Karen Smalls Woodard
In the predawn hours of February 17, 2020 Karen passed peacefully, balancing strength and grace — just as she had while making beautiful turns on the mountain and a beautiful life in the town below. She was warmly enveloped in the love of her family, friends and the mountain community she adored.
Karen was born September 10, 1946 the oldest of eight children to Charles and Jeanette McCarthy in Columbus Ohio. The flatlands couldn’t hold her, and the mountains were in her soul. Her father had served bravely in World War II as an officer in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy and Slovenia. While many veterans of the 10th found their way to Aspen to pioneer the birth of skiing in North America, in this case it was an intrepid daughter who ventured west to do some pioneering of her own.
Karen first came to Aspen in the mid-1960s while attending the Pharmacy School at The Ohio State University, and she soon traded a future in the family pharmacy business for skis, powder days, and a fledgling romance with a fleet-footed charismatic ski pro named Ray Smalls. They would have one son, Ryan, and together they carved turns while carving out enviable lives as a first-generation Aspenite family during Fat City’s golden days. Karen spent her early years in Aspen serving cocktails at the Chart House and running the register at the Cliff House, while proudly prioritizing her time on the hill.
Karen and Ray’s marriage faltered, but their friendship and parental love never wained.
So what was a single ski mom to do? Bikinis, naturally. Karen started a business selling swimwear out of the Stein Eriksen’s ski shop on Cooper Street, a creative solution for the summer retail lull — long before Aspen’s warm-weather charms were discovered by its tourist clientele. The Eenie Meenie Bikini shop was a hit, and Karen’s talent for retail was instantly evident. The store was a quintessential mom-and-pop shop, part of the fabric of the community and a creator of the authenticity and charm that has always been central to the identity of our town. Once Karen found her retail niche, she was off to the races, and this merchandising maven soon created a full boutique clothing store called Summertime. But one store proved to be just the start, and soon her keen intellect and tireless work ethic were focused on The Baggage Claim, Aspen’s first luggage store.
Karen was devoted to her business, but still found the time to meet the love of her life, this time on the tennis court. He was a chiseled left-handed Colorado native with a word-class game. Kent Woodard was his name, and he and Karen celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary in the final days of her life.
Their relationship grew into a business partnership when Kent hung up his racket, leaving his GM position at the Maroon Creek Club to join Karen at The Baggage Claim.
The Baggage Claim became a community hub, a place where locals, tourists and parttime residents shared stories of their recent travels while picking out items for their next adventure. The Baggage Claim brand grew with the opening of a store in Vail, a partnership with Karen’s beloved and trusted sister Colleen McCarthy. Karen’s commitment to her customers made shopping with her a cherished experience.
Business flourished, and countless local high school students wrapped gifts, took inventory, and worked the floor. Those first-job experiences were transformational, and many of her employees credit Karen for their later successes. Karen was a demanding boss but a brilliant mentor — she dared them to dream big, while demanding hard work and accountability. While employees learned life lessons, friends and customers simply marveled, wondering how it was possible to squeeze so much life into such a petite frame.
As rents rose and doors closed around town, Karen tapped into growing trends, this time with collectible pens and fine cigars. Pen Perfecto opened in the Little Nell Hotel, while The Baggage Claim grew with the addition of a Tumi concept store. She tried to pass on her nascent retail empire to her son Ryan and his soon-to-be wife Anda, but she acknowledged their own passions and interests, and took great pride in supporting them. After nearly three decades of retail leadership, she decided to sell the stores. In the “retirement” that followed, Karen focused her energy back where it all started: on the slopes that had lured her to Aspen in the first place.
Karen collected 100-day pins with gusto. Her signature move was one run to Bonnie’s with friends, followed by a small lunch and a huge dessert: Apple Strudel, of course.
She now had two grandchildren to chase around the slopes, and Zala and Luka just seemed to add fuel to her unstoppable engine. Karen always said she would live to 100, and her queen-size life force and boundless energy would convince anyone of that prediction. Even after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis five years ago, the grit, resiliency and love that brought her success in business was on display. She skied 60 days on the slopes each of those five years.
Karen will be remembered for her beauty inside and out, her radiating smile, her contagious energy, her sharp mind, and her heart of gold. She was unwavering in her commitment to friends and family, profoundly generous, and kind to all whose paths she crossed. Her greatest successes were not in business but in her role as Mother, Babica, Wife, Sister and Friend. She is survived by all who had the good fortune to know and love her. In a note penned in her final days, Karen said it best “To my friends and family, it has been a beautiful life and who knows what tomorrow will bring. Much Love, Karen”
A celebration of life is being planned for St. Patrick’s Day and details will be forthcoming as plans emerge. In lieu of flowers please make donations to the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club in Karen’s memory to honor her love of skiing and the pride she had in being a ski racing Mom. http://www.teamavsc.org/donate.