Rod Slifer’s hard work and perseverance in the mountains paid off
Special to the Daily
The Vail Leadership Institute will honor Rod Slifer with its 2014 Torch Award. The event is Dec. 12 at The Sebastian Hotel in Vail. To learn more, go to www.vailleadership.org.
VAIL — Rod Slifer is a true Coloradan, born and raised on Colorado’s prairie, where life was flat and harsh. In Brighton, a farming and ranching town northeast of Denver, people worked the land and the land gave its reward: sugar beets, cucumbers, beans and potatoes. With farming in the family bloodline, Rod was hardened for an entrepreneurial life ahead.
When he stepped into the brighter lights of Boulder at the University of Colorado, he saw how the other half lived. After graduating with a business degree in 1956, he served a stint as a naval supply officer, managing 230 men aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Bennington. Following military service, Rod spent the next two years in Denver working at an office supply business. As he put it, “selling pencils was a little boring,” but his life changed dramatically when he moved to Aspen. This shift to a mountain lifestyle would be a defining move.
Chasing the mountain lifestyle
Aspen was the “in” place for skiing in 1960. Vail was still a dream, but Aspen was at the forefront of the skiing craze. Young people were flocking to this former mining town to pursue their own dream — or to find that right mate.
Rod showed up in the fall of 1960 and landed a job as a ski instructor with Morrie Shepard, the Aspen Ski School director. It was a wild ride, working on the mountain during the day and then busing tables at the Copper Kettle or, later, waiting tables at the Steak Pit. To make ends meet in the summer, he worked for Morrie painting houses. Rod was living the Colorado mountain lifestyle before that phrase came into vogue.
Vail — More than Skiing
Morrie Shepard knew Pete Seibert from back home in Sharon, Massachusetts. They skied whatever little bumps or inclines they could find and dreamed of their own ski area. In May 1962, when Pete needed someone to organize Vail’s ski school, Morrie was his choice. Even before there were customers, Morrie hired Rod to be his assistant. When asked why he picked Rod, Morrie replied without missing a beat, “Rod was a hard worker, and he was trustworthy. He also got along with everybody, so I knew he’d fit in.”
For extra income, Rod, like most of the other early Vail employees, jumped on the array of odd jobs that popped up like weeds. It was organized chaos, probably a little like the first day of boot camp for every new military recruit. The discipline he learned in the Navy paid off as he tackled managing the office, keeping the time cards, processing bills and manning “information central” in Fitzhugh Scott’s house turned Vail Associates office.
As the unofficial office manager, Rod picked up the mail in nearby Minturn and occasionally added a case of beer to fuel a little entertainment at night, including naming ski runs. It was a pioneer’s life, and nobody complained. Luckily, the good Lord gave these pioneers a long construction season in 1962 — there was not a flake of snow throughout the fall. And then with the official opening at hand and no snow, and no snowmaking, Bob Parker called in the Ute Indians. The native occupants of this spacious land performed several of their traditional snow dances. It worked — perseverance had paid off. Pete got a little flak from some fundamentalists about using a “heathen” approach, but the heavens delivered — only a few days late.
Sometimes opportunity knocks. For Rod, it occurred that first winter Vail was open for business. Pete and George Caulkins had decided to sweeten the Vail Associates investor package with a home site on Mill Creek Circle or Beaver Dam Road, but they needed someone to handle the transactions. Like a good entrepreneur, Rod raised his hand. He quickly got his real estate license, and even though he didn’t realize it at the time, the Slifer real estate domain was born.
It was still early in Vail’s existence and everybody was scrambling to make ends meet. Nobody was making a killing, just working like crazy. Rod continued to teach skiing and managed to get by. At the end of the third season, Morrie decided to move on from the tiny ski school and opportunity knocked for Rod once again. Pete turned to Rod to take over, but Rod had on his entrepreneurial hat. Having been part of the Aspen Ski School where Fred Islem and Friedl Pfeifer owned the ski school outright as an independent business, Rod proposed a similar arrangement. Pete just smiled, admired Rod’s enterprising spirit and said, “Nice try.” By this time, Pete’s dream was taking hold, and he wanted, and needed, every dollar VA could find. This door didn’t open for Rod, but before long another did.
This is an excerpt from John Horan-Kates’ book “The Vail Way,” due out in mid-2015.
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