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Helen Fritch

Caramie Schnell

Nearly 20 years ago, Helen Fritch and her husband Bob were returning from a day in Denver when they recognized a familiar face stranded on the side of the road near Georgetown. They immediately stopped and picked up Marty Jones, a fellow Vail resident whose pick-up had broken down. They offered to take him the rest of the way home. Little did Helen know that the chance encounter would lead her to years of volunteer work with the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.”I had gone to Denver to pick up a new pickup truck,” Jones remembers. “The engine went out in Georgetown and Helen and Bob stopped to pick me up. All the way home I was telling (Helen) about this idea I had for an alpine garden in Ford Park. She was chairman of the school board at the time but it wasn’t long thereafter that her term was up and she dove into the alpine garden full time.”For nearly 20 years, Fritch has worked diligently, volunteering her time for the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. In the beginning, Helen handled the administrative side of things, (fundraising and managing the volunteers) while Jones focused on the design and construction of the project. Helen also served as president of the board for 15 years.”She and I both were pretty passionate about the project,” Jones recalls, “and what it could do for the community and what it could be for the valley. She saw it not only from a gardener’s perspective, but she saw it as an educational resource. She worked tirelessly for a lot of years on a volunteer basis. She loves that garden; it means a great deal to her.”Helen grew up in upstate New York where she was first exposed to the mountains and skiing.”They didn’t have nearly the same mountains,” Helen says with a laugh.After studying religion as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Helen continued on and got her masters in guidance counseling at Syracuse. Upon finishing school, Helen moved to Chicago to take a job at her brothers company, Science Research Associates (later incorporated into IBM) working as an editor of guidance materials.Helen met her husband, Bob, on a blind date that mutual friends had arranged. “They do work sometimes,” Helen smiles. “It worked out. Though we didn’t get married immediately, we dated for a year or so.”The couple had three girls Nancy, Leslie and Jeanne before they decided they were ready for a change of pace. They decided to move west.”We actually looked in Aspen and Steamboat and a number of towns and we found something in Vail. We liked it very much here.”Bob and Helen had also found a business opportunity that appealed to them: a 35-room lodge in the heart of Vail Village. The Sitzmark Lodge, built in 1969, was for sale. And so, in 1974, the Fritch’s moved their family cross-country to the still fledgling ski resort of Vail.”We wanted to play. We wanted to move out west and somehow or other we got the idea of having a lodge. We decided to come looking for a business of our own and we found The Sitzmark,” Helen remembers. “It was quite a change.”Though the move from the suburbs of Chicago to a small Colorado ski resort was a bit of an obvious culture shock for the family, they settled in nicely. Helen was quick to get involved in the community she served on the school board for eight years, and as acting president for four of those years. It was right before stepping down from the school board that Helen met Jones on the side of the road. His idea for the gardens struck a chord with Helen, who’d always been passionate about flowers. Back in Illinois Helen had had gardens and since moving to Vail, had taken care of the flowerbeds at the lodge.”Marty’s idea seemed like a good one,” Helen says. “They were just developing a master plan for Ford Park at that time. We talked to people and we thought that it would be a nice community project. The two of us together started the garden. We started small. The first garden was a demonstration garden. It was one garden at a time raise money, build a garden, raise more money.”Nearly 20 years later, the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is a favorite tranquil oasis for locals and tourists alike. The elegant gardens are separated into three distinct areas.”I like that each garden is different,” Helen says. “The first garden we built was a mixture of all different plants, the second is a distinct meditation garden. And the third, the highest garden, has strictly alpine plants.”Helen is happy and contented that the gardens so close to her heart will provide an area of repose for people for years to come. VT– Caramie Schnell can be reached at cschnell@vailtrail.com.


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