A.O. Forbes’ odyssey to CRMS

by Aimee Yllanes

By Jeanne Souldern Published Apr. 13, 2022 in The Sopris Sun

A.O. Forbes is retiring from teaching, having completed his 33rd year at Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS), a school he attended and graduated from in 1969.

To encapsulate Forbes’ legacy — as a teacher, coach, mentor, husband, father, and grandfather — in one newspaper article, led us to discuss topics central to a well-lived life: education, love, politics, war, and heroes.

His father, Gordon Forbes, was a decorated B-24 pilot with the Navy in World War II, and “when we’re little, he’s flying for American Airlines, and inherits money.” Around 1955, his father quit his commercial pilot job to become a book author and move the family to Switzerland.

At age six, Forbes and his family moved back to the United States. “We moved to Aspen because Aspen is kind of the English-speaking equivalent of Davos, Switzerland,” Forbes shared. 

Forbes remembers a third-grade teacher asking him, “Who’s your hero?” After naming Hector and Achilles, he settled on Odysseus, the eponymous hero of the Odyssey, “because he’s nuanced and human and fallible, and he has the spectrum of all that we are.”

His mother, Patsy, was a teacher, and, while simultaneously working the stock market, his father opened The House of Lum Chinese restaurant in Aspen.

Forbes has fond memories of growing up in Aspen. “I was so exquisitely cared for, both by my parents and Aspen, as this community where I grew up — it was small. It’s like that ‘it takes a village’ kind of thing, but basically, Aspen was truly like that back then.”

John and Anne Holden were former faculty at the Putney School, a private boarding school in Vermont, who came to Carbondale to “start a school akin to Putney,” Forbes explained.

Forbes said, “I was set to interview to go to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, as we came from the East, and my mother was always going to send me back East to get me polished for whatever life would bring my way.”

However, he was also set to interview with Wells Kerr, a former dean at Exeter, who was teaching Shakespeare at CRMS. Forbes recalls, “Wells had to be in his 80s, and was this delightful human being. He said to my mother, ‘Don’t send him East, just send him here [to CRMS].’”

Forbes said CRMS, founded by the Holdens in 1953, “along with John Dewey’s philosophical basis, and Kurt Hahn’s Outward Bound kind of influence, created a school centered on education within a community.” He added, “The school’s foundational beliefs hold to this day. It’s a miracle that this school has made it and is doing so well because I think it’s the most timely, profound educational philosophy you could ever conjure up.”

But it was also 1969, and the height of the Vietnam War. Young men were assigned random draft lottery numbers, based on their birthdays. Men with lower numbers were called first and were required to report to induction centers. Forbes’ draft lottery number was four. “I had a draft number that was either go to college and get a student deferment, or do something heroic like go to jail. I went to school; it was easier,” he said.

Journalist and anti-draft activist David Harris was then married to folk singer and fellow activist Joan Baez. In February 1969, Harris and Baez visited the CRMS campus. At the time, Harris was expecting to be convicted for refusing to report for military service and, in July 1969, was sentenced to three years in prison.

Forbes vividly recalls their visit. “Joan Baez just showed up there at breakfast one morning. I was eating my Raisin Bran and thinking, ‘Jesus, you guys are courageous.’ But I was also thinking, ‘I don’t know what this means’ — it was all pretty abstract. The evening news with Walter Cronkite, with coverage from Vietnam, was right up front and personal, as you’re watching these horrific scenes of war unfold.”

In fall 1969, with the draft looming, Forbes went to the University of Colorado Boulder, where he earned a degree in geography and continued on to graduate school.

Forbes taught for 12 and a half years at Fairview High School and Casey Middle School in Boulder. 

While working in public schools, Forbes said, “I kept trying to make the school into CRMS, and it was exhausting. It was so viscerally wonderful to take somebody, who has never been to the San Juan River, and put them on a raft, and then the next day, they’re over at your house building a frame for a boat they haven’t even yet bought. It was profound, but it was exhausting.”

At the time, Chris Babbs was the head of CRMS. Forbes said, “He wrote me a couple of letters saying I should try this. I had just won a Teacher of the Year Award and was feeling affirmed. I wanted my kids to attend CRMS and knew there wasn’t any way I could probably afford to do that other than teaching here.”

He was able to get a couple of years’ leave of absence from Boulder. “It was totally different. I got to teach more of things that were pertinent to my interests,” Forbes said.

Coming on board at CRMS, he was teaching geology and ninth-grade geography and coaching the soccer team. He added a class in geopolitical studies, which he still teaches today, at Roaring Fork High School (RFHS) called “Tomorrow’s Voices.”

At CRMS, he said, “you have this latitude.” He has taken students to work in a Denver homeless shelter, or to Selma, Alabama, to see the National Lynching Memorial or kayaking along the Baja Peninsula to Oaxaca. “The power of CRMS is the relationships that you’ve created with your colleagues and students.”

Forbes met his wife, Janice, on a river trip in Boulder. “Recently, I was telling students about what [American novelist] David James Duncan talks about as wonder, like being swept away by love. I asked them, ‘How many of your parents are still married?’ One girl said, ‘That’s not the right question.’ When I asked what was, she said, ‘How many of them still love each other?’ That was beautiful. I keep telling my kids that I can’t believe how I lucked out big time.”

Forbes’ son, from his first marriage, Jesse, has three children and lives in Boulder. His daughter, Kate, lives in California and has two children. Nick teaches at Riverview School in Glenwood Springs. All three attended CRMS and Forbes was their soccer coach. Currently, Nick is the head coach for RFHS Rams boys soccer team.

Former Aspen teacher Willard Clapper and Forbes grew up together in Aspen. When Clapper retired in 2000, Forbes continued teaching “Tomorrow’s Voices” to “create engaged voices that aren’t cynical, burned out or apathetic.”

He says everyday heroes are everywhere. “There are little embers of heroic behavior in Ukraine right now. We have such a hunger for meaning. My whole thing with students is, if you share your humanity, nobody can turn it down. I love being in a place where people’s humanity is effervescent. That’s where more of those heroes can be seen and felt.”

On leaving CRMS, Forbes said, “It’s this profound place to teach. It’s addictive because it’s so compelling and contagious, but I’m 70 and I’ve got grandkids. It’s definitely bittersweet.”

And our community and world are all the better for your years of service, A.O.

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