From Big Success to Local Succor

How one donor found satisfaction in helping a unique community

As leaders of educational organizations, we’re often asked about impact. How do we know we’re making a difference? Whether we’re teaching first-generation college-goers or inspiring thought leaders and business people, the question is the same: How do we know that the information seeded in minds works its way through people’s hearts and changes lives for the better? 

Demonstrating success is never easy, but sometimes a particular example can illustrate it. For both of us, one of our proud illustrations is Jim Calaway, a donor leader for each of our institutions. Born to poor tenant farmers, Calaway finished high school at age 15, became the first person in his family to graduate from college, completed law school at the University of Texas, and was a Houston oil and gas tycoon by his early 30s. He lived the big life of penthouses, private planes, and butlers. Life was good—but somehow empty and unfulfilling for Jim.

Around age 40, he shifted into a new gear—one in which his success was measured by how well he could share his wealth. He was influenced in part by several lengthy conversations with a new minister. “I came to realize that expanding my philanthropic activities could be both meaningful and fun,” Calaway recalls. The more he gave, the happier he was. “I sold my house and downsized, ditched the boat, drove a Prius, and began living a more simple life. It was refreshing.”

Giving became a source of happiness, purpose, and community connection. “You don’t see too many U-Hauls behind hearses,” he quips, “so why not give it all away while you can enjoy doing so?” At age 84 he now lives in the small, earthy mountain town of Carbondale, Colorado. His neighborhood elementary school is mostly full of children whose parents work in the tourism or service industry upriver in Aspen—where houses regularly sell for $20 million. (Even amid the national housing downturn, at one point in 2011 the lowest-priced single family home in Aspen was listed for $559,000; it was in a trailer park.)

Calaway grew up a child of the Great Depression, and knowing the dichotomy between wealth and poverty made him want to help bridge the gap. He gets to know his community by having lunch at the Valley View Hospital cafeteria, the Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley campus dining hall, and a local pub called the Pour House that now has a special corner table designated as “Jim’s office,” where he talks with students and doctors and waitresses.

Enthralled by ideas

It was the Aspen Institute that brought Calaway to the Colorado mountains in the early 1970s. He started attending its seminars and purchased a condo in the area to be closer to events and conversation. He met Connie Hill, a student of the Aspen Music Festival and School, and married her. It was only a matter of time before the Calaways moved to the Roaring Fork Valley for good.

Jim’s philanthropy shifted when his residence did, moving mostly to locally rooted causes—“smaller organizations with heart.” He helped renovate an old elementary school into a catalyst for community development. He was one of the founders of the Thunder River Theatre Company, a local cultural hub. He raised money for a new Colorado Animal Rescue Shelter that has since cared for and placed 12,000 animals.

He also joined the board of the group that drew him to his new home: the Aspen Institute. With his own education having been career-focused, he dove into Aspen’s cultural programming. He even began taking liberal arts courses “for the pure joy of learning.” His initial class at Colorado Mountain College, a two- and four-year degree-granting institution with 11 campuses spread across the Rocky Mountains, turned into a passion for institutions that make quality education available to everyone.

“While living in Aspen, I often chatted with kids working in the restaurants, stores, and hotels,” says Calaway. “I learned many of them felt education was out of reach financially. Around that time, I became aware of the vital role of community colleges, and specifically CMC. It’s a unique jewel offering a wide range of certificates, associate and bachelor’s degrees, and life-long learning for transplants like me. I began giving scholarships for local kids to attend. I would meet with the students I supported each semester and was so impressed with what they were learning and how their lives were changing through education. I felt a great sense of pride in providing the resources for kids to get their degree. So scholarships became a pillar of my charitable giving.”

Calaway helped put together an alliance between Colorado Mountain College and the Aspen Institute. The new media school, partially hubbed at the college’s Aspen campus, for instance, is able to have its students interview national and world leaders who come to the annual Aspen Ideas Festival, the X Games, and other popular events. He has also asked philanthropist friends to support both organizations. One couple pledged a million-dollar gift for student scholarships and program development at the school last year.

Calaway encourages donors to avoid anonymous giving. “When someone’s name is on a building or a program, it influences others to join in,” he explains. Valley View Hospital’s Calaway-Young Cancer Center is but one example of his tenacity in recruiting matching donors who agree to lend their names to projects if he commits to doing the same.

“One year, we were expanding and renovating the athletic facility at our Aspen campus that Jim had initially funded,” remembers Aspen Institute executive vice president Amy Berg. “Another set of donors wanted their names on the new building. We asked Jim if he would relinquish his naming rights. He immediately agreed. What could have been an awkward conversation turned into another example where Jim recognized the larger cause.”

“Over my 84 years, I have developed my own philosophy,” says Calaway. “Help others. Cherish all living creatures. Be kind. For me, that is the essence of life.”

Carrie Besnette Hauser is president of Colorado Mountain College. Walter Isaacson is president of the Aspen Institute and namesake of the Isaacson School for New Media at Colorado Mountain College.


In 1939, Elizabeth Paepcke stopped by a small, out-of-the-way village in Colorado named Aspen. Wowed by the natural beauty, ski trails, and abandoned Victorian homes, she prodded her husband to come see it. Chairman of the Container Corporation of America, Walter was a busy man, but in 1945 he finally made time for a visit. Aspen would never be the same.

Paepcke saw unbounded potential in Aspen. The skiing was unparalleled. The Rockies setting was majestic.

The town was in shambles from the Depression, but that wasn’t going to stop Paepcke. Aspen would have a renaissance, and he’d make it happen. To create jobs for local residents, he formed Aspen Skiing Company. He bought up land for resorts and homes, made plans to invite prominent speakers for cultural enrichment, and erected an opera house. His third element of appeal was natural beauty, which he counted already in the bag.

Meanwhile the University of Chicago was up to something. With Germany in ruins after World War II, university chancellor Robert Maynard Hutchins wanted to use the two hundredth birthday of the German poet Goethe to encourage a post-Nazi humanist revival in that crucial country. Hutchins asked fellow Chicagoan Paepcke for financial support. Paepcke was glad to give it—if the gathering was held in Aspen.

So in 1949, a 20-day gathering began under a tent in a Rocky Mountain meadow. The headliner was German theologian, missionary, and philanthropist Albert Schweitzer. Playwright Thornton Wilder was in attendance, as was pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Over 2,000 people came, and many of them signed a petition asking for another gathering to think about deep questions in life. The Aspen Institute was born.

Today the institute holds seminars for leaders at campuses in Aspen, D.C., and Maryland. Conferences range over topics in education, health, energy, national security, and other areas. Still, the word “Aspen” mostly calls to mind its marquee summer event, the Aspen Ideas Festival.

The Ideas Festival in its current form was started in 2005. For ten summer days, participants gather in Aspen to hear daily lectures and debates, take in films, concerts, and exhibitions, and drink from a cornucopia of knowledge and news. A mix of donors makes it possible.

Even with philanthropic support, Aspen’s costs are far beyond average American budgets. With that in mind, the Bezos Family Foundation, established by the parents of (and early investors in) Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, has created programs to spread Aspen-like idea festivals across the country.

Every year the foundation sponsors 30 students and educators to attend the Ideas Festival as Bezos Scholars, then channel the big ideas and inspiration of their week in Colorado into a local version of the festival in their own school or community. The foundation offers seed funding to help make it happen, and since 2005 this initiative has launched over 150 local ideas festivals. More recently, the Bezos Family Foundation and the Aspen Institute have partnered to create the Aspen Challenge, which brings the ideas-festival formula to students in even more cities. —Ashley May

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