Robert Craig, first Aspen Institute director, remembered |

Robert Craig, first Aspen Institute director, remembered

Robert W. Craig
Courtesy photo |

Robert W. Craig, the first director of the Aspen Institute, died Friday at a health-care facility in Denver. He was 90.

Craig, who left the Roaring Fork Valley for Summit County in the 1970s, was well known for his expertise in an array of topics, from mountaineering to biotechnology. After serving as executive director and chief operating officer for the Aspen Institute from 1953 to 1965, he ran a cattle ranch in Woody Creek as well as an industrial-design company in Chicago.

He co-founded the Aspen Center for Physics with George Stranahan in 1962. The center hosts over 1,000 physicists annually, allowing them to meet together or work independently on research.

“We were partners in work and we were neighbors in Woody Creek,” Stranahan, a Carbondale philanthropist, recalled Sunday. “Bob was big and tall, and pleasant always. He always seemed to be cheerful. He was a smart guy who had a lot of common sense. He was a good man.”

Stranahan said he will always remember how Craig took risks with his career. He recalled that Craig was fired by the Aspen Institute board.

“I think that his board was far more conservative than he,” Stranahan said. “I think they thought, ‘Hey, if we keep this guy here, he’s going to bring us more over to the left than we want to be.’ He was willing to get out in front on things, and he suffered the consequences.”

But Craig had many gifts, including a politician’s knack for remembering names and details about most people he met, Stranahan said.

“Bob remembered everybody, their wife’s name, how old their kids were and what schools they went to — he really had that ability,” Stranahan said.

He said he was a young physicist in the late 1950s when he met with Craig about setting up the Aspen Center for Physics.

“The Aspen Institute was a ‘crossroads’ of intellectual activity — meaning, people would come and go,” Stranahan said. “Bob and I agreed there should be a permanent intellectual capacity right on site, not just a crossroads, but a center. He really bought into the idea ‘hook, line and sinker,’ and we drove it through.”

In 1975, Craig founded The Keystone Center, a Summit County-based think-tank that has tackled public policy debates on topics ranging from nuclear waste to natural resources to the AIDS virus. The organization was created after Craig was invited to Summit County by Bob Maynard, then-president of Keystone Resort.

“(Maynard) asked me if I had another Aspen in me,” Craig told the Summit Daily in 2013. “ I said, ‘Well, not exactly Aspen, because I don’t think it would be a good idea to copy what Aspen is doing,’ but I said I’d be interested in trying out an idea and that idea became The Keystone Center.”

On Friday, The Keystone Center posted a statement that made note of Craig’s “consensus-building approach,” which it characterized as “highly unorthodox among policy leaders whose approach to solving contentious issues was most often litigation.”

“Today the world has lost a great man and a great leader,” said Christine Scanlan, CEO of The Keystone Center. “Robert W. Craig was a visionary, a pioneer in both mountaineering and collaborative decision-making, and a true legend.”

A California native, Craig served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He studied biology and philosophy at the University of Washington and Columbia University.

As Scanlan pointed out in her statement, Craig was a renowned mountaineer. In 1953, he was selected to a team that would attempt to climb K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, located on the Pakistan-China border. The mostly American team of eight people never reached the peak, but the expedition is famous (it is known as the 1953 American Karakoram expedition) because of the extreme adversity faced by the climbers. Craig was elected to the American Mountaineering Hall of Fame in 2009.

Former Aspen Times reporter Cam Burns, a freelance writer in Basalt and author of several books on climbing, said Sunday that he got to know Craig well over the past two decades. Burns visited him in 2009 in Keystone.

“We an incredible day of skiing. It blew me away, how good he was at age 85,” Burns said.

Though no longer a Pitkin County resident, Craig would call Burns at the Aspen Times in the early 1990s, seeking details about various stories affecting the community.

“He kept close tabs on Aspen after moving to Summit County,” Burns said. “He just liked to chat. A lot of his life and energy was connected with Aspen.”

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