Dr. Tom Steinberg, Vail’s first physician and an instrumental figure here for 50-plus years, dies at 93
Remembering Dr. Steinberg, by Jim Spell
"I came to the valley in 1976. A volunteer firefighter, I made a living any way I could. One way was as a drummer for the many after-ski party bands. After skiing one day, I realized I had a large cyst on the top of my hand. Unable to play drums because of the pain, I went to Dr. Steinberg in the 'emergency room.'
"He took one look at the top of my hand and sat me down at the table where he instructed me to place my hands on the table. I assumed he was comparing my functional right hand with my horribly painful left hand. He then took a large medical book from the shelf and I assumed he had to look up what the growth was and how to manage the problem.
"He called out to 'someone' beyond the door. While I was distracted looking for the recipient of his outburst, he suddenly and without warning slammed the book down on my hand. Writhing in pain, I immediately withdrew my hands from the table and to my amazement, realized the growth had somehow disappeared. Such was my introduction into the subtleties of the 'ganglion cyst.' I played drums that night and Tom and I became close friends over the years."
After battling illness for a few days, Vail’s first full-time physician died Monday, Sept. 25 in the building that bears his legacy.
Dr. Tom Steinberg, a World War II veteran who participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp before helping Vail’s early development as its first full-time doctor, died of complications from pneumonia at approximately 2:45 a.m. He was 93.
“He was at Vail Health when he died, so the building he was responsible for, he died in,” said his son, Erik Steinberg. “When he died, I said, ‘You know your way out the building, Dad.'”
Tom Steinberg was born March 15, 1924, in Mason City, Iowa. Growing up on a farm without much money, circumstances would not have likely allowed Steinberg to see much of the world. In 1943, however, that all changed for the 19-year-old.
“He wasn’t even shaving yet,” Erik Steinberg said. “But the war got him off the farm and into the world, and when he came back the GI Bill gave him a way to go to medical school.”
Upon returning home from the war, Steinberg received a Bronze Star for bravery. In 1965, he arrived in Vail with his wife, Florence, as well as their children Erik and Kristina Steinberg. He was following up on an ad that detailed the need for a physician in the new ski town.
Operating out of the basement of the Red Lion building, Ski Patrol would bring patients to see Dr. Steinberg, and if he was occupied, they would wait outside in the snow because the building had no waiting area. It wasn’t much, but Steinberg made it work.
“Tom made house calls; he did everything,” recalled Nancy Kindel in the book “The Women of Vail.”
By 1971, Steinberg had moved into a medical building on Meadow Drive that is still used by Vail Health. Dr. Bill Holm and Dr. Jack Eck had joined him, as well as several nurses, pharmacists, a receptionist and a dentist.
“We all worked together, there were probably about 10 or 12 people there total,” recalled Eck. “There was a lot of camaraderie with the folks in that clinic.”
Steinberg went on to serve multiple terms on the Vail Town Council and helped develop Vail’s system of hiking trails. He was first elected to the council in 1968, and his 19 total years made him the longest-serving council member in Vail’s history. He was instrumental in the acquisition of land to be used for parks and open space, such as the Antholz property, which is now Ford Park, and he helped create a dedicated environmental planner position in the Vail Community Development Department in 1992.
In 2016 he was recognized with the town’s first Trailblazer Award for his civic contributions to Vail. The Trailblazer Award was suggested by longtime local Vi Brown as a way to honor Vail’s pioneers; Brown said for the first installment of the award she could think of no one more deserving than Steinberg.
Even into his 90s Steinberg continued to work on behalf of environmental conservation initiatives, serving as President Emeritus of the Eagle Valley Land Trust and Eagle River Watershed Council.
“It is the tradition of The Evergreen Ball to honor an individual who has had an impact on environmental conservation, and we can think of no other person who has consistently made amazing contributions to land, water and life in our beautiful valley for nearly 50 years,” Kara Heide, former executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, said at the time. “We are extremely proud to honor Tom Steinberg at The Evergreen Ball this year for his passion, his commitment and his tireless work on behalf of our natural environment, our open spaces and our waterways here in Eagle County.”
“He was really glad that he stood up for truth,” Erik Steinberg said. “He gave lectures at many schools about his personal eyewitness accounts from the concentration camps in World War II, and his recollections will leave a huge legacy.”
In 2015, the Vail Daily sat down with Steinberg to discuss his World War II experience.
Steinberg’s wife, Florence, was also a force for good in the community. She helped start the Eagle County Historical Society and served on the town sign committee.
A native of Askam, Pa., “Flo” was a coal miner’s daughter and the youngest of 12 children. She earned a nursing degree and met her future husband in an operating room in New York. The Steinbergs were married in 1952 and lived in Missouri and New Jersey before moving to Vail.
She was an actress in Vail drama troupes and enjoyed summer concerts such as the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. Flo died in 2007 at age 83.
“She cared a whole lot about the community and the political situation and whether people were doing the right thing,” her husband said after her death.
We will continue to update this story.
The Austin family has always believed in supporting their community through food education, which is why it was an easy decision for them to begin partnering with The Community Market, a local hunger relief project, to improve access to local produce for low-income individuals in Eagle County.