Roaring Fork Valley legend George Stranahan dies, leaves behind storied legacy
Aspen Hall of Famer who served valley with philanthropic endeavors also donned many hats including teacher, physicist, tavern keeper and founded schools, nonprofits, community hubs, Flying Dog brewery
Longtime valley resident George Stranahan passed away Thursday in Denver after suffering a stroke and complications after heart surgery. He was 89.
Stranahan leaves behind a rich legacy in the Roaring Fork Valley. He founded the Aspen Physics Center, the Aspen Community and Carbondale Community schools, the Woody Creek Tavern, the Third Street Center in Carbondale, and several nonprofits centered on social justice, education and community organizing.
He has held many titles over the years, including physicist, professor, philosopher, educator, rancher, photographer, author, publisher, philanthropist, entrepreneur, beer and whiskey maker, tavern keeper, record producer, husband and father.
“He was a man who would take on anything and master it, or at least have a sporting flutter,” his son Patrick Stranahan said Friday. “Even he didn’t know how many enterprises he led or joined.”
Stranahan said last year that he wanted to be remembered mostly as a teacher.
His wife of nearly 41 years, Patti Stranahan, said she and George talked about that role in his life frequently.
“George told me on more than one occasion that if he had one word to describe himself that he would be most proud of it would be ‘teacher’,” she said Friday morning. “He loved children and dreamed of times when they would be cherished, respected and treated with dignity both in schools and in their homes.”
“Pilgrimospher” was another title he used, a philosopher who searched for new places, said his oldest daughter, Molly.
She said the greatest influence her father had on her was his generosity.
“He inspired us all to be curious and figure things out for ourselves and to think for ourselves,” Molly said. “And if there is something to be done, you should do it.”
Stranahan, heir to the Champion Spark Plug fortune, was a workaholic who was constantly challenging the establishment, particularly around education.
It has played a major role in Stranahan’s life, despite that he himself suffered in an education system where teachers did not appear to care what he was interested in learning.
He often told the story of being in the third grade and standing on his desk when asked a question by his teacher and barking: “Me no know, and me no care!”
He turned those negative experiences into challenging the status quo in education for seven decades.
He first started as a teacher in the U.S. Army at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1955. He earned a Ph.D. in physics at Carnegie Mellon University and then became a professor of physics at Michigan State, as well as a high school teacher.
But that was boring work, he once said, so Stranahan relocated to Woody Creek, where he found like-minded people and his tribe for life.
“He was the king of Woody Creek and he will always be our king,” said his youngest daughter, Brie Stranahan.
As a resident of Woody Creek since 1956 and a landowner of 1,500 acres there, Stranahan wanted to live in a community where people cared for one another.
“He is the most fascinating man I’ve ever known, and so sweet kind and gentle,” Patti said. “He changed many lives for the better and never thought there wasn’t more he could do.
“He’d get another idea or brainstorm and off he’d go to make it happen.”
That perseverance and dogged determination earned Stranahan a place in the Aspen Hall of Fame in 2007.
He was a rebel with many causes, Patti said.
Former Aspen Jewish Congregation Rabbi David Segal (who also wrote a column for The Aspen Times) wrote an article in which he described Stranahan as a “strategic troublemaker.”
“We both loved that notion,” Patti said.
When Stranahan wasn’t community organizing around social justice and alternative, progressive, child-centered education, he owned several businesses.
He founded Flying Dog Brewery with friend Richard McIntyre, and his name graces the bottle of super-premium whiskey that is made by another friend, Jess Graber.
Stranahan raised beef cattle, including a Limousin bull, W.L.C.C. Turbo, who was declared the grand champion at the 1990 National Western Stock Show in Denver.
He published the Mountain Gazette in the 1970s and was a co-owner of The Aspen Times before Swift Communications bought it.
Stranahan was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1931. His grandfather, Frank Stranahan, co-founded Champion Spark Plug in 1903. One of six children, Stranahan described himself as a loner since his father was busy working and his mother was socializing and recreating.
Life at home was shared with hired help, which didn’t sit well with Stranahan. He copped an attitude about privilege and it fueled his lifelong pursuit for social justice.
“I think he used his financial freedom to live his values,” daughter Molly said.
Empowering a valley
When he permanently moved to the valley in the early 1970s, Stranahan didn’t waste any time making an impact.
A decade earlier, he had negotiated with the Aspen Institute to establish the Aspen Center for Physics on its campus, which quickly became a hub for the post-war evolution of science and profoundly still impacting the lives of thousands of physicists.
