Joseph Staufer was a neighbor of President and Mrs. Ford at their Beaver Creek, Colorado home. Staufer was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on June 26, 2010 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: It’s interesting. Thirty or forty years ago, there was very little out at Rancho Mirage, I’m told.
Staufer: Hardly anything there. Then you go out to Indian Wells and there was nothing. Recently, I was out there just for a visit. I couldn’t believe it. It was just one solid Palm Springs all the way out to Bermuda Dunes.
Smith: And the whole Vail Valley is a relatively recent creation.
Staufer: It’s the same thing.
Smith: How did it come about?
Staufer: I have a picture in my office of Vail in 1964. There’s nothing. And then we came in ’62, I mean, there was nothing. Vail Village Inn had fifty rooms. A little highway motel and the lodge at Vail had sixty rooms.
Smith: Is that where he had a condo when he was congressman?
Staufer: He had a condo in the Village Inn Plaza. It’s a building I built and he bought the penthouse there.
Smith: Is that still standing?
Staufer: Oh, yeah, it’s still there. A Mexican owns it now. First a California man bought it from Ford and then a Mexican national bought it from that guy. And the penthouse is still there, a four bedroom, four and a half bath.
Smith: I want you to describe it, but, first of all, how did your paths first cross with Gerald Ford?
Staufer: Well, it was very simple, you know. He was President of the United States and he came out here. That was his summer White House. And I was mayor pro-tem of the Vail town council. We gave a cocktail party for the President in the mayor’s house and that’s how we met. And we have been in touch all along.
Smith: So, you had not had any contact with him before he became president, though he was out here?
Staufer: No, I had not. Yes, we met out here and, of course, Betty and my wife, Annie, you may know she had a store over there called Annie’s and they became pretty good friends and saw each other, not frequently, but they had lunch once in awhile.
Smith: Tell me again about where, before they built the house, they had the condo. Where was that?
Staufer: They had a condo at the Village Inn Plaza, which was a development over at the Vail Village Inn. We had the hotel there and then we developed it. First we built the commercial building and then we built condominiums and then we had a penthouse there.
Smith: And how large was the penthouse?
Staufer: Four bedrooms, four and a half baths. But it’s funny, at the same time, they were already building the house in Beaver Creek, so they really never stayed. They gave it to the family and friends, but they never stayed at the Plaza. And he loaned it to King Hussein when King Hussein was here.
Smith: And what is the Bass House, because we’re told they stayed there?
Staufer: Well, the Bass House is right behind here. And they stayed there because he wanted to swim and the neighbor had a swimming pool. So, they would stay back at the Bass House. Dick Bass offered it to them for staying there in the winter.
Smith: And the whole family would come out here for Christmas.
Staufer: Oh, yes, they were all here.
Smith: Would local people leave them alone?
Staufer: Yes, I think. There were some autograph hunters, you know; they’re everywhere, but the local people – other than saying “Mr. President. Good morning” – they left them alone.
Smith: Were there places here that they particularly enjoyed going? Restaurants? Shops?
Staufer: They enjoyed going to The Left Bank, and, of course, he was a hell of a golfer. He just loved golf. And they came quite a bit here to Pepi’s, you know, the Gramshammers, for their meals.
Smith: Did you ever golf with him?
Staufer: I have only been on the golf course once in my life and that was when there was the first Jerry Ford Invitational Golf Tournament. It was a Pro-Am and I happened to be the treasurer of the Mountain School at that time, and that was organizing the mountain school kids to pick up trash. And that was it. That was my only performance on the golf course.
Smith: What was the Mountain School?
Staufer: Mountain School is a little private school in East Vail. It started originally in somebody’s home, in their living room, and now I think they have about 200 kids there, maybe more. I don’t know. It’s become quite a bit.
Smith: Did you see his sense of humor?
Staufer: Sense of humor? Yeah, I think, personally, he was such a kind man. And I’ll give you one example, which nobody believes but, it happened. We were having a cocktail party in the mayor’s house.
Smith: You were mayor?
