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CMC’s ‘renaissance man’ Tom Buesch retires after three decades teaching at Aspen campus

A headshot from the Colorado Mountain College archives shows a younger Tom Buesch around the 2000s.
Courtesy of Colorado Mountain College
A headshot from the Colorado Mountain College archives shows a younger Professor Tom Buesch around the 2000s. Buesch, now 81, is retiring this year after a 32-year teaching career at CMC’s Aspen campus.

Tom Buesch remembers the Goethe Bicentennial in 1949.

He was there, just a kid, at the celebration of a German intellectual’s 200th birthday that helped launch the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the Aspen Institute, and that established Aspen itself as an international hub of performing arts and big ideas.

All this might interest the 81-year-old Buesch now, as a retiring professor of arts and humanities at Colorado Mountain College’s Aspen campus.

But back then?

“I'm 7 years old, I have to wear shoes — that was the worst part of the whole thing,” Buesch said. “And my mother dragged me to the tent because she liked classical music.”

Buesch eventually learned to like it, too — enough to attend more than 100 music fest events in a season, and enough to spend two and a half decades teaching music appreciation courses in a collaboration between CMC and the music festival.

“I know we appreciate [the music festival] but it’s so amazing,” Buesch said. “You know, you tell people all over the world, ‘Teah, I teach for the Aspen Music Festival — they just look at you and their eyes kind of glaze over, like, ‘woah, can’t imagine what that'd be like.’”

Buesch credits the late Aspen Music Festival leader Robert Harth for the opportunity to team up, and former festival artistic administrator Ara Guzelimian for collaboration in the classroom.

And he credits his mother for the origins of his own music appreciation. She used to send him Publisher’s Clearing House records in college, where he was studying German, English and literature.

“It's kind of like art, like painting: Music tells a story,” Buesch said. “And I guess because I'm a literature guy, stories and narratives are what mean something to me. So I guess I imagine, when I'm listening to music, that the composer is trying to tell us a story through music.”

But when Buesch started at CMC in the summer of 1991, music wasn’t on his resume yet. Then again, neither was the subject they hired him for.

“I went out there and gave them a resume that had German and computers on it,” Buesch said.

About five minutes later, a reviewer came back with an offer.

“And he said, ‘Can you teach philosophy?’” Buesch recalled. “I said, “Yeah, yeah, I can teach philosophy. Of course I can teach philosophy.”

That, too, was a passion: Buesch has “know thyself” tattooed on his right forearm, in the Greek tradition, and the Judeo-Christian “God is love” tattooed on the left.

He taught philosophy while working full-time as a programmer for a company with property management software, and soon added other subjects to his schedule as well.

“Eventually, I was way over the limit,” Buesch said. “I was teaching nine courses — you know, you're supposed to get a special dispensation for that. We just did it. … Aspen, you just do what you want to do. So I was teaching computer classes and literature, and English composition and philosophy.” 

All this from someone who says he wasn’t great in the classroom as a student or a teacher in his early years. He started teaching in a high school in 1965 and later taught at a university level as he pursued graduate degrees, but at the time, it didn’t feel like a fit.

“I was uncomfortable in the classroom, and I didn't know the material well enough to add a lot of enriching items to it that would make the class more interesting,” Buesch said. “And I assumed that the students who had me that time probably thought I was pretty boring.”

So he left academia for a 17-year stint working for a German automotive company before returning to education with the gig at CMC — which it turns out, he’s pretty good at after all.

“It was clear the most compliments I ever got, and the most frequently I ever got stopped … was [for someone to say] what a great teacher Tom Buesch was,” said Ann Harris, who worked at CMC for more than three decades.

Harris was the dean of the Aspen campus when the college hired Buesch and considers him an “exceptional” educator and person.

“Tom was really a star for us,” Harris said. “And it had as much to do with his brain, I believe, as his personality and his worth and his ability to communicate with people at all levels.”

Buesch is positive, upbeat, engaging and funny, Harris says.

He never let internal politics get in the way of his love for learning, and he seems to know something about everything from sports to arts to the history of “old Aspen.”

“Tom was almost the quintessential, maybe, renaissance man,” Harris said.

Buesch believes that broad expertise might serve this generation just as well.

“Study literature, study music, study stuff that's going to make your life rich, no matter what you're doing, because you can't predict what you're doing,” Buesch said. “You're going to start one direction, and you're going to probably wind up going some other direction. I mean, I did.”

The professor may be retiring from full-time teaching, but Buesch says he may still pick up some part-time work. In the meantime, you might find him out on the road or in the garage: the art of motorcycle maintenance is in his wheelhouse, too.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.