Paul Andersen: Fair Game
July 18, 2011
Local lore has it that when Albert Schweitzer and his wife arrived in Aspen in June 1949 for the Goethe Bicentennial, they had a strange encounter on the doorstep of the Paepcke home in Aspen’s West End. As the door swung open, the first thing the Schweitzers saw was a disheveled Elizabeth Paepcke standing there in her nightgown, a mop and bucket in hand, with a look of panic on her face.
The plumbing in the old house had backed up. Elizabeth was doing damage control as Walter Paepcke sloshed ankle deep in water in the upstairs bathroom, demanding that something be done.
“There stood the great man himself,” recalled Elizabeth afterward, “just as he had been described to me: shaggy mane of gray hair, amused brown eyes, immense drooping mustache, the black folded tie, old-fashioned long coat – and on his arm an elderly lady in gray and garnets who looked like a pale moth. I stared at the doctor.
“‘Oh,’ I cried, ‘our plumbing has backed up, there is water all over the floor, and I have to rescue my husband from the bathroom.'”
“‘I see,’ said Dr. Schweitzer slowly, as he looked me over from tousled hair to bare feet to mop. ‘I see,’ he repeated. ‘Mrs. Schweitzer and I are just in time to witness the second flood.'”
To Albert Schweitzer, the trying experience of this, his first and last trip to the U.S., had worn thin, especially the final leg to Aspen from Chicago, where he had first thought the Goethe Bicentennial Festival was to take place.
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Schweitzer had been lured to the Festival with a $5,000 donation to his bush hospital in West Africa, and since all cables and letters had originated from the University of Chicago, where the Festival had been planned, he assumed that Aspen, which few people had heard of at the time, was a suburb of the Windy City. He was welcomed by a flood and a mop, and so began Aspen’s renaissance as a world culture center.
Today, of course, no one would mistake Aspen for a Chicago suburb. The city is known internationally with one-word recognition linked to a reputation for high ideals, celebrated culture, spectacular scenery and rigorous recreation.
Enjoying a concert in the music tent today invites reflection on what it must have been like more than 60 years ago to hear Schweitzer speak from the dais in a canvas tent erected on wooden poles in the same location. Aspen had a magical aura then as lofty values were articulated by prestigious orators in an inspired atmosphere of global import. Three weeks in Aspen in the summer of 1949 set the stage for all that came later, though no one would have predicted it at the time.
Walter Paepcke had influenced Festival organizers to hold the event in Aspen, in part for self interest. He had invested heavily in Aspen and thought the Festival would give the nascent cultural resort a much needed promotional boost. He also believed that Aspen, far removed from the distractions of urban America and buffered from materialism, would provide a context of purity to deeper aspirations for global healing from the divisions of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
High ideals are like tall, spreading trees. To endure, they send tap roots into the bedrock of society from which to draw corporeal nourishment. In Aspen, those roots eventually entwined corporate America and its great personal wealth. Aspen was pulled into an orbit of materialism that has since threatened to undermine its original purity.
The old mining town has changed dramatically since those three seminal weeks in the summer of 1949, but the founding values planned by Paepcke, spoken by Schweitzer and reflected in Goethe remain as haunting apparitions that connect receptive minds to high, if esoteric, values.
Sydney Hyman described this lofty goal of communal incubation in his book, “The Aspen Idea”: “As one spirit touches another and both touch a third, the future somehow enters into each, and all together add their force to the reshaping of the mental and moral life of an epoch.”
It is hopeful and optimistic that Aspen projects something greater than itself, beyond its history, culture and landscape, to those who cultivate civilizing values in their lives. Channeling Aspen’s earliest beneficial forces in their deepest purity is perhaps the greatest challenge of living here.
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