Staufer: No, I was mayor pro-tem. So, next door on the golf course is my brother’s house. And my parents from Austria were here staying with my brother. And I said, “Mr. President, my parents are next door. Could I bring them over?” And he said, “Sure, bring them in!” And they told the Secret Service men, “Joe is going to bring his parents over. It’s okay.” And I went over to the house and they had gone for a walk, so I couldn’t find them. So I went back to the cocktail party a little later. He had a memory like an elephant, he never forgot a name, and he never forgot anything. He said, “Joe, where are your parents? I was looking forward to meeting them.” I said, “So sorry, but they went out for a walk and I can’t find them anywhere.” He said, “Where are they staying?” I said, “Right next door here.”
Next morning, he was playing golf. He stopped the game. Had simply walked in, got my parents out, had pictures taken with them. He was just that kind of a guy. He was so kind to people. As far as I’m concerned, he was a true Republican, not like the Tea Baggers nowadays, he was a true Republican. And then, of course, now when people say “country first” that’s a political slogan. He meant country first because he knew damn well that pardoning Nixon would cost him the election, but it was good for the country and he did it.
Smith: Did he ever talk about the pardon?
Staufer: We talked about it and he said, “Joe, what do you think would’ve happened? A President of the United States being on trial and the whole world watching? What would’ve happened?” And he was right. It would’ve been very, very bad for the country. He really meant ‘country first’.
Smith: It’s interesting you talk about the Republicans of the Tea Party and all of that. Most of us, as we get older, tend to become a little more conservative. And with the Fords it was almost the opposite. I mean, one sensed that maybe the Party went so far to the right.
Staufer: Yeah, I think that he was feeling the fanatics are taking over the party. And that’s what happened. Rush Limbaugh, you know.
Smith: Yes, exactly. But you wonder how much she influenced his views, because it wasn’t just the abortion issue, but gay rights and other things that you don’t associate with a ‘conservative Republican’. But then, of course, he had children and grandchildren and they tend to sort of expose you to a youthful outlook
Staufer: They kept him young and changed his thinking.
Smith: And the other thing I wonder, having gone through the intervention with Mrs. Ford and then the creation of the Betty Ford Center; having had his eyes opened to the weaknesses that even good people experience – and the compassion that they showed. Whether all that might have affected him as well.
Staufer: Imperfection of the human species. I mean, we all have faults. And I think that he understood that. And that was another reason, I think, that he was sympathetic with Nixon. I mean, there’s a President of the United States that had done so many good things, you know, when you think about the contact with China and how things were coming along internationally. And then the things like that happened. You know, I think he was sympathetic to that kind of downfall that a man of that stature had.
Smith: Did he talk politics?
Staufer: Not very often and not very specifically. Sometimes, he gave his opinion on some issue, but I don’t think he’d like to go into big discussions about politics.
Smith: Did you ever see his temper?
Staufer: No, I’ve not.
Smith: Did you know it existed?
Staufer: I heard about it.
Smith: Who were some of his friends?
Staufer: In Vail here? Well, you had some locals that were just fun people, like John Purcell who had a restaurant here,who just made him laugh. And then he had other people like the Kendalls and the Hanlons and the Gramshammers. They had a lot of friends, yeah. Everybody just thought very highly of him and everybody loved the man.
Smith: We’ve been told that they probably did as much as anyone to put this place on the map as a summer destination. It had always been a winter resort.
Staufer: The first golf tournament, Jerry Ford’s first Invitational, put Vail on the map as a summer resort. You know, it would’ve taken us years to get there, but that put us on the map. In the winter, the first time we were really on the map, was the Championships, the International Skiing Championships back in ’89. I used to go to Austria and say, “I’m from Vail” and “Oh, is that near Aspen?” After the Championship, “Oh, Vail!”
Smith: To people who don’t know, what’s the difference between Vail and Aspen?
Staufer: I would say that Aspen is more of the glitzy, movie star crowd. And Vail is the more serious businessman crowd. You know, the captains of business are here.
Smith: Is it safe to say that Vail is more Republican and Aspen’s more Democratic?
Staufer: It’s fair to say. I would think that, if you say all the Democrats live in Aspen and all the Republicans live in Vail, it’s not quite that bad, but there’s more Republicans here than Democrats.
Smith: Are there names that would be recognizable in terms of business types who would be here when the Fords were here?
Staufer: Well, of the first people that came here, there was John Murchison, the Texan, who was involved in starting Vail. And then you had Watson, IBM.
