Around the Institute

In Remembrance of Paula Zurcher, 1928-2021

October 27, 2021  • Corby Kummer

“The whole exposure to the Aspen Idea and universal man appealed to me,” Paula Zurcher told the Aspen Times in a 2014 interview. The exposure to the Aspen Idea came straight from the source: Zurcher, who died on August 28 at 92, was one of the three daughters of Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, the founders of the Aspen Institute. In a lifetime of intellectual and spiritual quests, Zurcher both fulfilled and extended the constant curiosity and enthusiasm for adventure she learned from her parents. At a 2009 celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Goethe Convocation, which grew into the Institute, she offered some of her own advice to younger generations: “Don’t worry about following in someone else’s footsteps. Don’t worry about somebody else’s expectations for you. Go for what really fires you up.”

“She always called herself a seeker,” says Zurcher’s daughter, Ariane, a writer. “My mother was really proud of both her parents’ contributions to the Institute, especially Grandfather’s, and she took part in many programs. We all grew up with the idea of the Institute—the balance of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual seeking.”

Zurcher followed in her mother’s footsteps by attending the Foxcroft School, where the dual emphasis on the equestrian training (in which she excelled) and strong and independent academic thinking fueled her decision to major in philosophy at the University of Chicago. Her father and her uncle—Paul Nitze, the the national security official who helped shape military and diplomatic Cold War policy—envisioned a career for Paula in diplomacy, and Zurcher enrolled in graduate studies at American University in Washington, DC to explore that possibility. But her lifelong love of science drew her back to the University of Chicago, where she studied chemistry at the graduate level.

While working as a research chemist she married Victor Kinsley Zurcher and moved to California with him, along with her two sons by a marriage in Washington and Zurcher’s son by a previous marriage. The blended family of five children—Ariane and her sister, Antonia, were born in California—were raised as full siblings, in keeping with Paula Zurcher’s philosophy, as Ariane describes it, of “embracing all people.”

The interest in many kinds of people and ideas was, Ariane, says, “a strong part of my upbringing—also my grandparents, I think.” The founding idea of the Institute was to bring together disparate groups, starting with the businessmen that were her successful industrialist grandfather’s peer group. Walter Paepcke knew that successful executives needed contact with other people and ideas: “Don’t ever put me in a room with a lot of businessmen—they’re so boring,” he would say.

To counter US antipathy toward all things German after the Second World War, Paepcke paid tribute to Goethe in 1949, and at that seminal gathering Zurcher remembered waking at 6 a.m. to hear Albert Schweitzer practice piano in the room below her and her sister’s bedroom. The Institute that grew from the Goethe Bicentennial was dedicated to engaging different groups in new ways of learning, listening, and thinking—founding principles, Ariane says, that “my mother actively embraced.”

When Victor Zurcher had a life-threatening accident in his early forties, his wife pursued religion. But true to her family’s intellectual heritage, she immersed herself in many traditions, simultaneously attending Episcopalian and Jewish religious services and avidly studying both the Bible and the Torah; for 30 years Paula taught comparative religion. (This did not reflect any familial religious heritage; Elizabeth Paepcke, who treasured nature and was a founder of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, claimed to be a pagan, Ariane says; Paula wryly recounted that her mother eventually “forgave” her pursuit of religion.)

“I’m a learner,” Paula Zurcher often said of herself. That love of discovery strongly defined Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, and their children and grandchildren. “I’m a learner, too,” Ariane adds. “My mother and I talked about the role that curiosity plays in life. Without that, life becomes much less colorful.” The gift of curiosity was only one of the many gifts Ariane says she received from “my beautiful, complicated, brilliant, sensitive, compassionate, loving mother.”