Vail celebrates pioneer Keith Brown
VAIL — Keith Brown was a Vail original — he helped raise the money and launch Vail, served on that first board of directors and popped out with what may be the best, funniest and most self deprecating job description ever.
In that first summer of 1962 when everyone was doing everything all the time just trying to get the lifts turning, a persistent Denver Post reporter kept badgering him about his title with the upstart company.
Brown humbly and hilariously replied, “Well, right now I’m putting in the sewer system, so I guess you could call me the head turd.”
It’s right and proper that on the day some of Brown’s best friends gathered in the Vail Interfaith Chapel to celebrate his life, it snowed a little. Brown and Carol, his wife of more than six decades, are smiling from heaven.
Friday was a classic Colorado day, observed Tommy Schneider, pastor of Calvary Chapel Vail Valley: stunning foliage, some sunshine, some snow. Schneider opened with John 14: “Let not your heart be troubled … In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”
Keith and Carol Brown’s mansion is ski/ski out.
Keith Brown, 91, died last summer in San Antonio, Texas. He was an author, attorney, oil and gas executive, U.S. ambassador and diplomat … the list is long and illustrious, but at the top of it he always listed husband, father and grandfather.
Keith gets benched
The No Name Lunch Club that Keith started 28 years ago met at Pepi’s before Friday’s celebration, and after they finished dessert they wandered across Gore Creek Drive to dedicate a bench in Keith’s honor. It’s next to a bench dedicated to Keith’s good friend Bill Whiteford, another Vail original.
Those benches are next to the front door of the former Cornuti’s bar, a legendary Vail Village bar, and downstairs from the Casino.
If the walls could talk, they’d smile and be diplomatic, as Keith was.
Fabric or our lives
The stories flew around the Vail Interfaith Chapel like the powder snow Keith loved so much.
Walker Brown Milhoan, Keith’s eldest grandson, recalled his grandfather’s instruction to “be a gentleman and a diplomat.”
“I don’t know if he could survive the politics of today because he was such a diplomat,” Walker said.
Keith also told his grandson, “Education is power and it could never be taken away from you … unless you’ve had one too many Dewars.”
“What do you want to drink?” Keith would be asked.
“I don’t care, as long as it runs downhill and makes me dizzy,” Keith would reply.
Joe Staufer came to Vail from Bermuda in 1963 to run hotels, including opening the Vail Village Inn. He worked most days from before daybreak until about 3 p.m., and looked for a second job to supplement his $400 a month income. Keith got him into the catering business, and he worked parties along Mill Creek Circle … “Mostly the same people but at different houses.”
Keith built Vail’s first condominium. It was a laundry room that he cleared out, fixed up and called a garden level condominium. He sold it to Staufer for $8,000, and even gave Staufer the money for the down payment, and refused repayment.
“I’ll take it in catering,” Keith told Staufer.
After Vail opened, it was Keith’s idea to open it for the summer. They had too much money tied up in their fledgling ski company to let it sit idle for eight months waiting for the snow to fly, Keith reasoned.
Business was a little slow at first. They opened The Lodge at Vail for the summer on June 1, 1963. The first paying guest didn’t walk in until June 10, Staufer, smiling at the memory.
“To open for the summer, when they had lost $250,000 in the winter, took courage,” Staufer said. “You can thank Keith Brown that we’re open in the summer.”
Mid-Vail did not have a liquor license, so for $15 you could get a gondola ride and dinner, but you had to bring you own liquor. After dinner, Keith and other investors and their wives helped clear the tables and clean up.
“The original investors, no matter what it took, would do anything to make it successful,” Staufer said.
Help for help’s sake
“Dad loved to help, not for compensation, but because he loved to see people succeed,” said Ben Brown, Keith and Carol’s son.
Keith was self-deprecating. The former Republican Party finance chairman drove to work in his children’s car, an orange Honda, “a clown car,” his son Ben called it, the first car Honda manufactured, just another example of Keith not taking himself too seriously.
Daughter Susan Milhoan Brown recalled the times he put the kids on the floor of the car’s back seat, then drove through the neighborhood backward and made them guess where they were.
He helped launch a ranch for troubled kids, dubiously dubbing it “Oleo Ranch, because it was a cheap spread,” Susan laughed.
Susan couldn’t go on a date in a foreign car or see a Jane Fonda movie, because, Keith said, “they weren’t American.”
Keith was an Eagle Scout. Packing up their house, Susan found his Boy Scout merit badge sash and attributed that and other things to her father’s character.
Keith and Company
Keith L. Brown was among the greatest of The Greatest Generation: diplomat, entrepreneur, World War II veteran, scholar. He even wrote a small book about his big life, “A Conversation with Ambassador Keith L. Brown,” part of a diplomatic oral history series. Money from that book goes to the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, because Keith was that kind of guy.
Brown was one of three or four people who spent most of 1961 raising money to launch Vail. If it weren’t for visionaries like him and the 20 other board members of the original Vail Corporation, there might not be a Vail Valley.
Brown died in San Antonio, Texas. He was 91.
Keith and Carol Brown, and Harley and Lorraine Higbie built the first homes on Vail’s Mill Creek Circle, and some of the first homes in Vail. Harley was another of Vail’s original board of directors, and still lives here.
What a year that was
Starting a ski resort is a little like starting a rock band. You know a guy who knows a guy and before you know it, music happens.
By the now the story is familiar. In March 1957, Earl Eaton took Pete Seibert to the top of a nameless mountain that Eaton had roamed when he was a kid. Seibert was smitten.
Later that year, Seibert got together with Jay Robert Fowler, an attorney in Denver. They got together with John Conway, who put together the deal to buy the 500-acre Hanson Ranch in the Gore Creek Valley. Jack Tweedy and Caulkins got involved. Higbie and Brown were working with Caulkins in the oil industry and joined the fun — and to raise most of the money.
And that leads us back around to their $1 million question — where would they get that kind of money?
Tweedy turned to Caulkins and said, “George, you’ve been raising money for the oil business.”
So Caulkins, Brown and Higbie created Caulkins Securities Co. and spent most of 1961 running around the U.S. with an 8-millimeter film and projector, showing potential investors where their new ski area would be. It also showed pictures of Piney Lake, but they figured that was close enough.
The story takes all kinds of twists and turns, but eventually they raised $1.6 million and could begin construction.
They raised the money, and the town and ski area were built in one summer. It cost all the money they had, and not a dime was coming in.
There was the day in January 1963, Brown was on the road raising money and decided he’d check in. Kit Sherry handled Vail’s phones in those days. When she answered, Brown asked how it was going.
“Good! We sold 15 lift tickets today!” Sherry said brightly.
When Vail opened, a lift ticket cost $5. Brown knew that 15 lift tickets for $5 each equaled an ocean of red ink. They barely skied.
When asked about it years later, Keith said, “It’s been a great story and a fabulous part of all our lives. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com.