Rod Slifer, a ‘true Vail original,’ embodied the spirit of the town and the mountain

Slifer, who died Saturday at 89, made a meadow into a mountain town with his warmth, wit and wisdom.

February 9, 2024

Rod Slifer was not a statue-in-the-town plaza kind of guy. In fact, he cringed at the plaza being named after him at all. Or the ski run. Or a book being written about him. Or any of the many honors and recognitions bestowed upon him for more than 61 years of relentless service to Vail the town, Vail the ski area, Vail the global mountain escape and the Rocky Mountain state of mind.

Slifer — born Oct. 11, 1934, and raised in the Eastern Plains farm town of Brighton, Colorado — brought that small-town friendliness and work (and play) ethic to Vail in May 1962 to help Vail founders Earl Eaton and Pete Seibert realize their dream of a great ski mountain. In the process, he became the living embodiment of a welcoming, collaborative, community-first ski town.

On Saturday evening, Feb. 3, Rod Slifer let go of the great gondola car in the sky and landed in bottomless Back Bowls powder for eternity at the age of 89. He is survived by his inestimable wife, Beth, whom he married on Nov. 1, 1983, in Manhattan, his devoted daughter, Adi, her husband, Alex Biegler, and two grandsons, Walker and Preston.

“I will never stop missing him,” Adi Slifer wrote en route to Florida, where Rod died of heart failure in Jacksonville after a bout with pneumonia that started on Nov. 8. “I will think about him every day. I will also never stop trying to be like him. We could all benefit from trying to channel a little bit of Rod Slifer in our daily lives. Vail and all of us who loved him will never be the same again, but his impact resonates far beyond the years he spent on this earth and the world is a better place because he was a part of it.”

Twice named Vail mayor during his 16 years on the Vail Town Council spanning the 1970s, 1990s and 2000s, Slifer also started the first property management company in Vail, pulled the first local real estate license, founded one of the state’s most successful real estate companies in Slifer Smith & Frampton and helped found the mountain-centric Alpine Bank network. But his greatest accomplishment was touching so many lives as a genuine, open and mischievously funny friend.

“He really cared deeply about everybody equally — anybody and everybody that he knew — and it wasn’t an abstract for him,” Beth Slifer said by phone on Monday. “It wasn’t like a philosophy or something. It was just anybody in his circle, he cared about. It was amazing. And everybody was in his circle that he came into contact with. They touched his life, and it was really a two-way street.”

Beth noted that Rod didn’t particularly want to be memorialized in the book, “Rod Slifer & the Spirit of Vail,” that came out last year, but eventually got with the program and was genuinely stunned by the turnout at a September book signing at the Colorado Snowsports Museum & Hall of Fame.

“He was surprised at how many people would stand in line to get him to sign a book,” Beth Slifer said. “And he enjoyed knowing how many people loved and respected him. That was such a gift. Most people never know that. If it happens, it happens at their funeral. So it was a real gift.”

‘He just always did the right thing’

The book details Slifer’s pioneering fortitude in helping to raise a great ski area out of the muck of a muddy sheep pasture — everything from forming planning commissions to passing the hat for the Vail Interfaith Chapel to endlessly supporting the arts and lifting up community nonprofits. But Beth feels his good nature, easy charm and unwavering code of ethics left the most lasting mark on Vail.

“He just always did the right thing, whether it was to his benefit or not, and it turned out so many things ended up being to his benefit, but that was never the way he calculated it. And then Adi also said that he always stood firm in his pursuit of honesty, fairness and compassion,” Beth added. “That sounds unrealistic, but he just did. It was not a conflict for him to do this thing or that thing. He just always did the right thing.”

Beth said people from around the world have been reaching out: “I’m hearing from everybody; it’s just really quite heartwarming. Of course, (Vail hotelier and restaurateur) Sheika (Gramshammer) just reached out and identified with losing Pepi, which is so appropriate. They were the last of the early guys.”

Another of those early Vail guys who has since passed, Morrie Shepard, maybe said it best after he brought Rod, then 27, over from Aspen to ski instruct and help construct a from-scratch ski area called Vail: “The best thing I ever did for Vail was bring Rod Slifer with me.”

And Rod, also at home on the beach in Jacksonville, Florida, was trying hard to get back to Vail to ski and keep making his mountain home a better place. Though he had been intubated and was in a rehabilitation hospital, when the doctors asked if he wanted to take medicines and keep on fighting, Beth said he inevitably answered: “Why not keep going? There’s more to do.”

“And I think that’s the story of Vail that they all had: don’t quit, just keep going. And oh, by the way, when you finish digging the ditch for the sewer, go have a lot to drink and a party and start over the next day,” Beth laughed. “He kept asking the nurses for scotch. They would give him ice chips, and he would always say, ‘Well, can’t you put a little scotch on the ice chips?'”

But Rod made it clear that, while he loved time on the beach in Florida, and would be OK leaving the hospital for the beach house, he had just one primary home: “Oh, Vail, for sure.”

