What happened when the Jersey girl met the oilman
The romantic tale of Ellie and George Caulkins
She was a Jersey girl who had never been west of Pittsburgh. He was a Western oilman with a fast car and a head for business. They met on a charter flight for a European ski vacation.
And that, as they say, was that.
“We were married two weeks to the day later, which some people say is crazy,” Ellie Caulkins recalls. “Somehow, it lasted for 43 years. So I think it was a pretty good thing.”
After they married, George brought Ellie to Colorado – a shock for the Orange, N.J. native.
“But George had been here for several years; he had moved his oil business from Oklahoma City,” she says. “All of his associates became my friends. It was a ready-made group of people I was so lucky to get to know.”
Vail was just getting started. Money was being raised, and George was at the center of that action.
“Vail needed to start big,” Ellie says. “It couldn’t be a rope-tow and a couple of T-bars. It had to be a very big deal, and it was going to require a lot of money. So they developed the concept, which ended up being a Harvard Business School case study. They decided to raise the money in increments of $10,000.”
George and another Vail founder, Pete Siebert, hopped in George’s Porsche and drove around the country, wooing potential investors with an 8mm movie of people skiing and playing golf in the same day in Vail. For their $10,000, backers received four lifetime lift passes, a lot option on which they had to build in the first two years, and stock in Vail Corp.
And it worked.
“People were inspired to jump in. Nobody thought they’d get their money back. They just did it for fun,” Ellie says. “It turned out to be a very good business. But what it started out to be was a labor of love.”
On Dec. 15, 1962, Vail Mountain opened for skiing with two chairlifts, one gondola and a $5 lift ticket. During its first season, the mountain recorded 55,000 skiers.
In the years to come, that would include more of the Caulkins clan. Ellie and George had five rowdy, athletic children, and around baby No. 4, Ellie decided she needed an escape.
The year was 1969. The place was the University of Colorado Denver. The class was called “Opera as Literature,” with professor Dick Dillins.
“It changed my life,” Ellie says. “He played a bunch of selections from different operas. And they were so moving; I thought, I’ve got to learn more about this.
“When you’re interested in something, people want you to do things to help out.”
And help she did – with the auditions in the Rocky Mountain region for the Met, with the Met itself, and with the founding of Opera Colorado, which opened its first season on April 4, 1983, with three performances of Otello.
“She almost is Opera Colorado,” says her long-time friend, Marcia Robinson. “She was so instrumental in founding it, in funding it. She’s smart. She knows how to get things done. And she loves opera.”
Ellie Caulkins served several terms as chair of the board, and she helped pass the bond issue to renovate the dilapidated Auditorium Theatre, which was built for the 1908 Democratic National Convention.
It became clear, however, that turning it into a true opera house was going to take private money.
Enter George – who loathed opera almost as much as he loved his wife.
“George was approached to make a gift to the renovation,” Ellie says. “And I guess he said, ‘How much would it take to name it for my wife?’”
George pledged $7 million in 2004 for the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
“Well, it’s turned out to be not only a wonderful thing for Denver, but a wonderful thing for me and my family,” Ellie says. “The credit really belongs to the people of Denver. It’s going to be here for many generations.”
The Ellie Caulkins Opera House attracts opera singers from around the world, and operates as the home of the Colorado Ballet, as well as a venue for the Denver Film Festival and Broadway shows.
“It’s a little embarrassing when people ask me, ‘How are you related to the person they named the Opera House for?’” Ellie says, and laughs. “I say, ‘She’s not dead. It’s me.’”
Opera Colorado is still going strong, reaching more than 30,000 children and adults every year through its education and community engagement programs, including students from 87 schools and 23 districts. Ellie Caulkins is honorary lifetime chair of its board.
Vail, meanwhile, welcomes more than 1.6 million visitors during the season, making it the nation’s highest volume ski resort. It’s also the largest, with 193 trails and seven Back Bowls spread over 5,289 acres.
George skied right up to his death in 2005 at the age of 83, despite having both a hip and shoulder replaced. Ellie, now 78, still hits the slopes with her grandchildren.
“I’ll do downhill for a few more years,” she says. “After that, I’ll do cross-country.”