Smith: Oh, Thomas Watson.
Staufer: Tom Watson was here from day one. And quite a few people.
Smith: You know, this is speculative, but in today’s climate – regulatory and otherwise could you create Vail today?
Staufer: I don’t think so. It’s a one-time happening. Look how many people tried to do it. You know, people had money to spend and they had longer vacations, so they went on a summer vacation and a winter vacation. And the economic climate was just right. And, mind you, we almost didn’t make it in the beginning.
Staufer: Oh God.
Smith: How tough was it?
Staufer: It was tough the first few years. I’ll give you one example. I was working for Vail Associates. They had somebody come out and Pete Seibert told me, “You really take good care of those people because they live a banker’s life.” And Vail Associates was $500,000 short. And John Murchison(?) offered them $500,000 for two percent of gross in perpetuity. And those people stayed at the lodge. I was running the lodge that summer, the summer of 1963, and we really took care of them. You know, we took them up on the mountain on a picnic with champagne and they made the loan. It was one of the senior vice presidents and his wife. So they made the loan and they didn’t have to borrow from John Murchison.
Many, many times, it was touch and go. Into the 70s and then, of course, they started Lion’s Head and they were back in problems again. And then they started Beaver Creek, hoping we would get the Olympics. And then the voters of Colorado voted it down. So they started Beaver Creek, hoping for all those funds from the state and federal government, and nothing was forthcoming. And that was another time when VA was very close to going broke again.
Smith: That’s fascinating, because within that context you can begin to understand how important it was to have the Fords up here.
Staufer: Oh yes. Yes.
Smith: Free advertising.
Staufer: Yeah, we’d be out everyday in the news. Vail, Colorado. You can’t buy that.
Smith: We were told there were Secret Service agents who almost competed to be on the detail to be out here, and reporters who loved to come out here.
Staufer: Yeah, it’s amazing. And then, of course, you started lots of other things like the international conference that he had.
Smith: The World Forum.
Staufer: Yeah, he started that and that brought leaders from all over the world here. And, again, that’s when we were in the chips. And he put us there.
Smith: Tell me about Mrs. Ford, because you must’ve gotten to know her.
Staufer: Yeah, she was a very kind lady.
Smith: Did she ski?
Staufer: No. I don’t think so. I shouldn’t say no. The kids skied and he skied, but I don’t think she ever skied. But she loved the summer here.
Smith: And the Alpine Garden, she was obviously involved with that.
Staufer: Yeah, she was very much involved in getting that started. And, of course, Ford Park, when we originally got the property, we condemned the property to create the park. And the money to do something with the park was only because of Ford. I mean, the people gave money because it was Ford Park and they were close to Ford. That’s how the money came to build the stage.
Smith: And both the chapel here and the one at Beaver Creek.
Staufer: The chapel here I think he helped start, but that was way, way back. But the Beaver Creek chapel, definitely. So he was a great benefactor to this town and the whole valley, actually.
Smith: Were they very visible around town, even into their later years?
Staufer: They went out for dinner, they went out for lunch, and people saw them. But, you know, the family skied together, the kids skied, and other than that, you know, I guess he still kept pretty busy being involved in helping politically some people.
Smith: Do you know what kind of skier he was? Is there a consensus?
Staufer: I’ve never seen him ski, so I can’t say.
Smith: I’m interested, because you’re from Austria originally, right?
Staufer: I’m originally Austrian, yeah.
Smith: And Pepi is from Austria.
Staufer: And, Pepi, of course, is Austrian, yeah.
Smith: When did you come to this country?
Staufer: When did I come here? I came here the first winter.
Smith: Was that an accident? Why so many Austrians in Vail, Colorado?
Staufer: Well, I lived in Bermuda for seven years and we decided to leave Bermuda because you can’t get unlisted(?) Bermuda, you can’t own a business there. Even if you put all the money up and do all the work, a Bermudian has to have 51% of the interest in the business. So, we thought, “Okay, let’s go to the United States.” We had a shop lined up in California in Santa Barbara. And, about eleven o’clock at night, the next day I was leaving Bermuda, somebody told me about Vail, Colorado and I thought, “Well, why not look at it?” So we flew to Denver and rented a car to come to Vail. And I said to Hertz, you know, “I want to rent a car to come to Vail.” “There’s no Vail.” She pulled out a map to prove that there was Vail Pass and there was Frisco, Minturn, Avon, but no Vail. And I said, “Oh God, what did we do?”
