Andersen: They were forged by hotter fires
When I read about Jack DePagter’s death last month, I felt a sense of loss. I worked with Jack as editor for his autobiography — “Destination Aspen” — and I got to know his story intimately. But there is more.
With Jack’s passing, so passes a chapter of Aspen history — a rich chapter marked by the characters who fashioned the spirit of a community that emerged from a quasi-ghost town in the 1950s.
Jack was born in the Netherlands at an ill-fated time of war and profound social disruption. His obituary and his book describe a life of incredible adventure that brought him to Aspen in the early years.
A lot of Jack’s story was not exactly enviable. He saw Holland bombed and occupied by the Germans. He barely escaped capture while working with the French resistance in Southern France. After the Normandy invasion, Jack worked as an interrogator with the U.S. Army and witnessed the liberation of concentration camps with Patton’s Third Army.
The drama and trauma Jack experienced was similar to the experiences of many Aspen founders who, after WWII, found solace in the mountains where they built the Colorado ski industry.
With Jack’s passing, and with many before him whose name are synonymous with Aspen, the community loses incrementally an intangible identity with men and women who survived the upheavals of war and brought their vitality to this town.
As they pass on, new ranks of Aspen old-timers have stepped into critical civic roles on the police force, Fire Department, Mountain Rescue Aspen, and numerous nonprofit boards that are the foundation of Aspen’s contemporary culture.
At the Memorial Day event this year at Courthouse Plaza, many of the old guard were there to remember their forebears. Three men in their 90s were present, all veterans who had served in WWII, and the last of their ilk.
Greg Poschman shared an excerpt written by his father, Harry Poschman, whose manuscript reveals dramatic details of the 10th Mountain Division fighting its way up the boot of Italy. Poschman wrote that it was unlikely any of them would survive. But many did survive, bringing to Aspen a resilient life force formed by the indelible trauma of war.
Gradually, a new generation has stepped forward, graduating into Aspen’s senior class. They recognize their exemplars who took Aspen from its infancy as a commercial resort to world-class status, who collectively weaved the threads of Aspen’s colorful social fabric.
It is said that this Greatest Generation was forged by hotter fires than most of the present generation. And yet, many at the Memorial Day service were veterans of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, men and women whose lives have been shaped by equally tumultuous events.
Comparing one generation to another is unfair since events cannot be measured except by the people who endured them — and in how they endured them. Regardless of their journeys, the new generation of old-timers is just as committed to Aspen as their predecessors.
They share the same spirit, grit, vision, determination and, perhaps most important, humor. Their collective perspective gives them license to shape the ever changing Aspen community. All generations have their crucibles, and all vibrant, progressive communities are enriched by the character those crucibles forged.
Jack DePagter and his peers were challenged to grow and develop Aspen into a sustainable resort economy. Aspen went far beyond their wildest expectations. The challenge of today’s civic leaders is to keep a rapidly urbanizing mountain town livable by preserving a personalized, intimate atmosphere — which was evident at the Memorial Day event.
That challenge may be just as daunting as it was for DePagter and his contemporaries to breathe life into an old mining town. Tempering the inertia of growth and development for the next phase of Aspen’s maturation will require collective vision from a cadre of characters equal in panache to the generation now fading away.
The legacy of the past is handed down as an inheritance. With it comes an obligation to appreciate and respect unique social and cultural qualities, to make certain that Aspen retains an ebullient community spirit that only characters can create and sustain.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Two Rivers Unitarian-Universalist Church, in conjunction with the Roaring Fork Valley’s Interfaith Council and Sanctuary Unidos, is showing a Zoom presentation of the documentary “Welcome Strangers” at 10 a.m. Sunday.