In 1970, Stranahan and group of like-minded parents turned the local education system on its ear by establishing the Aspen Community School.
The school had an emphasis on a humanistic child-centered approach, one that included emotional and social development. It was experiential and hands-on and focused on an individualized program where each student’s interests were encouraged.
The nascent school’s classrooms were originally set up at the physics center the first year, before Stranahan and his friends built the campus in Woody Creek with logs harvested in nearby Lenado.
It became a charter school of the Aspen School District in the 1990s, as did the Carbondale Community School in the Roaring Fork School District, which was established with the same notion of social justice in the classroom and developing lifelong learners.
Those schools are operated by COMPASS, one of Stranahan’s numerous nonprofits he started.
COMPASS, formerly the Aspen Education Research Foundation, also created the Wyly Arts Center (now the Art Base in Basalt), Sustainable Settings, the Stepstone Center for Social Justice, the Science Outreach Center and others.
In 2005, Stranahan formed the nonprofit MANAUS as a social justice entrepreneurial philanthropic endeavor. It partners with others to solve social injustices with the principles of community organizing and human-centered design.
The Valley Settlement Project is a sister organization of MANAUS and is based in education initiatives. It was originally established to identify and address the needs of the low-wage immigrant community in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Also under the MANAUS umbrella is the Mountain Voices Project, an independent, membership-funded organization comprised of local institutions, nonprofits and neighborhood organizations that share concerns for families and have a passion for democracy.
Stranahan had stayed involved in all three of those organizations until his death.
In the past year during the pandemic, MANAUS, Valley Settlement and Mountain Voices have greatly impacted the lives of thousands of Latinos and other marginalized individuals who live in the shadows to ensure they have not been left behind.
Stranahan had a passion for community organizing, and through his efforts and the small army of friends and partners in crime who helped him along the way, he empowered people throughout the valley.
He frequently repeated the Industrial Areas Foundation’s Iron Rule that you “never do for others what they can do for themselves.”
“He was constantly surrounding himself with good people,” said friend Lydia McIntyre. “In times like these, we need to put social justice on the front burner and implement those ideas.
“George was one in a million and he will be sorely missed.”
Stranahan’s wild side
Lydia and her husband, Richard, introduced George to Patti on a river trip 43 years ago to the day he died, on May 20.
Since then, the two couples have taken at least 45 trips together all over the globe.
“He was thinking, reading and taking a million photographs when we traveled,” Lydia said. “He was known for his big grin and was a man of few words but what he had to say, everyone listened.”
Stranahan in 2008 created the People’s Press, a publishing company that published local authors’ works.
Stranahan’s first book published by People’s Press, “Phlogs,” is of his black-and-white photos with text about nature, history, war, memories and more. It earned a Colorado Book Award.
His second one, “A Predicament of Innocents: Might the Schools Help?” draws upon his time as a teacher and includes 120 photos by Stranahan, mostly portraits of students at the Aspen Community School spanning 30 years.
“For the genius he was and being as wealthy as he was and the pedigree of his family, he was the most humble lover of human beings I’ve ever seen, from children to adults, and you can see that in his photography,” Richard McIntyre said.
McIntyre met Stranahan while working on his ranch in Woody Creek in the ’70s.
Stranahan had been living almost hermit-like, driving around in an old Jeep with a keg of Coors in the back, McIntyre recalled.
He was 20 years younger than Stranahan, and brought him out of his shell and introduced him to a new scene.
“He was a lonely guy looking for a social life that was a little more wild and I offered social interaction that he found very interesting,” Richard said. “Opposites attract, and the physicist and the farm boy who dropped out of college and lived in a tepee making $245 a month, there was something about our personalities and we fed off of each other.”
Their first trip to Nepal in 1978 was the beginning of their “bromance.”
Their last trip together was in Colombia about five years ago.
“I feel so blessed to have crossed paths with George,” McIntyre said.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people around the world who would likely say the same thing.
Stranahan’s wife, Patti, and their son Ben and goddaughter Juliana Pfister survive him. He also is survived by four of the five children he had with his first wife, Betsy. They are Molly, Patrick, Stuart and Brie. He and Betsy’s third child, Mark, died last year. His brother, Michael Stranahan and sister Mary Stranahan, and several nieces and nephews and nine grandchildren also survive him.
He is predeceased by brothers Duane Jr. Stranahan (Pat), Stephen Stranahan and sister Virginia (Dinny) Stranahan.
No memorial is currently being planned.