‘Nice guys can do just fine’

Maybe the most Beth part of the story — for those who know how determined the Slifer Designs founder can be — is how she said her final goodbyes on Saturday. She had just left Rod at the rehab hospital when she got the call he’d been transported to a downtown hospital ER. Arriving within 30 minutes, she was told to wait for the doctor in a small room.

“I said, ‘Well, this is crazy, the doctor is going to come tell me he is already dead and I want to see him. And so I snuck in,” Beth said. “You know how those doors automatically open with a pass? So I left that little tiny room and I snuck in when some nurse was going through. And, of course, they didn’t tackle me, and I found his little room and I just sat with him for 30 minutes, which was so special.”

Mitch Whiteford, a Vail realtor and the son of Casino Vail club pioneer and rollicking ski-partier Bill Whiteford, offered these poignant comments on Rod to Beth and Adi: “I was so lucky. I knew Rod my whole life — or at least I do not remember not knowing him. What I remember (not in any particular order):

“A man whose geniality was from his heart.

“His keen wit — and observation. Especially when I least expected it.

“His living proof that nice guys can do just fine.

“Him stopping by my office when you were in Vail. Always a welcome lift to my day and always interesting.

“His confession to me that Alpine Bank was a much bigger win than Slifer Smith & Frampton.

“His grace.

“His giving back — termed out twice as Mayor?!? So many other involvements.

“His evergreen love for skiing.

“His memory for when Vail was really Vail.

“His story of the financial close call with the Utah locals soon after you married (a reference to a failed venture in the 80s with Vail founder Pete Seibert at Snowbasin).

“His love for his dogs.

“His love for you two.

“The twinkle in his eyes.

“We were all lucky to have Rod in whatever capacity we had him. He filled his life with accomplishment and friends. We will always miss him and he will live always in our memories.

‘A calm, thoughtful and approachable leader’

The town of Vail issued this statement on Slifer’s passing:

“The entire Town of Vail family is saddened by the loss of Rod Slifer. A true Vail original, he was a member of the Vail Town Council for a total of 16 years during the 1970s, 1990s and 2000s, serving as Vail’s mayor for 12 of those. 

“Rod will be remembered at the town as a calm, thoughtful and approachable leader who championed so much of the early critical infrastructure that continues to be vital to our community today, including Vail’s free bus system, the first parking structure and the town’s first roundabout. In his later council terms, his balanced approach toward preserving the town’s existing appeal while keeping an eye to the future helped shepherd in Vail’s Renaissance.   

“As a council member, business leader and community advocate, Rod’s commitment to Vail shaped the town and resort we know today. His influence will be felt by generations to come, and our hearts are with his family and friends during this difficult time.”

Adi Slifer had more to say to Beth about Rod:

“They broke the mold when they made Dad. To say he was extraordinary would be an understatement. To say he was a legend would be an understatement. To say he was the most wonderful, generous, kind man the world has ever seen would be a remarkable understatement.

“The finest man we’ll ever know, dad was a beacon of compassion, selflessness and integrity whose impact on all our lives transcends the ordinary.

“Generous, dedicated, and a true community leader, he walked the talk of what it means to make a difference in people’s lives. His acts of kindness were not grand gestures, but rather a series of selfless deeds that shaped the community he so dearly loved. He guided the Vail community like he guided our family, with passion, unwavering dedication, endless love, and steadfast principals. Dad always did the right thing, always. Most people get confused what to do and when. Dad didn’t, he chose to do the right thing, period. Unwavering in his commitment to principles that went beyond personal gain, and whether it benefited him or not, he stood firm in his pursuit of honesty, fairness, and compassion.

“To know dad was to be touched by an extraordinary grace — a grace that instilled a sense of kindness and generosity in everyone who crossed his path. He was not just a builder of communities; he was a builder of character, leaving an indelible mark on each of us. Dad made everyone feel good just being around him. I don’t know if anyone could say a bad thing about him because whenever you were with him you just felt better. No one will ever know the love I felt being Rod Slifer’s daughter and the love you felt being his wife, but at the same time, everyone who loved him knows because that’s how he made everyone who was in his presence feel. He cared so deeply for every person in his huge circle and you felt it.

“He was an amazing man who will leave behind a legacy we could all only strive for. I couldn’t be more proud of Dad, and I feel so fortunate that he picked me to be his little girl. He loved you and I more than anything, and we loved him more than anything.”

And it was clear Rod loved the two amazing women in his life more than anything. A distant second was his passion for skiing, carrying his own skis down Bridge Street on his way to the slopes as recently as March of last season, arcing beautiful turns on Lost Boy, and holding court with a glass of something at Camp Robber’s at the base of Game Creek Bowl. It’s easy to see him in your mind’s eye still carving those same beautiful turns, then talking about it at a Vail Village bar afterward, that same warm smile on his face.

Memorial service details will be forthcoming. To read more about Rod’s remarkable life in “Rod Slifer & the Spirit of Vail,” go to The Bookworm of Edwards, Slifer Designs, the Vail Daily or the Colorado Snowsports Museum & Hall of Fame.