‘We had a 6-inch powder rule forever’ — Treasurer Tom Oken retires
When voters adopted Pitkin County’s Home Rule Charter in March 1978, they changed the treasurer from an elected to an appointed position.
The first man hired for the job lasted seven months. The second man appointed Pitkin County Treasurer has lasted more than 40 years.
“It’s been fun,” said Tom Oken, who will retire later this month. “It’s time for somebody else to do it.”
Oken, who grew up in the Minneapolis area, moved to Aspen in 1973 after graduating from Colorado College in Colorado Springs with a business degree.
“I was 21 years old when I moved here,” said Oken, now 67. “A friend from high school said he was moving to Aspen to become a ski bum … so I decided to come with him.”
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He said he tried hard to be a ski bum but couldn’t seem to find a decent nighttime job. That’s when Michael Behrendt, the St. Moritz Lodge owner and then-Aspen City Councilman, suggested a job opening in the city’s Finance Department.
Oken said he applied soon after and was hired on as the city’s new utility billing clerk.
“I pretty quickly converted my job into a ski-bum job,” Oken said with a laugh. “It turned out great.”
Another aspect of that job he liked a lot was working with “all the old-time electric and water guys.”
“There were some flamboyant characters back then,” he said. “(It was) guys whose families had been here since the late 1800s. They were a link to the old Aspen past.”
Oken later became a systems analyst after the city purchased its first computer, before being hired by the county to help automate the functions of the Finance and Treasurer departments. That put him in perfect position to assume the treasurer’s role when the first man appointed to the job didn’t work out in October 1978, he said.
“We had a 6-inch powder rule forever,” Oken said of his treasurer tenure. “Six inches or more and, ‘Bye, I’m not coming in.’ It was pretty common back then. This is a ski town.”
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock praised Oken’s commitment to the lifestyle and people in the area.
“He started with Pitkin County when I was 7 years old, which is amazing to me,” Peacock said. “He really dedicated his life to serving this community. I think he really embodied and reflected the culture of our community.”
Over the years, Oken’s responsibilities have ebbed and flowed. In the beginning years, he was essentially the county’s chief financial officer, though that all changed 17 years ago when a cancer diagnosis altered his outlook.
“I had prostate cancer … and it opened my eyes,” he said. “After they removed it, I said, ‘I don’t want to work so much.’”
So the county agreed to reduce Oken’s hours, responsibilities and salary, and he became just the treasurer, working Tuesday through Thursday. And that’s been his schedule ever since.
“I could live on less and play more,” Oken said. “The county has been a great employer that way.”
Asked why he’s stayed around the upper Roaring Fork Valley all these years, Oken was succinct.
“The reason anybody stays here,” he said. “It’s phenomenal.”
With an attitude like that, it’s no surprise that Oken — who lives in Snowmass Village with his wife — isn’t going anywhere when his retirement becomes official in mid-January.
“(It will be) more of the same,” Oken said. “Ski in the winter. Mountain bike in the summer. I have a huge vegetable garden.”
Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper — who is about to begin her 17th year on the county board — has known Oken for 30 years and worked with him for 16.
“Tom is a very astute numbers (and) detailed person,” she said. “But he’s got this off-the-wall, catch-you-off-guard sense of humor.”
For example, Clapper said Oken dressed up as a character from the movie “Finding Nemo” this year for Halloween, which entailed a full head-to-toe orange fish costume and orange makeup covering his face and beard.
“It was a hoot,” she said. “And he wore that costume all day.”
Ann Driggers was hired as county finance director more than two years ago and will take over as treasurer when Oken retires. And while she said she’s ready for the challenge, she admitted that Oken’s institutional knowledge will be missed.
“Tom is sort of like our resident historian,” she said. “It’s a little daunting that 40 years of experience, knowledge and public stewardship is now retiring.”
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