Rod Slifer was the first realtor in the Vail Valley beginning in 1962. He is also the former Mayor of Vail, Colorado. Slifer was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on June 29, 2010 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: First of all, thank you very much for doing this. Now, let’s see, you were mayor of Vail twice?
Smith: So, I guess that put you in the pecking order locally above the mere former President.
Slifer: Well, I have a letter from President Ford that I framed and it’s very brief, but it said that he enjoyed meeting people in high places. It’s addressed to me as the mayor.
Smith: That could have a double meaning.
Slifer: Here, yeah.
Smith: Exactly. How did Vail come to be?
Slifer: Well, Vail opened for skiing in December of 1962. A fellow by the name of Pete Seibert, along with another fellow named Earl Eaton, were really the two that founded it. Earl, being a local growing up near here, knew this part of the world and Pete was a New Englander who always dreamed of building a ski area. He had gone to school in Switzerland and Lusanne and when Earl said, “I think I found the place for you,” he came and looked. And, sure enough, it was what he was looking for.
What set it apart was not only that the front side of the mountain is north facing and retains its snow and its perfect slope for skiing, but the real difference was the back side of the mountain which were two large bowls, really now three large bowls. Wide open, no trees. A lot of sunshine, a lot of good snow. And, he said, “This is the place.” So, he went out and raised some money initially to buy the core area from a farmer or rancher. I think then he did a second round of a $1.2 (million) and, with that small amount of money, they were able to really open the ski area with a gondola and a chair four, which goes to the top of the mountain, and then the chair five, which is the services backside. In one year, they were able to open a good share of the mountain on what today would be a tiny amount of money.
Smith: Could Vail happen today?
Slifer: You know, I don’t think so. It would be very difficult. I was fortunate enough to be here when all this went on. Pete and myself and a couple of others went to the county and they didn’t even have a planning commission. So, the attorney that we dragged along helped them form the process so that they could approve what Vail is today. You know, today, a $1.2 would probably be the water study or the environmental study or something and the process would take forever. So it’d be very difficult with the environmental concerns and so on.
Smith: Now, the Fords started coming here fairly early, didn’t they?
Slifer: They did.
Smith: He was still in Congress?
Slifer: When I first met him, he was still in Congress. They really came here because of a guy named Ted Kendall. Ted Kendall was from Grand Rapids and he built the ____________ Lodge. He was the first mayor of Vail and his father was Jerry Ford’s scout master. So they were close family friends. Ted brought him here when he was a congressman. He had been in public life his whole life, so he really didn’t have much money because he hadn’t been entrepreneurial. They bought an apartment in the lodge at Vail shortly after they came, maybe a year or two later. That’s a great story. He borrowed the down payment from his children’s life insurance policies and that was what his source was, which he never told them, by the way, until much later.
Smith: Well, they liked skiing too.
Slifer: They love it.
Smith: That is a wonderful story. Obviously he didn’t stay there forever, just as he didn’t stay in Congress forever. By the time he’s vice president and even president, it has been suggested to us that the Fords were a major factor in putting this place on the map, particularly as a summer destination.
Slifer: Yes. You know, up until then it’d really been a winter ski resort. First of all, a man named Dick Bass gave him his house, which was a better location and was a single family residence which was much more secure. And that’s where the, if you want to call it, summer White House was. That really brought a lot of focus on Vail. And he was an avid golfer, so you could see pictures of him playing golf and being in Vail in the summertime, and that was a great boost to Vail.
Smith: When he was here as president, what was it like?
Slifer: Well, there was always press, there was always Secret Service. We were bopping along fairly successful, very successful as a ski area, but no notoriety about summer. So, with him being here in the summer and all these people coming in, the news media, we just got terrific coverage of how pretty it was here and all the things you could do. And he was very active. I mean, he wasn’t sedentary, he was playing golf and, I think he was playing tennis in those days, too. So it really brought a lot of focus to Vail.
Smith: And clearly they were very involved in a number of activities in the community.
Slifer: Yes. He was on the board of the Vail Valley Foundation, which is an entity which not only brought in ski racing on an international level, but he was very important in bringing in foreign countries and letting us use him as sort of our spokesperson. Also, he started the conference in the summer.
