How the horrors of Dachau made Vail a better place

Steinberg had seen the worst of humanity at Dachau, and it drove him to try to achieve the best in Vail

by Allen Best

VAIL, Colo. – Vail o­n Sunday afternoon remembered Tom Steinberg, the man some called Dr. Tom. He was the town’s first resident physician, arriving in 1965, three years after the ski area opened and a year before the town was officially created.

He was 41 then but the most important thing in his life—and perhaps the most important thing influencing his contribution to Vail for the next half-century—was what he saw in the waning days of World War II.

Steinberg was not far off the Iowa farm where he had been reared when, as a private in the U.S. Army, he was in the first line of soldiers as the German concentration camp Dachau was liberated. He later told his son, Erik, that he almost shot a German soldier, but the German raised his hands in surrender just in time.

But there was the concentration camp itself, horrible testimony of the capacity of people to treat other human beings in inhumane ways. That’s what he saw at age 21.

Later, in Vail, as a doctor but also as a community leader, with several stints on the town council as well as other civic enterprises, Steinberg sometimes shared his war-time experience. That, said those who knew him best, played a large role in his thinking and in his motivations. He had seen the worst.

But he had also seen the best, the effort by America and its allies to right wrongs in the world. That was part of humanity, too. And that shaped his patient but clear vision for Vail.

He died in late September at age 93. No, he corrected the attendant when he checked into the hospital a few days before his death. He was 93 and a half. As one speaker at the memorial service, he was a stickler for details.

The war had also given him the opportunity to learn to ski in the months afterward in Austria. Then later, the GI Bill allowed him to continue through college and pursue the dream both he and his mother had had: that he would become a doctor.

As a physician in Missouri and then in New Jersey, he met his wife, Florence Ann Banashek, a nurse, who was the daughter of a Pennsylvania coal miner, the youngest of 11 children.

In Vail, they made an interesting couple. He tended to be reserved, but was still very social. She had a sometimes sharp tongue and brusque manner and had no use for what she perceived to be phoniness. She cared deeply about creating a quality community in its various dimension: physical, social, and environmental. She was a force in Vail in her own right. She said what she thought. If in every different ways, they very fundamentally operated with a shared vision.

The medical practice there was tough for the first few years, but got better as he tended to both skiers and to miners and their families. A mine continued to operate near Vail until 1977.

He had what a friend and fellow council member, Merv Lapin, described his dry, ironic and impish sense of humor. Once, a local resident who had been flyfishing arrived at his clinic with his rod in hand and the fly hooked into his ear. Steinberg asked his patient if he had a fishing license.

Shaping Vail with his values

Steinberg was also active in public affairs. As an elected official in Vail, he had a strong environmental bent. He pushed for open space and had a large hand in pushing restraints on the smoky wood-burning fireplaces that at one time were found in every condo, creating a valley of pollution during winter inversions to rival that of a big city.

Water also held his attention. He had a hand in forming a local group, the Eagle River Watershed Council, and was involve, at least peripherally, in the cleanup of the eagle river from decades of mining pollution. He was said to have been involved, too, in the various wilderness protections.

One case involved Solomon-like wisdom. A Wall Street figure proposed a land exchange that would have provided the U.S. government 2,000 to 3,000 acres of private inholdings within Dinosaur National Monument and other federal lands. In exchange, the U.S. government would have to give up one acre at the end of a street in Vail, along a ski run, for a new home site. Environmental groups figured it was a very good deal. Steinberg did not. He would have nothing to do with auctioning off the ski mountain to the highest bidder.

He spoke out, in the early 1990s, against Colorado’s stance to limit equal rights for gays, and he stood firm on limits on guns.

Because of his name, he confided, he suspected he was the target of anti-Semitism, of which there was some in Vail. Later in his life, when Holocaust deniers began gaining attention, he spoke about what he had seen, giving many talks throughout Colorado and to local hockey youth before they traveled to Germany, where they toured Auschwitz. “Dachau re-enforced Tom’s humanity and his desire to help people, and it make him a more caring and dedicated doctor,” his friend and fellow council member Merv Lapin said at the memorial.

He was a modern liberal who believed in the role of government in making life better for the average person. If it may be perhaps precarious to put words into the mouths of those who are departed, but those who contributed to this profile had no reservations when asked what he probably thought about the Trump presidency. He would have spoken loudly about a government of big lies veering toward neo-fascism. He was just old enough to have seen personally the results of that sort of thing.

A mentor to many, he left Vail and Colorado a better place, a lesson once again in how one life can touch so many others and in so many good ways.

It has been said before. “Strange, isn’t it?” said Clarence the angel second class in “It’s a Wonderful Life” to George Bailey after creating a different version of Bedford Falls, one called Pottersville.“Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Some of those other lives were at the memorial on Sunday afternoon, traveling from Taos and Jackson Hole, Crested Butte and Denver, to testify with their presence that there had been no awful hole to be filled in Vail.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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3 Responses to How the horrors of Dachau made Vail a better place

  1. Rodney Proffitt says:

    I think this is the best piece you have written…at least among the hundreds of articles I have read. It is clear, Tom made a deep and enduring impression on you. I can’t write as well, but I have the same continuing admiration for late Roger A. Sanborn. He, of East coast vintage, joined the 10th Mtn. Division, which brought him to Camp Hale here in Colorado. After the war, he and his wife started Sanborn Camps in Florissant. It was there I met him, and that changed a Kansas farm boy forever. Your hero and mine as well were part of Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”, and they lived up to that billing.

  2. Tom Fitch says:

    Thanks for this, Allen. I had not heard of Tom’s passing. He was a really great guy. I went to a talk he gave on June 6th, 1994 at CMC – 50th anniversary of D-Day. He was all decked out in his army uniform. Amazing talk. Amazing guy.

  3. Allen Best says:

    Wagner Schorr-Ratzlaff had this wonderful observation: “In medicine, physicians are either masters of minutiae or masters of the big picture. Tom’s canvas was broader than even the wide frame of family practice, and spilled over to a vision for how our society could work together.”

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