By Melanie Wong
Many Vail Valley residents will agree: There’s something about mountain living that is magical.
It makes you move here when you originally only came for vacation. It makes you stay for a summer when you only intended to stay for a winter. In some cases, it keeps you here for decades when you only meant to pass through.
As the second installment of a two-part series, SneakPEAK brings you vignettes featuring familiar faces from around town. Read on for stories featuring two longtime local residents who, unlike many others, never meant to end up in Vail. Now, they call it home.
Michael Staughton – restaurant owner
When Michael Staughton arrived in Vail in 1974, he didn’t plan on staying, and he certainly didn’t plan on planting roots and ending up as the owner of two of Vail Village’s most popular restaurants.
Staughton, then 26, rolled into town in his Volkswagen van, fresh from the East Coast, where he had worked as a tennis pro near Philadelphia for a few years. The job ended, and he decided to travel and work his way to San Diego, Calif.
“I had planned to get a job in construction or something until I figured out what I wanted to do,” says Staughton, a part owner of Russell’s and Los Amigos restaurants. “It was like, ‘Go West, young man.’ I wasn’t married and no kids, so why not? I was footloose and fancy free.”
Obviously, Staughton never made it to San Diego. A friend of his had come to Vail, and although he wasn’t crazy about skiing, he was game to stop by and work for a couple months.
He secured housing – a mattress under a kitchen table – and landed a job as a busboy at the Red Lion in Vail Village. One day, while walking to the village courtyard outside the restaurant, he witnessed The Great Race, an adventure race of sorts involving costumes, alcohol and events such as swimming in ski boots and riding tricycles.
“I was walking up Bridge Street, and I looked up and saw all these people just hanging around. People were dressed up in funny outfits, and then someone else comes screaming around the corner being pushed on a gurney, all dressed up. The person in the gurney took a drink of whiskey and a shot and screeched off again down the street,” he laughs. “It was a huge race, and it looked like everyone was having so much fun, and I thought, ‘I might stay here awhile.’”
Staughton not only stayed, but also became The Great Race team captain for the Red Lion team for three years. He learned to powder ski, and eventually became the maître d’ and then manager of several village restaurants.
In 1985, he became a part owner in the slope-side Mexican restaurant, Los Amigos, and in 1989 became a part owner of Russell’s. He still resides in the valley with his wife and 13-year-old son.
“Vail is Vail, and I loved it. There were probably 3,500 people here when I got here, and now it’s grown,” Staughton says. “It’s a huge difference, but I still like that small-town feel, when you walk up and down the street and know most of the people.”
Ben Krueger – retired Vail Recreation District Superintendent
Chicago native Ben Krueger had always loved skiing and the mountains – he met his wife, Celine, skiing in Michigan, and made annual ski trips to Aspen and Winter Park with a friend as a young man.
However, Krueger, now 75, never planned to set roots in Vail, much less raise several generations of Kruegers in the valley. As he puts it, he was on his way to Aspen for a job interview, but never made it.
Before coming to Vail, Krueger spent time as an Army paratrooper from 1958 to 1960, and later moved to Denver, where he designed golf courses. He and a friend decided to take a ski trip to Vail and Aspen, and specifically to inquire about a job offer in Aspen. While skiing in Vail, they stopped in the corporate headquarters to check out jobs, then headed out on the slopes.
“We were skiing and heard on the loudspeakers, ‘Will Ben Krueger come down to the office after skiing,’” he remembers. “I met with the entire newly formed board of the Vail Rec District, and they asked for my resume.”
Krueger moved to Vail with his wife and two young sons in April of 1967. As manager of the town’s budding rec district, he was in charge of taking care of the golf course’s existing holes and building 12 more, along with maintaining the tennis courts, outdoor ice skating rinks and landscaping. He had worked as a caddy on golf courses since he was 10 years old, and later in maintaining and designing them, but Vail’s course presented special challenges.
“It was swampy, rocky land, and the Gore Creek would rise up some years, leaving standing water,” Krueger says. “It was a challenge.”
Kreuger continued working for the rec district for the next 24 years. Today, he lives in Avon, and his four grown children and eight grandchildren also live in the valley. The family fell in love with the mountain summers, and all became extremely involved in the community. For the family, Vail was just “ideal,” he says.
Last fall, Krueger published a book, called “Ben Here” (referring to his customary way of answering the phone all those years at the rec district), chronicling the building of the golf course.
“Every movie or book you ever see about Vail is about skiing,” he says. “But what about the golf in the summer? It just sets the record straight.”