Smith: The World Forum.
Slifer: The World Forum, which was bringing world leaders to Vail. And his position as president and even as a former president, he was able to bring the leaders of all the free countries to Vail and Beaver Creek and they would be here for a week or ten days and hold very meaningful meetings which, I think, played a role in international politics. So that was a huge benefit to the community. You know, on a local note, he and a very close friend of his from California, Leonard Firestone, were very instrumental in raising the money to build the interfaith chapel at Beaver Creek. So he touched many parts of the community.
Smith: What about Mrs. Ford?
Slifer: Well, she was also very available. She participated whenever she was asked to speak or to meet with people. And we have the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, which is named after him, which is a great asset. But to recognize her – next to that is the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, which is a very popular place where people can go and see all the flowers and flora and fauna of mountain regions.
Smith: We were out there the other day and it’s a beautiful spot and the amphitheater is gorgeous.
Slifer: So, she was very active and just a wonderful woman.
Smith: And I take it they were very visible?
Slifer: They were very visible. We’re in ___ Gramshammer _____ one of their favorite places to eat lunch or dinner was right here. They would eat out on the porch and people would stop by and want to have photographs and they were very accommodating. He always had time for anyone. So, yes, they were very, very visible.
Smith: We’ve also been told that one of the things they found appealing about this place was at least the natives tended to leave them alone.
Slifer: Everyone did. Really gave them space. And they appreciated it and its one of the reasons, I think, that they stayed and this became a very big part of their life was they didn’t have people bothering them all the time. People were very good about that, even the visitors, not just the locals.
Smith: And he would maybe not preside over, because I imagine you, as mayor, would do that, but I guess every year there was a Christmas tree lighting?
Slifer: Yes, we always invited him and he was very accommodating. And it was really fun to get great crowds. Very often we’d have a celebrity of some sort that we’d ask or I would ask in my role as mayor for a couple or three years. At one time, he had Jack Nicklaus with him. Mayor Bloomberg has an apartment here, though we haven’t seen him lately since he’s been busy, but he helped at least one year, maybe two, lighting our Christmas tree.
Smith: And then there’s the Fourth of July parade?
Slifer: The Fourth of July parade, and where we are, again, the parade came right by the hotel and the Gramshammers would have President Ford up on their balcony. He was the Grand Marshall or whatever title you want to give him and everyone went by and the band stopped and played. The Fourth of July was maybe the best day in Vail all year.
Smith: The place has obviously grown and evolved. For the better? Do you worry at all about too much of a good thing?
Slifer: Well, I think it’s much for the better. You know, when Vail started, there was nothing. We now have great medical facilities, a great hospital. We even have a really wonderful cancer center just down the valley. We have a library, we have culture, and we have so much more to offer rather than in the early days just skiing. And the one good thing about Vail is we’re located in a valley and the hillsides surrounding us are national forests, so they can never be developed. The skiing and so on is on national forests and is permitted and controlled and so on, but we’re like an island. This is all you’re going to see. Everything is really now built out. Any new development is maybe tearing down a house that was built in 1962 and building a more modern, newer house. So, its growth is pretty limited. The growth down valley, particularly to the west where there’s more land and so on, there’s been substantial development.
Smith: Did that include Beaver Creek?
Slifer: Sure, Beaver Creek, but, again, we’re surrounded by national forests and if you drive west, what you see is about what’s going to be there. There’s not going to be much more.
Smith: I wonder if he ever thought about staying here in Vail. I mean, of course they built the place in Beaver Creek, but I wonder if there was discussion at all about it.
Slifer: Well, I don’t know the whole story, but I think that Vail Resorts at that time made a very favorable arrangement for them to build in Beaver Creek. It was a new community, a new resort, and his building a house there along with his friends Leonard Firestone and Dee Keaton that built next to him was just a jump start for people to say, Beaver Creek is a great place to be.
Smith: Sure. Who was Dee Keaton, because we keep hearing the name?
