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Obituary: James Breasted

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November 13, 1937 – March 19, 2022

James Breasted, a former Aspen City Councilman and Pitkin County Planning Commissioner who helped create the Roaring Fork Valley bus system and pushed for wilderness preservation of the Hunter Creek area above Aspen, died Saturday at his home in Carbondale. He was 84.

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James Henry Breasted lll (“Jim” to all familiars here) was born in 1937 in Colorado Springs, the son of James Henry Breasted Jr., a teacher and art historian, and Helen Culver Ewing Breasted, a homemaker. His grandfather, James Henry Breasted, was America’s preeminent Egyptologist in the early 20th century. His great aunt, Helen Culver, was Chicago’s first successful businesswoman and gave her cousin Charles Hull’s house to Jane Addams, founder of the settlement house movement in America.

Young Jim’s family moved to southern California when he was four. Two years later, his father became director of the Los Angeles County Museum. The Breasted children spent vacations at Desert Sun School’s summer camp in Idyllwild, California. Jim liked to recall that he first fell in love with mountains there, nestled among the Sierra Nevadas.

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In 1952, his family moved to Kent, Connecticut, where his father took a job as an art history teacher at Kent School. Jim was sent to the buttoned-up boarding school Phillips Academy Andover. He was a good student, but he hated the school. He ran away in the spring of his sophomore year. He was picked up by police on the Pennsylvania Turnpike trying to hitchhike to California. He finished out the year at Andover but already knew where he wanted to enroll the next year.

That was Putney School in southern Vermont, sitting atop a beautiful wide green hill looking out for miles across the rolling green countryside. It was the look of the landscape that captivated Jim first and only later the school’s invigorating progressive style.

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Jim first convinced the Putney admissions director (later headmaster) Ben Rockwell that he was an ideal fit for Putney, then prevailed upon Rockwell to convince his father that Putney was sufficiently rigorous. Jim spent only one year at Putney, for his parents took their five children to Europe the following year. Jim was enrolled in a French-speaking Swiss school on the Lake of Lausanne, Institut Monivert.

But Putney, with its wonderful music courses and unique approach to educating the young to challenge themselves in all aspects of creative, physical, esthetic, moral and intellectual life, left upon Jim a deep and lasting impression. At every opportunity when he subsequently attended Harvard, he went back up to Putney to hear the music, visit with Rockwell and contemplate the school’s Thoreauvian ethos for making the most out of all aspects of life.

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His generation was hearing from the Beats and from Hemingway and Salinger that living as a free spirit was far superior to the middle class careerist rat race. His parents still hoped he might find a career he liked. He kept stalling, working first a year after graduation in the Cambridge Tennis & Squash Shop in Harvard Square. Then he tried the Peace Corps teaching French to little boys in the Ivory Coast in Africa. He disliked the French rote learning system he was required to practice and came home midway through his two-year assignment. Threatened by the draft and the Vietnam War, he joined the Air Force Reserves, spending six months sweeping out planes in Texas.

He tried two stints of graduate school in architecture to please his father. But, by then he had visited Aspen with a friend, seen the mountains and heard the music festival. He gave up on architecture, moved into the Garret, took waiter jobs and was happy. Eventually he discovered Alpine Surveys and its wonderful flex hours for skiers and hikers like himself. He would keep his job as a surveyor there until the financial crisis of 2009 wiped out the business.

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The 1970s were his busiest years when he ran for office, entered numerous cross country ski races (placing 84th one year out of 5,000 racers in the 55-kilometer American Birkebeiner race) and married his youngest sister’s best friend, Jennifer Deveaux. They owned two older houses in Aspen and Woody Creek before he designed a third one for them in Aspen’s West End. That was sold for $55,000 in 1982 as they were divorcing. Recently, it sold for $10 million.

Jim had long since moved to Carbondale, living on Sopris Avenue until three years ago when he moved into the Crystal Meadows senior housing development. When Aspen’s list of billionaires reached a total of 50, Jim sent the news out to all his friends and family. Many of his buddies from the Garret had also moved to Carbondale. 

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“I love living here,” he wrote the Sun last April — his letters to the editor were famous — “Housing is being built right in town where it should be. People will still be moving here because they love this place. Aspen: eat your heart out.”

Jim is survived by his sister Barbara Whitesides of Newton, Massachusetts, his brother John Breasted of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, his sister Mary Breasted Smyth of Tamworth, New Hampshire, and his sister Helen Breasted of New Gloucester, Maine. There will be a small memorial gathering for him this Saturday afternoon in the Third Street Center at 3 p.m.

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