Supporters of Vail Symposium reflect on 45 years of speakers, moments |

Supporters of Vail Symposium reflect on 45 years of speakers, moments

John O’Neill
Special to the Daily
Speakers Terry Minger and Stewart Udall participate in the second annual Vail Symposium held in Vail.
Special to the Weekly |

Read more interviews

Find additional interviews with Liana Moore, Vail Symposium executive director from 2010 to 2013, and Doris Dewton, a current member of the Vail Symposium Program Committee, at

Editor’s note: Accuracy of years and speakers in photographs is subject to the Vail Symposium archives.

the Vail Symposium started in 1971 as a once-annual weekend “think tank” under Vail Town Manager Terry Minger, with support from Mayor John Dobson. The idea was to formulate goals and ideas for guiding future change in the young mountain community.

For 45 years, the Symposium twisted its mission, shape-shifted its programs and evolved into where it stands today — a thought leader in the community that draws to town society’s deepest thinkers and most respected preceptors in order raise discussion about the world’s most critical topics for the benefit of an informed society.

At times entertaining and enjoyable, others challenging and provocative, the Symposium has always offered education as the premise for societal progress. Here, three longtime supporters of the Symposium have taken the time to share their favorite memories of the organization and speculate as to what topics it might tackle in the future.

Karen Morter

Karen Morter became a volunteer for the Symposium in 1972. Her job was to help register attendees for the three-day event that drew 600 people. In 1980, she began planning each season. After the original event planner left the town of Vail, Morter took over as the Vail Symposium coordinator, which was then a paid position by the Town.

When she left the town of Vail to work at Morter Architects in 1990, Morter would take the Symposium with her, literally. For 18 years, the Symposium office was headquartered at Morter Architects, and during this time, Morter served as board president twice. She was named chair emeritus of the Vail Symposium in its 35th year.

Q: Who were your favorite speakers?

a: My favorite speakers were Robert Redford, Mayor John Lindsey (New York City), Rene Dubos, Tom Brokaw and President Gerald Ford.

Q: What is your favorite memory from your time with the Vail Symposium?

a: Talking to Betty Ford as we waited for President Ford to give his speech. She was an engaging, intelligent, genuine lady. I so enjoyed meeting her.

Q: What do you suppose will be the three most important topics the Symposium will need to raise in the future?

a: I think the loss of habitats for animals living in the wild is one. Vail is an area where skiers, tourists and people who live and work are common interrupters of the native habitats of the deer, elk, bear and other animals in the area. Education of preschool children living in lower-income areas of the Vail Valley is another; also, how to provide affordable housing in Vail.

Q: What do you imagine the Vail Symposium will be talking about in its 90th season?

a: For the 90th anniversary season, the topics of discussion, I’d guess, will have to do with technology, space travel for vacations and the cure for cancer.


Ask anyone involved with the Vail Symposium, and he or she will give Ebby Pinson the credit for the creating the organization as it stands today. She took over the role of executive director in 1999 and held the position until 2006. During this time, she redesigned the program format to be similar to how programs are presented today.

Pinson introduced “Hot Topics,” “Unlimited Adventure” with the Vail Public Library and a summer film series, known then as “Backyard Adventures,” and various series on art. She also pioneered hands-on learning, with field trips to interesting geological areas, historical tours in Aspen and Leadville and a variety of artistic outings where participants would work with a speaker to produce kites or prints, for instance. Pinson is a Vail Symposium honorary board member.

Q: You organized so many programs and drastically broadened the spectrum of what the Vail Symposium does. What are your favorite speakers and programs?

a: I remember the Hot Topics were always the most popular. We partnered with the World Affairs Council in Denver and had some great politicians, journalists and foreign affairs experts: Jim Brook from the New York Times and Linda Fasulo who is a (United Nations) reporter and who also works for (National Public Radio). Gary Hart spoke for us, as well.

The Unlimited Adventure Series was my favorite. Diane Van Deren was my favorite speaker. Chris Anthony, of Warren Miller films, was also featured. Patty Letofsky, a local at the time, walked around the world for breast cancer — starting and ending in Vail.

We had an Artist Series and did lots of fun and creative things. We had an artist dinner covering the work of Georgia O’Keefe with an art professor who came for a lecture and then afterwards had a dinner with recipes from her kitchen. We had another that was on Monet, then Picasso. It was lots of fun creating these evenings.

We had a fundraiser for two years at the end of the summer, “Forecast for the Future.” Karen Weber, a board member, suggested the idea and hosted it at her home. It went from late afternoon to after dinner, and we had four specialists in different areas predicting what their area of expertise would look like in five years.

