Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
It’s one of those stories that never got properly told, and it happened so long ago that not many would care – except for the fact that it involved recently deceased Ruth Whyte, multileveled philanthropist to Aspen.
Who the hell was Ruth Whyte, you ask? If you have to ask, you’re still a starry-eyed newcomer with a lot to learn about our town. She was the ultimate volunteer, as evidenced by her election as volunteer of the year for the Aspen Ski Club (she was almost a lifetime unpaid secretary there); she received the highly coveted Greg Mace award for volunteerism, was inducted into the 1996 Aspen Hall of Fame, and during nearly a half-century of promoting Aspen, her smiling mug can be spied in almost every official photograph having to do with the Aspen Ski Club, Wintersköl or the World Cup.
Ruth’s first visit to Aspen was in 1952, and before the week was over, she was involved with the ski club, helping organize the national championships being held on the mountain. When Ruth finally came to town for good, she was a fresh-faced graduate of the University of Colorado, hired as the Aspen School District’s physical education teacher. Breaking ground as the first woman to hold that job since anyone could remember, the challenges were perceived as steep, but Ruth was an athletic woman with a no-B.S. attitude toward her first job out of college.
That, of course, did not change the fact that several smart-assed elementary kids, including yours truly, put her to the test every time we had class. Clearly, I remember one occasion when, pushed to the limit, she threatened me with some horrible disciplinary action, to which I replied, “You can’t do that: My dad is president of the school board.” Fury erupted from her quarter, and only by the quickness of youth was I able to outrun what surely would have been justifiable homicide.
She lived across Second Street from my grandmother, a situation I thought might ingratiate me with her, but it didn’t seem to work that way until years later, when we finally had a conciliatory talk about it all.
As mentioned, Ruth was an avid supporter of almost anything involving skiing, and whether by design or chance, she and I had a good winter the year I got out of college. Whenever we’d spy each other on the mountain, she’d ask me to make the last run of the day with her “group,” which was always a lot of fun. Ruth made sure everyone had a good time on the hill.
My favorite was when we’d line up on Ruthie’s Snowbowl road, taking turns seeing who had the guts and desire to shoot the Bowl from there. Today that’s nothing, sliding over a well-groomed and rather short blip on the mountain, but in those days, grooming was so seldom done as to make the concept unknown, and the Snowbowl moguls were famous for being huge. Some of us made it, some of us didn’t, and it stands out in my mind particularly, because when Ruth and I finally reached a tentative peace between us, she said something to the effect that I was always “a little crazy,” in reference to the Snowbowl thing.
Perhaps Ruth’s most lasting legacy is to the Aspen Historical Society, not only in the form of many hours of tireless work but also because her most substantial financial benevolence was dedicated to the group.
Elizabeth Paepcke (thank you!) donated the Wheeler-Stallard house to the historical society; Ruth Whyte guaranteed its structural and functional survival into today’s era by virtue of her generosity. The delightful Ruth Whyte Gardens on the grounds are named in her honor. Take a loved one there for lunch – you’ll be impressed.
Anyway, to finish the story suitably, after her first (and only) year of teaching in Aspen, Ruth returned her salary to the school board, instructing the board to use the funds to finish covering up the insulation in the gymnasium ceiling.
As Rick Newton, honorary trustee of the Historical Society said, Ruth Whyte “was one of those unique people who make Aspen what it is.”
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The high cost of living in the Roaring Fork Valley is one of the factors that makes our population perpetually restless and transient.