Slifer: Well, you know, I’m not sure I can tell you. He was a close friend of Firestone’s. They were at one time involved in a company called Charter Oil and I think were on the board and so on and had other business arrangements. And I think at that time President Ford was congressman and was involved with them in some business ventures. So when he built his house in Beaver Creek, they built on either side of him, he was surrounded by close friends.
Smith: They were very close to the Firestones weren’t they?
Slifer: Very close, very close. And to Dee Keaton, too, as well. Yeah.
Smith: Did you ever see his temper?
Slifer: Once I saw a little bit of it. I’d said that I thought his selection of his vice presidential running mate was the reason he didn’t get elected.
Smith: Bob Dole?
Smith: Nelson Rockefeller? He picked Dole in ’76 to run with, but originally he’d picked Nelson Rockefeller to fill his vacancy as vice president.
Slifer: Wasn’t it Agnew?
Smith: No, that was Nixon.
Slifer: That was Nixon. You’re right. But anyway, I guess it was Dole that I thought dragged him down and he just kind of ripped my head off. He said, “Nobody votes for the vice president, they vote for the president.” And that was the end of the discussion.
Smith: You think maybe he was sensitive about the issue?
Slifer: No, I think he just felt strongly that, you know, you vote for the president of the United States. You don’t vote for the vice president of the United States. And that he hadn’t won the election and it wasn’t anybody else’s doing.
Smith: Did he talk politics?
Slifer: Yeah, I loved to talk politics with him and he loved to talk politics. He loved to talk about Michigan football and sports and some of these other things, but being a life long politician, he loved to talk. And, always, there was a subject or crisis or an issue and at dinner or something you could throw a bone out there and he would love to get into that discussion. And, of course, he had tremendous insight.
Smith: He worked very hard at staying abreast of events.
Slifer: Even after he was out of office, he was in constant contact with Carter and with subsequent leaders and I think they used him as a sounding board and advisor. I don’t think you saw anything of that, but he would say that, you know, “I talked to President Carter” and so on.
Smith: Were you surprised that they became such good friends?
Slifer: I was, but my wife was a Democrat in the Carter administration. So, he came to visit and we had the opportunity to have lunch or something with the Fords and with the Carters and went for a walk up a little trail in Beaver Creek. That was delightful. And he and the president, President Ford, became very good friends and I thought that was great.
Smith: I’ve often wondered if one of the things that brought them together was the fact that they’d both run against Ronald Reagan.
Slifer: Well, that could be. I’ve never thought of that. I just think that if you’re President of the United States, there aren’t too many of those and these two men were both really nice people and they recognized the qualities each had and became great friends.
Smith: Did he ever talk about Nixon and the pardon?
Slifer: No. No. I guess that’s what I blamed for him not getting elected was Nixon’s pardon when he disagreed. No, he never did.
Smith: Did you ever sense that there were some things that you sort of avoided?
Slifer: No, you could talk about anything with him. You know, there are certain subjects you couldn’t talk about. You might ask about a certain crisis or are we going to do something, be aggressive, and he would avoid, if he knew, which I assumed he did, he would just say he couldn’t comment on that.
Smith: I wondered if he ever talked about towards the end of his life, when he had all those people who were in his administration that were in the second Bush presidency. I think he had some discomfort with some of the policies being pursued, particularly the Iraq war. Did that ever come up?
Slifer: That never came up, but I think he was proud that the people he had selected were so qualified that they again were selected in very important roles.
Smith: Did he have a sense of humor?
Slifer: Yes, he did have a sense of humor. It was pretty dry. I think you’d see it mostly playing golf. He was an avid golfer and his real personality would come out.
Smith: How so?
Slifer: Well, you know, like all golfers, when he missed. He was very competitive. All-American football player. If he missed a shot, he’d be grumpy and very excited and happy when things went well.
Smith: Never wrapped a club around a tree?
Slifer: No, no, no, he did not.
Smith: He got one hole in one?
Slifer: One hole in one, it was here. I was not with him, but he was very proud of it.
Smith: What course was that at?
Slifer: I can’t remember. I think it might’ve been here at Vail, but I’m not positive.
