An Era Ends

The Closing of the Given Institute Spurs Memories


By Dr. Bruce Paton

To stand on the deck of the Given and look down on Hallam Lake is to see the finest view in Aspen. I forget when I looked down on the lake for the first time, but it was at least 20 years ago. For the past 12 years, while I have been Director, the Given has almost become a second home. For the first many years I drove up almost every month, but for family reasons, have not been able to do that in the past year: much to my regret. But the phone is a marvelous instrument – better than texting, which I do not know how to do.

There have been many pleasures of my association, apart from the view. Working with the staff and the Advisory Board introduced me to some of the best associates I have ever worked with. I have become a close friend of many of them and we have shared our ups and downs.

The Given has had its ups and downs.  Recently, with the impending sale of the Given, it has sometimes been down. We were never able to raise the money – about $10M – that would have been necessary to enlarge and renew the building to make it a year-round facility. We had a wonderful plan designed by Harry Teague, Aspen’s best architect, that would have provided eating and meeting space for 200 people, would have brought the building up to code for people with disabilities, provided food preparation areas and made the building a first class meeting place for year-round use. But that was not to be. The recession hit, making large-scale fund raising almost impossible and the University faced (and faces) a mountain of financial difficulties. Reality had to be faced. Now the Given is to close and will be sold.

But enough of sadness and regrets. I have to think of wonderful public lectures, stunning talks on stem cell research, psychiatry, cancer, heart disease: the start of the Mini Med School in Aspen (a huge success): the increasing awareness of the public about the programs – the public lectures, the Vision Fair, the Dental Fair, the Seniors day, the Brown Bag lunches at which local doctors spoke. I never attended a wedding here although we have about five ceremonies every summer (the deck must be one of the most glamorous places in Colorado to get married). I will remember the parties in the garden, the time that President Betsy Hoffman handed over the deed to the Dean, the wonderful food provided by our faithful caterers, European Catering,

But I will also remember some scary rides over Vail Pass in the winter and the time I was hit by an 18-wheeler while driving near Gypsum and stepped out of my well-built Saab without a scratch. I will remember days of powder skiing and the Music Festival, either sitting outside under the trees listening for free or sitting inside in a rainstorm that drowned out the music and was like being trapped inside a base drum. The brilliant Chinese violinist’s playing was inaudible and international relations must have been seriously damaged!

The quality of the scientific meetings and the information exchanged in the auditorium and in the garden is beyond value. Yet the Aspen community had little realization of the famous speakers who came and went anonymously to the Given: men and women who sometimes made decisions that affected the nation or influenced the future of healthcare. Sometimes the most important information was exchanged in the garden in informal discussion. Who knows how a beer or a glass of wine may have changed scientific history.

The doctors, scientists and government officials who have been coming to the Given for 30 years will miss the incomparable ambience. Some of them will move their meetings to other locations; a few are coming back to Aspen in association with the Aspen Institute.

The Medical School, under Dr. Krugman’s direction has been a generous supporter of the Given. For reasons that have never been clear the departments on the Boulder Campus have never been interested in holding meetings at the Given. Perhaps they thought that Aspen was too glitzy and expensive or too far away. Their reluctance was their loss. The Given is the only educational facility of the University west of the Continental Divide. Perhaps fuller support from the whole University could have made a difference in saving an important University presence beyond the mountains.

I would be remiss if I ended a reminiscence of the Given without thanking Don King who started the project, raised the money for the building and persuaded Elizabeth Paepcke to give the land on which the building stands. There were many distinguished Directors, Dave Talmadge, Frank Cozzetto, and Fred Battaglia. Under their leadership the Given changed from a “think-tank” to a distinguished conference center attracting nearly 3000 scientists and doctors  a year – apart from many local organizations and people. Many people will regret its passing.  

Dr. Bruce Paton is the chairman of the Given Institute.

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