Here’s to Pepi: Vail Valley comes together to celebrate life of Pepi Gramshammer |

Here’s to Pepi: Vail Valley comes together to celebrate life of Pepi Gramshammer

Gov. Jared Polis declares Sept. 20 Pepi Gramshammer Day at Ford Amphitheater memorial

You know those little bitty bells that ushers ring to move people to their seats? Nothing was small about the celebration of Pepi Gramshammer’s huge life. Big cowbells rang, befitting the big life of the Alpine ski racer, hotelier, pioneer and passionate lover of his life, wife, children and home.

Family and hundreds of friends packed the Ford Amphitheater on Friday to celebrate Pepi the legend and Pepi their friend.

Pepi and Sheika built their Gastof Gramshammer in the middle of Vail Village, and like their family, Vail grew up around them.

“Thank you for being here, for being Pepi’s friend, and for being part of our community. You are our friends, my friends, Pepi’s friends,” Sheika said

She promised not to cut down any more trees and, as she smiled and looked at the sky, promised to try to be a good girl.

“Thank you for speaking so well about Pepi. He really was a great guy,” she said.

Stories are the stories of our lives

“How do you describe a legend? One story at a time,” Elaine Kelton said. “’We are all in this together, Pepi would say.’”

And then Pepi would smile.

He even smiled and welcomed people when he was on the Gastof Gramshammer roof shoveling snow.

Last summer, Vail Valley Foundation director Mike Imhoff had dinner with Pepi and Sheika in Gastof Gramshammer. Pepi leaned over and said with his dazzling smile, “I did pretty good here!”

Lives tend to be circular, Imhoff said. It’s amazing but not surprising how many lives orbited around Pepi. When Imhoff’s dad left the military in the early 1960s, he visited Sun Valley, Idaho. Pepi taught Imhoff’s dad to ski.

The world watched Susan Ford Bales grow up in Vail when it was the Western White House. Grief is natural, as is a feeling of loss, she said. Then she skillfully turned the mood and asked everyone to recall one Pepi moment. Everyone smiled. How could they not?

Pepi was a great friend to the Ford family and a great barrier to the Secret Service when President Ford was skiing, Bales said.

Pepi was full of mischief. Not even presidents were immune. During a birthday dinner, Pepi said a special guest would be there. Henry Kissinger? Dick Cheney? Alan Greenspan?

A huge cake was rolled into the middle of the room, and a scantily clad woman popped out.

“We’ll pause, we’ll remember Pepi and we will smile,” Bales said.

There was the time Sheika drove to Denver in her station wagon to fetch a casket for Pepi’s 50th birthday party. On the way back she was stopped for speeding. She started crying and told the police officer that her husband was in the casket. He wasn’t, of course. He was waiting in Vail. The officer let her go.

After the party the revelers hauled the casket, with Pepi in it, back to the village. Pepi would sit up and smile at flabbergasted people as the procession passed, recalled Rod Slifer, a Vail Pioneer who moved from Aspen in the spring of 1962 to help start the company.

Merv Lapin met Pepi and Sheika in the winter of 1966 when they hired him as their bookkeeper. Pepi led Merv to an office and showed him a stack of invoices, IRS notices and the mountain of paperwork that Lapin eventually straightened out. At the inevitable meeting with the IRS in Denver, Pepi, with an impish grin, spoke only German. “He set me up, and it was not the only time,” Lapin said.

There was the time they wanted to cut some trees in front of their restaurant. The town said no. The next morning Pepi led Lapin outside to show him a tree about 10 feet tall and all the leaves were gone.

“There’s no rule against trimming a tree,” Pepi said smiling

“Pepi and Sheika are our royalty. The king has passed. Long live the queen!” Lapin said.

When Pepi walked down Bridge Street, it was amazing how many people gravitated toward him, wanted to meet him, get a picture with him, Vail Mayor Dave Chapin said. The same thing was true in Europe.

“You have no idea what a celebrity Pepi is in Europe,” Chapin said.

Vail will create a memorial to commemorate Pepi’s part in making Vail, Colorado, “the greatest town in the world,” Chapin said.

Vail started with the contagious passion of a small group, and no one was more impactful than Pepi, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said.

Most of us know how Pepi named Forever, Katz said. What you might not know is that when Pepi skied the run next to Forever, he said, “Wow! What a place!” And that, young people, is how Wow was named.

“Every day we try to live up to the spirit of Vail’s pioneers,” Katz said.

Paul Testwuide met Sheika before she and Pepi married in 1964.

Pepi skied with movie stars and celebrities, political figures and clients great and small. When he was on his own, Pepi often skied out of bounds, Testwuide said.

He walked through his restaurant every day asking how their day was. Then he’d listen to what they said.

“In my mind he’s never going to leave Vail,” Testwuide said.

Pepi put the resort on the international map, said Gov. Jared Polis, whose family had a place in Golden Peak. Polis played here. Now his children do.

“We all appreciate what the valley has become. But it would not be a shadow without the work of Pepi and Sheika,” Polis said.

Polis proclaimed today as Pepi Gramshammer Day in Colorado.

A group of 10 local young singers performed several numbers from Pepi’s favorite musical, “The Sound of Music.” Don Watson played and sang “My Way,” because Pepi did, and later sang John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High,” with the line, “Coming home to a place he’d never been before …” a brief version of Pepi’s biography.

Galen Jacobs perfectly performed Louis Armstrong’s classic “What a Wonderful World,” as a photo of Pepi, “Satchmo” and actor Peter Lawford flashed on the screen behind him. And Pepi’s world is wonderful.

“This was the place to be,” Pepi said in the video that opened Friday’s celebration in the packed Ford Amphitheater. “Moving to Vail was the best move I’ve made in my life.”

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