Aspen Hall of Famer who served Roaring Fork Valley with philanthropic endeavors also donned many hats including teacher, physicist, tavern keeper and founded schools, nonprofits, community hubs, Flying Dog brewery

George was a legend and a hell of a guy … rŌbert

Longtime valley resident George Stranahan passed away Thursday in Denver after suffering a stroke and complications after heart surgery. He was 89…

Physicist and Aspen Center for Physics co-founder George Stranahan hosted a discussion on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity during the center’s barbecue for kids in June 2006.
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times file photo

Longtime valley resident George Stranahan passed away Thursday in Denver after suffering a stroke and complications after heart surgery. He was 89.

Stranahan leaves behind a rich legacy in the Roaring Fork Valley. He founded the Aspen Physics Center, the Aspen Community and Carbondale Community schools, the Woody Creek Tavern, the Third Street Center in Carbondale, and several nonprofits centered on social justice, education and community organizing.

He has held many titles over the years, including physicist, professor, philosopher, educator, rancher, photographer, author, publisher, philanthropist, entrepreneur, beer and whiskey maker, tavern keeper, record producer, husband and father.

Stranahan said last year that he wanted to be remembered mostly as a teacher.

His wife of 40 years, Patti Stranahan, said she and George talked about that role in his life frequently.

“George told me on more than one occasion that if he had one word to describe himself that he would be most proud of it would be ‘teacher’,” she said Friday morning. “He loved children and dreamed of times when they would be cherished, respected, and treated with dignity both in schools and in their homes.”

“Pilgrimospher” was another title he used, a philosopher who searched for new places, said his oldest daughter, Molly.

George Stranahan (Photo courtesy Lynn Goldsmith)

She said the greatest influence her father had on her was his generosity.

“He inspired us all to be curious and figure things out for ourselves and to think for ourselves,” Molly said Friday. “And if there is something to be done, you should do it.”

Stranahan, heir to the Champion Spark Plug fortune, was a workaholic who was constantly challenging the establishment, particularly around education.

It has played a major role in Stranahan’s life, despite that he himself suffered in a regimented, government-run public education system where teachers did not appear to care what he was interested in learning.

He often told the story of being in the third grade and standing on his desk when asked a question by his teacher and barking, “Me no know, and me no care!”

He turned those negative experiences into challenging the status quo in education for seven decades.

He first started as a teacher in the U.S. Army at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1955. He earned a Ph.D. in physics at Carnegie Mellon University and then became a professor of physics at Michigan State, as well as a high school teacher.

But that was boring work, he once said, so Stranahan relocated to Woody Creek where he found like-minded people and his tribe for life.

George Stranahan, Joe Bergquist and John Kent standing in front of the Woody Creek Tavern in September 1980. In the front row, from left to right, are Mary Kent (wearing an apron) and Brenda Jones, who is holding a small notepad and a pen. (Photo courtesy Aspen Historical Society, Kennedy Collection)

As a resident of Woody Creek since 1956 and a landowner of 1,500 acres there, Stranahan wanted to live in a community where people cared for one another.

“He is the most fascinating man I’ve ever known, and so sweet kind and gentle,” Patti said. “He changed many lives for the better and never thought there wasn’t more he could do.

“He’d get another idea or brainstorm and off he’d go to make it happen.”

That perseverance and dogged determination earned Stranahan a place in the Aspen Hall of Fame in 2007.

He was a rebel with many causes, Patti said.

Rabbi David Segal once wrote an article in which he described Stranahan as a “strategic troublemaker.”

“We both loved that notion,” Patti said.

Patti and George Stranahan at the the Harvest Fest – Holden-Marolt Barn in September 1997. Patti was on the on Aspen Historical Society’s Board of Trustees from 1991-97 and chairperson of Harvest Fest from 1990 to ’97. (Photo courtesy Aspen Historical Society)

When he wasn’t community organizing around social justice and alternative, progressive child-centered education, Stranahan owned several businesses.

He founded Flying Dog Brewery with friend Richard McIntyre, and his name graces the bottle of super-premium whiskey that is made by another friend, Jess Graber.

Stranahan raised beef cattle, including a Limousin bull, W.L.C.C. Turbo, who was declared the grand champion at the 1990 National Western Stock Show in Denver.

He published the Mountain Gazette in the 1970s and was a co-owner of The Aspen Times before Swift Communications bought it.

Stranahan was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1931. His grandfather, Frank Stranahan, co-founded Champion Spark Plug in 1903. One of six children, Stranahan described himself as a loner since his father was busy working and his mother was moving through the social circuit.

Life at home was shared with hired help, which didn’t sit well with Stranahan. He copped an attitude about privilege and it fueled his lifelong pursuit for social justice.

“I think he used his freedom to live his values,” said daughter Molly.

His wife, Patti, and their son, Ben and goddaughter Juliana Pfister, survives him. He also is survived by four children he had with his first wife, Betsy. They are Molly, Patrick, Stuart and Brie. He and Betsy’s third child, Mark, passed away last year.

He also is survived his brother, Michael Stranahan and sister Mary Stranahan and several nieces, nephews and grandchildren.

He is predeceased by brother Duane Jr. Stranahan (Pat), Stephen Stranahan and Virginia (Dinny) Stranahan.

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