So I started driving and it was bitter cold. In Bermuda, we left and it was in the 80s. We come up here and it was, I think, the first time it was 30 below zero. And my wife, you know, “Where does this road go?” There was no interstate, there was just US 6. And she said, “Does that go to California?” and I said, “Yeah, I think it does.” “How long can we keep the car?” “As long as you want to pay for it.” She said, “Okay, let’s go tomorrow morning.” I still had the people that told me to come here, and then Pete Seibert took me up the mountain and I came back. My wife said, “Are we ready to go?” I said, “No, we’re going to stay.” I’d never seen a mountain like it.
Smith: What was special about it?
Staufer: The way it was laid out. I mean, there was as much of a mountain as there is now, but the bowls were there. The two big bowls and it was just an incredible mountain.
Smith: So, you saw enormous potential.
Staufer: Yeah, I thought, “If anything makes it, this is going to make it and I want to be part of it.”
Smith: That’s interesting. Someone has described Vail-Beaver Creek as “the last resort.” The last “from scratch development.”
Staufer: Right. And I don’t see anything coming up, either.
Smith: Were there other prototypes? I mean, for example, Sun Valley had been created almost out of nothing.
Staufer: Sun Valley had the train.
Smith: That’s right. Averill Harriman.
Staufer: And a lot of people from Sun Valley were partners here just at the start. They all skied in Sun Valley and they all came here to Vail. Yeah, that’s how they met and that’s how they decided to come here.
Smith: So, I guess, you’ve survived not getting the Olympics just fine.
Staufer: Oh yeah, we survived. As a matter of fact, in the long run, we were better off. Ford was better for us than the Olympics.
Smith: That’s very well put.
Staufer: It didn’t cost anything! We got paid for it!
Smith: That reminds me. He was a real fiscal conservative.
Staufer: Yeah, right.
Smith: And he had a reputation for not being the best tipper in the world. Did you ever see that?
Staufer: I never heard that.
Smith: You never heard that?
Staufer: No. I think that most of the time he went out, there were other people paying the bill anyway.
Smith: But they were clearly generous in their involvement with the community and various activities.
Staufer: Oh yes, they were.
Smith: Do you remember the last time you saw him?
Staufer: I think it was the Fourth of July here at Pepi’s terrace when Sheika gave a little lunch for him. That’s the last time I think I saw him.
Smith: Was that in the last couple of years of his life?
Staufer: Everything seems a couple years ago to me.
Smith: He passed away in December of 2006. They did come up here that summer, but went home early.
Staufer: Yeah, I think that it might have been that summer because he was helped by people walking. So it may have been that summer or the summer before. I think that’s the last time I saw him.
Smith: And the Fourth of July.
Staufer: It was the Fourth of July.
Smith: They reviewed the parade, is that right?
Staufer: Oh, yeah.
Smith: Tell me about the parade.
Staufer: We were standing on the balcony seeing the parade go by and then we went down on the terrace for lunch.
Smith: And it’s just a classic sort of small town Fourth of July parade?
Staufer: Oh, yeah, Fourth of July parade. A few too many cars, everybody that has an antique wants to go in the parade and show off his car. But they normally get a pretty good parade together. Beats the old times when we had maybe half a dozen and one was the fire truck and one was the police car and the sheriff’s car.
Smith: I’m told that every year, he would also turn on the lights on the Christmas tree.
Staufer: Yes, that was a happening. All the people came just to see the lights.
Smith: Where was the tree located?
Staufer: Right where the children’s fountain is now.
Smith: Anything else? Any other stories or anything that you can recall?
Staufer: Well, I’m sure after I leave I can think of all kinds of things and I’ll give you a call at three o’clock in the morning.
Smith: How do you think he should be remembered?
Staufer: I remember him as the most generous, honest man I’ve ever met in my life other than my father. He was generous in terms of spirit and I will say he wasn’t tipping very well, I don’t know that, but he was a generous man. And he was a politician whose word I would trust and I don’t trust too many politicians. You know, he was just the most honest man you could have.
Smith: Not a bad way to be remembered.