As Aspen icon Klaus Obermeyer marks his 100th birthday on Monday, friends and family say there’s really no secret to his longevity — he is a testament to the power of positive thinking and being mindful of one’s health.
“Happy people are healthy people and they live longer,” said longtime Aspen resident John McBride, who was 9 years old on a ski trip to Aspen when he first met Klaus decades ago. “He’s a terrific optimist. He’s a delight to be around.”
Klaus was born on Dec. 2, 1919, in Oberstaufen, Germany. He moved to Aspen in 1947 to teach skiing at the invitation of Friedl Pfeifer. He taught at Aspen Mountain for 12 years before he dedicated his time to his skiwear manufacturing firm Sport Obermeyer, which he continues to oversee.
Klaus has the most recognizable face in Aspen and it’s a face that is always smiling. He’s quick with a laugh. He always takes time to say hello. He’s as pleasant to strangers as to longtime friends.
Klaus Obermeyer Jr. said what you see with his dad is genuine. Klaus Sr. doesn’t just put on a good face for the public. He’s always positive.
“He never wavers from that,” he said.
Klaus Jr. said his dad has been a big inspiration in his life. They have always gotten along well. Throughout his life, he said, he’s had breakfast with his dad whenever possible. Even when he stayed out a little too late as a rambunctious younger man, he would rouse himself out of bed to spend time with his dad. His career as a filmmaker requires him to split time between Los Angeles and Aspen, but he still has breakfast with his dad whenever he is in town and speaks with him every night.
He believes the good nature of Klaus rubs off on those around him. He admires that his dad “has so much willpower and he uses it well.”
“He works his butt off at staying in shape. He really does,” Klaus Jr. said. “He just split a cord of wood last week.”
Another of Klaus’ sons, Wally Obermeyer, plans to share 10 lessons that his dad has taught him at a birthday party for Klaus on Monday. The lessons revolve around optimism, taking care of yourself and connecting with nature. He shared the 10 lessons, in no particular order.
Wally said Klaus always says, “Our greatest freedom is how we look at things. We have a choice of perception. We can choose to look at something positively or negatively.”
People often tend to get jaded as they age. That hasn’t been the case with Klaus, Wally said. He has stressed the importance of optimism. There’s no obsessing on the “good old days” for Klaus.
“He would say Aspen has never been better,” Wally said.
He also doesn’t let adversity drag him down. Wally said one of Klaus’ guiding principles is to attack a challenge.
“Our problems are our teachers, and we should embrace them,” he said, citing his dad.
Another lesson is “do what you love.” Klaus “absolutely loves skiing,” Wally said. Klaus told The Aspen Times a few years ago that he started skiing when he was 3 years old. He’s looking forward to his 103rd birthday so he can say he has spent a century on skis.
Klaus was inspired to start his company to make clothing and gear that would allow other people to share the joy of the outdoors.
Humor has always been and remains a big part of Klaus’ life. He is able to laugh at himself.
“His inventory of jokes is really good,” Wally said.
He treats his body as a temple. Klaus doesn’t drink alcohol, other than to be polite by drinking half a glass of wine on Thanksgiving, Wally said. His only indulgence is whipped cream on his daily morning coffee.
“We have one body, and we need to take care of it,” is Klaus’ motto.
Klaus still swims half a mile per day. He also studied the martial art of Aikido from Tom Crum, an acclaimed expert in conflict resolution, peak performance and stress management. Crum said Klaus is always “fascinated to learn.”
“His mindset is very, very strong. He has very good energy,” he said. “He has a meaning in life. That’s what’s giving (him) longevity and health.”
While Crum and Klaus don’t work on the physical side of Aikido anymore, they developed a deep friendship and regularly meet to talk about life.
“I would say Klaus is my teacher as much as he’s a student of mine,” Crum said.
Hand-in-hand with staying active is Klaus’ refusal to complain about his health, according to Wally. Even when Klaus gets a cold, he credits his body for telling him he needs to tweak something, like getting more rest.
Klaus also stays connected with nature, whether it is while skiing or on his midvalley ranch. Wally recounted how Klaus picked apples from his trees one day, then sat down on a chair on his open porch for a nap with the bucket of apples in his lap. Klaus awakened when a foraging deer started eating one of the apples.
Some of the lessons that Wally has learned from Klaus are bedrocks of his business philosophy. Klaus looks for “win-win situations” with the manufacturers that make and retailers that sell Sport Obermeyer clothing.
Klaus reminds his colleagues at the business, “Your reputation is your working capital,” Wally said.
Both Klaus Jr. and Wally cited their dad’s ordeal in Germany with sparking his eternal optimism.
“He came from such hardship and lived through such horror in Nazi Germany,” Klaus Jr. said.
Klaus was an aeronautical engineer working at an airplane factory in Munich. Late in the war, his boss warned him before he checked in one morning that Gestapo agents were inquiring about him, Wally said.
It isn’t widely known that Klaus is partially Jewish, according to Wally. The Gestapo learned of his heritage and presumably were preparing to take him to a concentration camp.
“My dad tried to escape by skiing into Switzerland,” Wally said.
He attempted to cross the guarded border at night but was spotted and ordered to halt. Klaus turned and was skiing on the German side when he was shot in the back. He skied off a cliff and shattered a femur. He eluded capture and was able to make his way to the nearest village, where nuns and a sympathetic doctor treated and shielded him.
“The war ended while he was still in the hospital in traction,” Wally said.
Klaus came to the United States at age 27. He’s often told the story of how he had to make a parka for sale because his ski school students in Aspen would get too cold to stay on the slopes. With no students, there was no pay. With a warm down parka, they would stay.
In his induction into the Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame in 2019, Klaus was credited for inventing zip turtlenecks, nylon windshirts, mirrored sunglasses, double-lenses goggles, two-pronged ski brakes, plastic ski boots and high-alpine sunscreen. He also has been inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame and of course the Aspen Hall of Fame in 2001.
He’s obviously worked with numerous employees over the years and is held in high regard by his team. Katie Wabiszewski is a longtime worker in the customer service department at Sport Obermeyer who also became a close friend of Klaus’.
“I feel like we’ve been successful here, and to be successful you have to be a great leader,” she said.
Employees are allowed the freedom to create their own success, Wabiszewski added.
Sport Obermeyer’s staff has the closeness of family. Wabiszewski goes to lunch frequently with Klaus and they used to regularly play tennis. Instead of intense matches, they would practice to sharpen various skills — and simply to have fun.
“We wouldn’t play tennis to play competitively,” she said. “We would just play until we would laugh ourselves to death.”
She’s always enjoyed Klaus’ sense of humor. He can make a joke out of any word or phrase that is uttered. He’s able to come up with little poems on the spot, Wabiszewski said.
“He just kind of seeks out the good in things,” she said.
And, of course, Klaus has reached legendary status on the ski slopes. Wabiszewski joked that Klaus is a solo skier.
“Mostly he was too fast for anybody to keep up,” she said. “It’s a fact. Ask anyone.”