That Gustafson Gusto: Celebrating the life of Dick Gustafson |

That Gustafson Gusto: Celebrating the life of Dick Gustafson

Avon to host celebration of visionary former county commissioner on Saturday

Celebrate Dick Gustafson

A celebration of Dick Gustafson’s life is scheduled for 3 p.m. at the Eagle River Presbyterian Church, 455 Nottingham Ranch Rd, Avon, CO 81620.

A reception is scheduled following the service.

Editor’s Note: The Vail Daily published dozens of stories about Dick Gustafson, as well as columns he penned. This is drawn from that material.

VAIL — Dick Gustafson was many things: husband, father, politician and conservative firebrand, business owner, entertainer … American.

His list of accomplishments is long, distinctive and will outlive and benefit us all.

Gustafson was not fond of indecision, not in himself or others. And he wasn’t one to wait for someone else to solve problems. For example, when the early Vail resident grew frustrated that he couldn’t find the tools and material he needed, he opened Vail’s first hardware store, Ace Hardware. He wasn’t certain it would succeed since it was “all the way out in West Vail.”

How HAATS landed here

An airport is a hole in the sky through which money falls, and Gustafson was curious why money wasn’t falling into Eagle County. With typical Gustafson gusto, he did something about it.

Gustafson was an Eagle County commissioner in the 1980s when the region was mired in the oil bust and recession. The Eagle County airport did not have enough operations — takeoffs and landings — to get any money from the federal government.

So Gustafson flew to Washington, D.C., for a Pentagon meeting with Gen. Herbert Temple, the guy in charge of the National Guard. Sen. Bill Armstrong set up the meeting, for 5 p.m. Friday.

Gustafson strode into Temple’s office, extended his hand and said, “I’m from Eagle, Colorado!”

Temple barked, “Where in the world is Eagle, Colorado?!?”

“It’s up near Vail,” Gustafson said.

Temple had heard of Vail and after a little more bluster, they got down to business.

“How many of your enemies have mountainous territories?” Gustafson asked.

“All of them,” Temple answered.

“And how many of your pilots are trained to fly in the mountains?”

Temple’s shoulders slumped a little as he answered, “None of them.”

They talked about it for a while and Temple began to see the wisdom in a mountain training center.

“What do you need?” Gustafson asked.

Temple thought about it and answered, “land and $300,000.”

Gustafson put the ask for $300,000 and land on the commissioners’ agenda for the following Monday and the commissioners approved it that day.

The High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site, known to locals in the valley as HAATS, was founded in 1986 in a trailer and a Quonset hut on the north side of the Eagle County Regional Airport. The helicopter they used is now mounted as a monument on a rock outside the new building’s front door.

George Gillett owned Vail Associates at the time and came up with the $300,000, Gustafson said.

Before long, there was enough happening at the airport to get $25 million from the FAA. Not long after that, the FAA had spent $40 million at the airport and it had officially taken off.

America and American music

Young people should know about America and American music, so Gustafson set about teaching them.

He took his collection of more than 1,000 LP records to Radio Free Minturn and launched a Saturday morning radio show. It featured some of America’s most timeless music from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s — Glenn Miller, Billie Holiday, big band and patriotic music — the kind of music that can inspire you to “get up and dance around the breakfast table,” Gustafson said.

“It’s the kind of music where two people can hold each other and dance, and just connect with the music,” he said.

When he migrated down to the Front Range later in life, he took his radio show with him.

We can always do more

There was that time that Gustafson was attending a Fourth of July Ford Amphitheater concert and heard baritone Daniel Narducci sing with the Rochester Philharmonic. The  final line touched his heart: “Let me know in my heart when my days are through/America, America, I gave my best to you.”

Gustafson thought about what he’d done for his country lately, then he overheard someone insist that Abraham Lincoln was president during the Revolutionary War. He shook his head and went to work, spending three years compiling and producing “Spirit of ’76 Renewed,” a two-hour audio history of the United States of America.

“I kept hearing these horrible stories about what kids don’t know,” Gustafson said. “One study found that many high school seniors thought America fought Russia in World War II, and that Germany was our ally.”

It hits the highlights, beginning with the first settlers, the American Revolution, Civil War and World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the War of 1812 and others. It rolls through the Reagan years and stops around 9/11.

Anything more recent is subject to much more political interpretation.

“Change comes out of conflict, and the ultimate expression of that is war,” Gustafson said.

The CD is designed to help rekindle a “Spirit of ’76” Gustafson said was lacking in contemporary America. He did not pretend that it’s an exhaustive history.

He narrated it himself, his rich baritone voice over stirring American music, focusing on what’s good about America and how we’ll all be well served by knowing more of our own history.

Gustafson said compiling that history and almost everything else that went with his large American life was time well spent.

“If I can spark one kid to run for office, to have a little pride in our country and stand up to the America haters, I’ll have accomplished my goal,” Gustafson said. “We’re not perfect, but we’re better than anything else.”

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