., and his sister, Elinor Forbes Britton.
The Sterling family welcomes friends to the celebration of Ken’s life at 4 p.m. on Saturday, July 18, at the base of Highlands.
Donations in Ken’s name may be made to The Armed Forces Relief Trust, to aid families of our servicemen, at Dept. 6055, Washington, CD 20042-6055, or to Father Abran Tadea at St. Christopher’s Church at 12101 W. Moore Road, Marana, Ariz., 85653.