Vail co-founder Caulkins remembered

Alex Miller
Special to the DailyGeorge Caulkins and his wife, Ellie.

VAIL ” The original founders of Vail form an elite group that’s been written about and even somewhat mythologized over the years ” with varying accounts about who did what and when.

But when people speak of George Peck Caulkins, it’s with great appreciation for his contribution as the personable businessman with the connections who got the financing the fledgling ski area needed to get off the ground.

Caulkins died Thursday at his home in Denver following a long illness, one day short of his 84th birthday.

“He had a great ride,” said his wife, Ellie Caulkins. “I’m sure he’s kicking himself that he didn’t make it to his 84th, and that he didn’t get to see the opening of the opera house.”

Ellie Caulkins, who was married to George for 43 years, was referring to the opera house named after her, slated to open Sept. 10 in Denver. It represents just one of the many philanthropic projects the Caulkins have been involved with over the years. But Vail, Ellie said, was very close to her husband’s heart.

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“Vail was his proudest boast, next to his children,” she said. “He always loved the idea that he had a hand in it at the beginning.”

While George Caulkins’ business interests ran from oil and real estate to citrus groves and banking, it will always be his involvement in the very early days of Vail for which he is most remembered.

“I don’t think he ever received the recognition he should have had,” said Dick Hauserman, a longtime friend of Caulkins’ and another founder who wrote a book about the experience. “He contributed so much to Vail. He probably holds the world’s record for knowing the most people on earth.”

Raising money

According to Hauserman, it was Caulkins’ many contacts that kept Vail alive in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

“George probably made the greatest contribution to the fact that Vail exists today,” Hauserman said. “He raised the bulk of the money and he had all kinds of ideas in the beginning.”

While Peter Seibert is credited with the vision to get Vail on the map, it was Caulkins’ business savvy and money-raising ability ” combined with the expertise of the other founders ” that kept the project moving.

“George and the rest of us worked really hard to help Peter do a better job,” Hauserman said, noting that the eight original board members of Vail Associates “got along like a million dollars.”

“Everyone contributed in their own way,” he said. “It’s almost a miraculous story, how it all happened.”

Harley Higbie, an early partner in the oil business with Caulkins, and another Vail founder, emphasized the fact that Caulkins was involved very early in the process. He recalled Monday how the group realized they were going to need at least $1 million to get the lifts turning.

Wall Street, he said, wasn’t interested in financing a ski area in Colorado, and they had to look elsewhere.

“I remember sitting in a meeting, maybe in early 1960,” Higbie said. “Jack Tweedy (another founder) turned to Caulkins and said, ‘George, why don’t you raise the money for Vail?’ And he said, “Well, OK.'”

Impressive legacy

Forming the Caulkins Securities Corporation, Caulkins led the charge to raise that initial seed money by finding more investors through what friends and family say was a bottomless reserve of personal charm and strong connections.

“He’d been raising money in the oil business and he knew a lot of wealthy people,” Higbie said. “He knew how to get in doors, and that was the key.”

Higbie also recalled Seibert saying, in March of 1962, that if they were going to open the ski area the following December, they would need money to get bulldozers up on the mountain to clear snow and start construction.

“George said he’d put together a group and underwrite (that expense),” Higbie said. “That was really the final, critical move in the fund-raising process. It was pretty amazing, when you think back on it ” compared to how money is raised today.”

That kind of take-charge attitude characterized much of Caulkins’ life. A classic example of the over-achieving, entrepreneurial American, he was born in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and attended Yale, and then went onto Harvard to earn his M.B.A. After serving in the Navy from 1941-1946, he found early success in the oil business in Oklahoma before making his way to Colorado.

“It took him longer than it should have, but he finally realized he didn’t need to live where the oil wells were,” said his son, George Caulkins III, speaking from the Caulkins Oil Co. office in Denver Monday. “So he moved to Aspen, and that’s where he met Peter Seibert.”

Unlike other early ski area founders, George said, his father was not a dyed-in-the-wool skier from Europe or the Northeast, nor was he a member of the famed 10th Mountain Division.

“But skiing was a fun, glamorous thing to him, and he came of age around the same time the ski industry was coming of age,” he said.

Simplicity amid success

For the Caulkins, Vail was a big part of life growing up. Ellie recalls hauling diapers and food coolers up from Denver and bringing back the trash since George didn’t want to pay for trash service.

“It seemed less like a town and more like a club at the time,” George said. “Everyone knew each other, and I can remember walking with dad, just saying hello to everyone. There weren’t really any restaurants per se, so it was always dinner parties at people’s houses. It was very small and congenial ” a million miles away from the Vail of today.”

But they were also very busy years. George, who was born in 1964, said his father liked to joke that, if it hadn’t been for Vail, he would have been born a couple of years earlier. He also said his father called selling Vail one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

“At the time, not very many ski areas were making money,” he said, adding that, for the most part, the early investors in Vail did it more for fun than the expectation that they’d ever see a return on their investment.

In remembering George Caulkins, his friends and family speak of his charm, sense of humor, loyalty and love for associating with high-achieving people. At the same time, they note how modest a man he was.

“Hundreds of people have taken credit for Vail’s success,” said son Max Caulkins. “But my father never jumped in to take what I think was his fair share of credit.”

That sentiment was echoed by Higbie and Hauserman, both of whom said they owed a lot to Caulkins. “I’m going to miss him a great deal,” Higbie said. “He was an extremely charming fellow who loved people.”

Ellie Caulkins said she hoped people would remember her husband for his caring, humble nature.

“I want people to remember him for his extraordinary modesty and complete lack of interest in getting the credit he so richly deserved,” she said. “His most endearing quality was his simplicity and how much he cared about all of us.”

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