Austrian natives Werner and Isolde Haas on life in Keystone at 87 years old
“I have to tell you,” Isolde Haas said, “I think you have to be brought up with these things, these activities, these sports. It helps. Most of the people I know and ski with didn’t start until their 50s.”
On a calm February morning, Isolde and her husband, Werner, invited me into their home on the Keystone side of Summit Cove. She brought me coffee on a tray — “Sorry, this is a vacation home,” she said when all she had to offer was cream and sugar for the Keurig — and sat down next to her husband of six decades, she on a table chair, he on a plush couch in a living room with vaulted ceilings and bookshelves. It may be a vacation condo, a getaway the Austrian natives call home for just three or four months every winter, but it feels comfortable, clean, warm — homey.
“Hotel Grandma is very popular with the grandchildren,” Isolde said in a thick yet intelligible Austrian accent. Her husband laughed. Since 1991, the two have made the annual trip from their year-round home in Ohio to Summit County. It’s a ritual, so to speak, and at 87 years old, the two still love skiing as much as they did as children in Austria.
My first introduction to the Haas family came through Sandra DeGarie, a National Ski Patrol volunteer at Keystone who sent me several photos and an email message about Werner, whom she said still skis like the graceful, lifelong veteran of the sport he his. She was awed and inspired by him, and so she suggested I pay them a visit to learn more about everything: his Austrian heritage, his tenure at Ohio State University, his life before, during and after finding the Colorado vacation home in 1991.
I arrived that day expecting only to talk only with Werner, but when he invited me inside and introduced me to his wife, well, an entire world opened up. She described her first time on skis at 8 years old, when her father took the family from their home in Berlin to Alpbach, a classic resort near Tyrol in the Austrian Alps. There was no grooming and no snowmaking, and the children made a ski jump from scratch between hiking up and down the slopes.
“From then until the war started we spent Easter break in the Alps,” Isolde remembered. “They even put us in ski school and we had to walk up every run.”
So this was before chairlifts, when everyone had to earn their runs? I asked. Werner smiled wide.
“My son says, ‘Dad, I would never start skiing if we had to do that today,’” he said, drawing a smile and chuckle from his wife. Those early trips to Alpbach were shortly before World War II — tensions were already boiling across the region — but Isolde remembers them warmly, with a touch of nostalgia and plenty of good humor.
“My father use to say, ‘Come on now, if you don’t move you’ll grow roses on your skis,’” she said. A round of smiles and nods.
Gymnastics and opera
Isolde shares good humor with her husband. The two laugh hearty and often when talking about Austria, their children (three), their grandchildren (eight), their great-grandchildren (four), their shared background in academia — everything.
“We are very fortunate,” Werner said, referring first to their shared history on skis, then to their life since leaving Europe in the ‘50s. “We started as young children in Austria and then continued when we were here. But I’m not a skier. I was a gymnast when I was young — skiing was just something we did.”
The two met soon after Werner finished his doctorate in German at the University of Graz, the city where both he and Arnold Schwarzenegger were born, he was quick to add, although he admits, “not everyone likes him, but everyone knows him.” It was 1950, the same year he also competed at the World Gymnastics Championships in Basel, Switzerland.
Werner stood from his spot on the couch to show me a clipping from Vienna Kurier, “one of the biggest papers in Vienna” he said, and one that’s still around today. On the faded, yellowing pages is an image of Werner on the parallel bars. It was one of his best events along with suspended rings, and he began translating the German captions before I had a chance to ask.
“At World Championships Dr. Haas left a wonderful impression,” Werner read. “Of course he did, he had just received his doctorate months prior.”
Another round of laughter. While Werner was impressing judges on the Austrian national gymnastics team — there were no university teams then, just the national squad and private clubs like the one he joined in primary school, he said — Isolde was perfecting the cello. Her father, a renowned classical singer before WWII, named her after the female lead of “Tristan and Isolde,” a timeless opera from Richard Wagner, the German master of the form. She studied at the Mozarteum Salzburg — “It’s comparable to Juliard here,” Werner said between stories — and trained under Pablo Casals, a world-class cellist and conductor from Spain.
Isolde still plays today, although an accident in 2003 nearly put an end to her career when she shattered her wrist. Luckily, it happened within easy driving distance of The Steadman Clinic, where orthopedic surgeons repaired her wrist to once again play cello and piano.
“My musical expectations sometime exceed my technical skills on piano,” she said, this time following the laughter with the humble look of a skilled musician who knows her limits — or at least knows piano isn’t her forte.
In 1951, Werner was one of the first Fulbright Scholars to transfer from Austria to the U.S. He began his career teaching German at Springfield College in Massachusetts, and then moved to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst before returning to Austria.
By 1956, Werner and Isolde immigrated to the U.S. fulltime. The two weren’t sure what would happen, but they hoped to stay here and continue teaching at universities. Europe was just too volatile.
“I already knew the states,” Werner said. “I was familiar with the county, but this was also the post-war period. It was hard times in Austria. We thought we would be here for five years, and now, 50 years later, we’re still here.”
Skiing in their blood
After settling in the U.S. in 1956, the Haas family eventually made its way to Columbus, Ohio, where Werner joined the faculty and stayed for the next 30 years. He wrote 10 textbooks in that time and still returns to university every summer back in Austria, where he teaches German and she teaches German opera diction.
“As a professor at a big university it’s publish or perish, but I like to write,” Werner said. “Textbooks for me are an extension of what you do in you classroom. If you know what to do in class, you can extend that beyond to the textbook.”
Academics and athletics have always gone hand in hand for the Haas family, and between trips to the classroom, the two still cherish their downtime in Keystone every winter. Downtime doesn’t mean the two only occasionally hit the slopes: he gets 30 or 40 days every season, while she racks up at least 60 or more, including two days of racing (and several medals) at the recent Summit County 50+ Winter Games.
Then, there are the other activities, like square dancing at the Summit County Community and Senior Center in Frisco with the Timberline Choppers.
“’We dance at 9,000 feet,’ that’s out motto,” Werner said. “The thing is I don’t do much (dancing) in the summer so I have to get back into it when I’m back in town.”
Werner and Isolde’s skills on skis, however, will likely never fade. The two credit modern grooming and snowmaking for their time on the hill after 80 years old, and the two hope to continue skiing their favorite runs at Keystone — Jackwhacker, Diamondback, Sapphire — far into the future.
“My philosophy is that you have to stick with it,” Werner said shortly after posing for photos and discussing his own injuries, including a broken leg in the ‘50s. “A lot of people will say, ‘Don’t go out if you’ve had an injury.’ But that’s quatsch — like we say in German, it’s nonsense.”
Laughter from both at the German slang.
“You can’t stop because something bad happened.”
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