Longtime Vail hotelier Bob Fritch to be honored Saturday | VailDaily.com

Longtime Vail hotelier Bob Fritch to be honored Saturday

Bob and Helen Fritch were instrumental in founding the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens

Celebrating at the Gardens

A celebration of life for Bob Fritch is set for Saturday, May 18 at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens Education Center. The event begins at 2 p.m.

VAIL — Family and friends will honor the life of Bob Fritch at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens on Saturday. There’s no place else in town more suitable.

Fritch and his wife, Helen, played a large role in the idea and creation of the gardens. But the gardens were just one part of Fritch’s contributions to Vail and the surrounding community.

That community involvement began in 1974 when the Fritch family took over ownership of the Sitzmark Lodge in Vail Village. It was Bob and Helen’s first foray into the lodging business.

Bob was a successful mechanical engineer in Chicago at the time. Helen held a master’s degree in sociology, but was busy raising the couple’s three daughters, Nancy, Leslie and Jeanne.

While Helen and Bob had never run a hotel before, Jeanne recalled that they thought “they’d spent enough time in bad hotels” that they could figure out what not to do, then they would do whatever needed to be done.

They also had support from other lodge operators in the still-young ski town.

Josef Staufer was running the Vail Village Inn when the Fritch family moved to town. Staufer recalled that the lodging community in those days was small and pretty tight-knit.

“We all had one thing in common — we all wanted Vail to (succeed),” Staufer said.

Helping Vail succeed also included working with community groups. Bob served on the Vail Town Council, as well as on the Vail Resort Association board.

Family, freedom and risk

Meanwhile, there was the family to raise.

Jeanne said that Vail’s family-friendly atmosphere was what led her parents to town. Bob and Helen looked at business opportunities in both Vail and Aspen, and they eventually decided on Vail as the better place to raise their daughters.

“We had the mountain as our backyard,” Jeanne said. “We could run around the hotel in the offseason.”

Kids who grew up in Vail in that era had a lot of freedom, but someone generally knew what the kids were up to.

“All the families kept an eye on the kids,” Jeanne said.

Given that the adults in those families were all risk-takers — they’d moved to a new or quite young ski area with no guarantee of success, after all — giving the kids room to roam made sense.

Besides, parents were usually pretty busy, at least during the ski season. During the offseason — back in the days when Vail had a real offseason — “it got pretty lonesome” in town, Staufer said.

That’s when the Fritch family traveled. Jeanne recalled that the family had an RV for road trips.

Seeds of the gardens

Later, though, Bob and Helen were instrumental in getting the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens off the ground.

“Without Helen and Bob, there would be no (gardens),” Nicola Ripley, the gardens executive director, said.

While Helen was the one with the early drive, Bob “was right behind her all the time,” Ripley said. “He was a huge support for her — he believed in everything she was doing.”

Helen’s health has been in decline for a number of years, and she’s currently in Denver, near daughters Nancy and Leslie.

When Helen could no longer help at the gardens, Bob jumped in, becoming treasurer of the nonprofit group’s board of directors.

“I was grateful to work with him, he was a very special man,” Ripley said.

Bob would probably be a bit embarrassed by all the nice things people are saying about him. He preferred a lower profile.

Staufer noted that Bob would usually do more listening than talking during Vail Resort Association meetings.

“He was very analytical,” Staufer said, adding that he’d make his points known, often after sometimes-heated discussions. Bob’s point of view usually held sway.

“He loved a good discussion,” Jeanne said. “He loved to talk politics, but it was never personal.”

Jeanne has run the Sitzmark for a number of years now, but said her parents’ influence is still strong.

Bob and Helen’s love for each other, their family and Vail was reflected in the kinds of hosts they were. That’s something Jeanne continues.

For return guests, another stay at the Sitzmark is like “coming home,” Jeanne said. “We still have a wine party every Monday.”

And, starting this fall, Jeanne will be living in the renovated owner’s quarters in the hotel.

There, memories of Jeanne’s parents, the good times and tough times, will stay strong.

Bob would like that.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.