Smith: Do you think he was sensitive at all about the public caricature, the almost cartoon image, that Chevy Chase did? I mean, here’s a guy who really is a naturally gifted athlete and who was portrayed as the opposite of that. Do you think it bothered him?
Slifer: I think it must’ve. He never mentioned it. I was always sort of angered by that caricature which, in my mind, came from when he stumbled getting off an airplane coming down the stairs. I mean, he was an athlete. He was not clumsy or anything. He had terrible knees from his football playing days and that gave him a lot of discomfort. He didn’t complain about it, but he did have trouble at times going up and down stairs. Very difficult.
Smith: My hunch is that it may have bothered Mrs. Ford more than it bothered him.
Slifer: Yeah, I think not many things bothered President Ford. He got along just fine.
Smith: They had a good life. And this was a large part of it. I mean, poor Lyndon Johnson who died a day before the Vietnam peace agreement was announced. President Ford lived long enough to see most people come around to his way of thinking on the pardon and to honor him for what they had criticized him for.
Slifer: Yes, and I think after he was out of office, people realized he had been very good. He was a very stable influence at a very critical time. And it was a tough time.
Smith: He was a real fiscal conservative.
Slifer: Yes. Very. I liked that.
Smith: I mean, he really was the last President to use the veto exclusively to contain Congress’ spending habits.
Slifer: Sure, that hasn’t happened since. You’re right.
Smith: The last couple of years must’ve been kind of rough. I mean, his health was great until he was about 90, but clearly they both insisted on coming up here, including that last summer when the doctors and everyone else said he really shouldn’t be doing it. Do you remember the last time you saw him?
Slifer: I think the last time we saw him, we had dinner at our house and he and Betty came to dinner. I believe that was the last time. I can’t tell you how many months that was, but that was the last time.
Smith: Was that the last year that they came up?
Smith: And how were they?
Slifer: Well, you know, he was a big man and very strong, but he was starting to get more frail, as you would at that age. And Betty has always been a small woman and she’s a very strong woman, but was frail. I mean, she is not a big woman. But she was still there and still very active.
Smith: The altitude, I take it, was an issue.
Slifer: That was an issue for her, yes. That bothered her a lot. They told her not to come and she came, but, yes, that was an issue.
Smith: They both had a certain stubbornness. One might call it resolve.
Slifer: Yes, if he wanted to do something, he did it. Or a belief that, if you disagreed with him, he would be very strong about his opinions. And she was as well, but in a much gentler way.
Smith: Do you think she influenced him at all? It’s funny, because as most of us get older, we get more conservative. And yet on a number of issues, the Republican Party went further and further to the Right, particularly on social issues. By the end of his life, by Republican standards, he was sort of a liberal. And I wonder whether that was just him, whether she had an influence on it, or whether having gone through, for example, the intervention with her and bringing the compassion to bear that her situation and that of many other people called for, whether that same compassion applied to other issues as well.
Slifer: Well, I think you’re right. I think he became more compassionate and understood that there were two sides to every issue and he became more compromising and more willing to listen to the other side. And, you know, he didn’t have the presidency anymore, so he didn’t have to be the way you’d need to be as the President of the United States. So, he didn’t soften, but I think your word ‘compassionate’ is what he became.
Smith: Plus, I assume, having kids and grandchildren will bring a certain degree of youthfulness to anyone. It exposes you to a different viewpoint.
Slifer: Yeah, and they were a very close family. They just spent as much time together as they could and the kids all turned out to be great and loved the grandchildren.
Smith: When he passed away, what transpired here in Vail?
Slifer: They had a service here and that was normal. Several people, including ourselves, went to Washington and to California. It was very sad.
Smith: Were you surprised at the amount of public response?
Slifer: I was. And both sides of the aisle honored him and it was very emotional.
Smith: How do you think he should be remembered?
Slifer: Well, I would remember him as just a good man. He should not be remembered for that alone, because I think he saved this country a lot of anguish. When he pardoned Nixon, he put his political career at risk. And if we’d have had Nixon trials that would’ve drug on for a long time. He took the heat, made a decision, and that to me is the one issue that he should be remembered for above others.
Smith: That’s perfect. Thank you.