Walter P. Paepcke, a Chicago businessman, was pivotal in developing Aspen into a resort known for its exceptional skiing and as a hub for intellectuals, artists, politicians, and celebrities. Paepcke’s efforts have made Aspen stand out among Colorado’s many ski towns and resorts.
Born on June 29, 1896, in Chicago, Walter Paepcke was raised by his parents, both lovers of literature and music, to appreciate and support art and creativity. Their influence shaped his social and professional life. In 1922, he married Elizabeth Nitze, the daughter of a professor of Romance languages at the University of Chicago who shared his appreciation for the arts. When his father died Walter inherited his father’s Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, and later created his own enterprise, the Container Corporation of America. Proving himself to be an astute manager and businessman, Paepcke turned the Container Corporation of America into the largest producer of paper containers in the United States by the 1940s. Part of his success can be attributed to his focus on modern design in the company’s advertising.
While in Chicago, Walter and Elizabeth’s interests in music, literature, and art grew. Walter served as a trustee or board member of many artistic organizations, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Orchestral Association, and Encyclopedia Britannica. One of his personal projects was a festival for the German philosopher poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Unable to find a suitable location for the Goethe festival near Chicago, Walter set his sights on Aspen, a place that he and his wife had visited and admired. With considerable financial backing by Walter and Elizabeth, the festival took place in Aspen in June 1949. The tribute to Goethe was a success, and Walter began buying land in Aspen for subsequent festivals.
Encouraged by the success of the festival, Walter founded the Aspen Institute, envisioning the beautiful mountain scenery as a gathering place for writers, musicians, thinkers, and artists. The Aspen Institute hosted an Executive Seminar, where leaders used writings and philosophy, both modern and classic, to shape the way they thought about society, organization, culture, and their role in all of this. Walter himself stated, “The Executive Seminar was not intended to make a corporate treasurer a more skilled corporate treasurer, but to help a leader gain access to his or her own humanity by becoming more self-aware, more self-correcting, and more self-fulfilling.” The Aspen Institute would eventually give rise to world-famous events such as the Aspen Music Festival, the International Design Conference, and many others. Further involving himself in Aspen’s affairs, Walter became a cofounder of the Aspen Skiing Company, the enterprise that transformed the town from a local ski resort to a world-class ski destination.
With its diverse terrain and developed infrastructure, Aspen would have become a ski destination without the Paepckes; yet one cannot deny the singular role Walter and Elizabeth played in developing it into a haven for self-improvement and the liberal arts.