One of the top programs was the “Festival of Words.” It was a wonderful weekend in the spring that brought top authors into the valley — Jodi Picoult, Gregory McGuire, Kent Haruf, Terry Tempest Williams and the list goes on.

We all worked very hard to bring the Symposium back to life at that particular time, and I think we more than accomplished that.

Rob LeVine

In 2003, Pinson called Rob LeVine at the Antlers at Vail looking for someplace to house a visiting speaker. LeVine can recall hearing some desperation in her voice — the obvious result of many hours spent calling around looking for this kind of support.

LeVine didn’t only say yes, he decided to mitigate her angst even farther, telling her that if the Antlers could be the “Official Hotel of the Vail Symposium,” he would host all the speakers from then on. Pinson practically jumped from her chair at the offer. Six months later, LeVine joined the board.

Since that phone call in 2003, LeVine and the Antlers have hosted world leaders, politicians, authors, athletes, celebrities, Pulitzer Prize winners, adventurers and some of the most interesting people to set foot in Vail.

LeVine served as vice chairman of the board from 2004 to 2007 and chairman from 2008 to 2011 and is currently the organization’s treasurer.

Q: Who are your five favorite speakers to have visited the Vail Symposium stage?

a: In the modern era: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of “Infidel”; Alex Honnold, a spectacular talent; Bill George, a leadership guru who impressed me on the residual value of the Symposium; Michael Brown, a filmmaker and one of the most humble, genuine and endearing guys you will ever meet; and Jamie Metzl, a perennial favorite for his polished presentations and incredible knowledge. I know that is six, but I could go on.

Q: What are the three most important topics you feel the Symposium will need to address in the coming years?

a: International affairs and U.S. foreign policy, the dysfunction of U.S. political partisanship and possible solutions, the Vail Valley’s role in helping to address big problems beyond our borders, such as environmental and political issues, and race relations through respectful conversations and debate.

Q: Do you have a single favorite moment from your time spent with the organization?

a: Meeting and then introducing Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She was just so larger-than-life and yet so down-to-earth all at the same time.

Q: What topics do you think the Symposium will be talking about in 2061 on its 90th birthday?

a: I’m always amused when I come across some Vail Valley publication from many years ago. So many of the topics and conversations are still the same. It’s almost like the articles could have been written yesterday, rather than 40 years ago. I suspect we’ll be talking about many of the same topics that we’re discussing today. That’s not meant to project futility. We will have made great progress, but some things just don’t go away.

Tracey Flower

Tracey Flower experienced the progression from intern at the Vail Symposium in 2010, when the organization needed some extra help preparing for its 40th anniversary season, to executive director at the end of 2013. She served as executive director until 2015.

Flower also had the rare experience of wearing every hat available — marketing, development, season planning, speaker coordination, taking board meeting minutes, writing seasonal brochures and so many more.

Q: Who are your five favorite speakers to have visited the Vail Symposium stage?

A: So hard to pick just five. I would say Majka Burhardt, Sanho Tree, Timothy Standring, Caroline Heldman, and Erica Chenoweth.

Q: What are the three most important topics you feel the Symposium will need to address in the coming years?

A: Global climate change; in particular, the international relations side of it — what global regulations will it take to halt or reverse the effects, how nations are preparing to deal with climate refugees, etc. Also, American politics — I don’t know how you can get away from it after this election. Whether it’s the psychology of voting, the Electoral College or the pitfalls of a two-party system, this stuff is so important and it’s relevant to literally everyone.

Health for an aging population is also something that is a growing concern in Vail and across the world. Whether it be breakthroughs in dementia research or even trends in senior care, these topics will be more and more relevant, both nationally and locally, as our population ages.

Q: Do you have a single favorite moment from your time spent with the organization?

A: Well, there was that time I had to pick up Barney Frank from the airport in my Subaru … Though not a single moment, per se, I always loved the moment a big program was finally off and running; the more chaos leading up to it, the better. There’s so much behind-the-scenes coordination that goes into bringing a program together, and no two are the same, really.

With a really popular program, you arrive in the office early the day of the event and the phones are ringing off the hook, your email box is filling up, and you have a mile-long list of last-minute to-dos. You have this moment where you think, there’s just no way this is all going to come together. And then, the next thing you know, you’ve got the venue ready to go, the house is packed and the speaker takes the stage. That moment right after the speaker starts talking, it hits you that it was all worth it for this moment where you witness your community convening to learn and engage together.

John O’Neill is the marketing director for the Vail Symposium.

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