Vail pioneer Gordon Brittan dies at 100
When Gordon Brittan invited someone to afternoon tea, the offer was always accepted.
Perhaps the best friend Vail Valley Medical Center ever had, Gordon Brittan died April 10 at Eisenhower Memorial Hospital in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 100.
Gordon and his wife, Thelma – who preceded him in death in November of last year – discovered Vail not long after the resort’s first chairlifts clattered to life in 1962. The couple purchased a condo in town not long after that first visit, and moved to town full-time in 1965. They came from Chicago, where Gordon had owned a television and radio manufacturing company. Soon after arriving in their new home town, the Brittans dove into the civic project with which they would be most identified: Improving medical care in the valley.
From the days when a part-time doctor saw patients in the back room of the Red Lion, the Brittans used persuasion, both subtle and blunt, to build a community clinic into a regional medical center.
“John Murchison started the hospital, but Gordon really got it on its feet,” Dr. Jack Eck said. Murchison gave the medical center land and its initial financial gift. The need never stopped, though, which is where Gordon and others led the way.
“The stories are true: Gordon would be out on Bridge Street to get donations,” Eck, a longtime friend, said. In a practice a bit more subtle than an outstretched hand, Brittan also could turn tea time into an afternoon lobbying session.
The Brittans would have tea at 4 p.m. every day, Eck said. “That was his forum. And you knew when he called, you’d better respond.”
Gordon repaid that respect in kind. Gordon and Thelma would often spend their summers on a ranch in Montana. During those summers, Gordon would often drive non-stop from Montana to Vail just to attend a medical center board meeting, Eck said.
That dedication wasn’t limited to his work for the hospital. Longtime friend Pete Feistmann and Gordon were both members of Action Vail, a community group that interviewed prospective town council candidates. Those interviews were always held at the Brittans’ home.
“He was ill and in the hospital one year when the interviews were scheduled,” Feistmann said. “He literally willed himself to his house, took part in the interviews for eight or 10 hours, and when it was over, I believe he went back to the hospital.”
One of the best-known sayings of the Greek philosopher Socrates is, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
“Gordon lived a well-examined life,” Feistmann said.
After selling his manufacturing business in the 1950s, Gordon and Thelma decided to move the family to Switzerland for two years. “Remember, this was the 1950s, not the 1970s,” Feistmann said. “It was a remarkable thing to do at that time.”
Moving to a fledgling town when others his age were set to retire is another example of how Gordon lived his life.
Gordon’s business partner moved to Florida they sold the business. Feistmann said that would never do for his friend. “Gordon said, ‘I don’t want to go where there are old people; I want to go where there are young people,’ and that was Vail.”
Gordon always lived younger than his age. He and Thelma enjoyed fishing, although Thelma was more avid about the sport. “He was really quite a horseman,” Eck said. Much of the time at the Montana ranch was spent in a saddle.
As did virtually everyone who knew Gordon, longtime friend Art Kelton marveled at his friend’s energy and enthusiasm.
“I really believe his determination and the force of his personality carried him way beyond his natural lifespan,” Kelton said. Kelton and the Brittans were neighbors for many years, and Kelton succeeded Gordon as president of the VVMC Foundation.
“He really understood the ingredients of the word ‘community,'” Kelton said. That means you have to be an active and vocal member of the community, and he did that in lots of ways.”
The Brittans’ love for the community was returned by those whose lives they touched. Eck said the Brittans were visited regularly by locals who traveled to Southern California. And Gordon and his friends kept in close touch.
Gordon talked regularly by phone with his Vail friends, and, Kelton said, maintained his famed mental sharpness until the very end. “I talked to him just last week, and he was as sharp as ever,” he said.
Feistmann said he and Gordon regularly exchanged e-mail messages. “Imagine, a man in his 90s with e-mail!” Feistmann said.
“He was truly a contemporary man,” Kelton said. “He really lived in the present and looked to the future.”
The impact the Brittans had on Vail has long been apparent, but how much they meant to the community really hit home last summer, when the Brittans returned over the July 4 holiday to celebrate Gordon’s 100th birthday.
The Brittans moved from Vail to California in 1994, when Gordon’s health just wouldn’t allow him to continue to live at 8,000 feet. The Brittans hadn’t been back to Vail since they moved, and, Kelton said, Gordon was a little concerned he might not remember some of the people he should.
“We had great big name tags made up for everybody,” Kelton said. “You know what? He didn’t need them. He remembered everybody, and something about everybody.”
And there were plenty of people to remember. More than 300 people turned out at the party at Ludwig’s Terrace at the Sonnenalp.
“I’ve lost my phone pal,” Kelton said. “He was truly a mentor and a good friend.” Countless people in Vail would agree.
AT A GLANCE
The Brittan family will hold a memorial service for Gordon Brittan in Vail this summer. The family is still working out the details.