River Valley Club Co-Owner, Dartblog Writer Joe Asch Dies at 60

  • Joe Asch at his home in Hanover, N.H., on Aug. 7, 2012. (Valley News - Ryan Dorgan) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Hanover — Joe Asch, a prominent Upper Valley businessman and blogger known for his sharp criticism of Dartmouth College administrators, died on Tuesday. He was 60.

His death was an apparent suicide. Responding to the report of an unconscious male at about 9:30 a.m., first responders found Asch dead at his home, situated about a mile south of the Dartmouth Green, Hanover Police Capt. Mark Bodanza said in a news release.

A letter attributed to Asch saying goodbye to family and friends was published on Dartblog, the site where Asch published his reports on Dartmouth, but was removed a short time later after being posted around midday.

Asch, who co-owned the River Valley Club, was known to friends as a fighter unafraid of confrontation when advocating for a cause or on behalf of himself. And much of that energy was directed at Dartmouth, his beloved alma mater.

“This really is a big loss for Dartmouth,” said Frank Gado, Asch’s friend and a 1958 Dartmouth graduate. “There are not enough independent voices, enough people who look beyond their immediate space and ambitions.”

Asch, who began regularly writing for Dartblog in 2009, often took aim at what he saw as the school’s wasteful spending, generous health benefits and ineffective leadership. He referred to current President Phil Hanlon’s administration as “chaotic,” and said past president Jim Yong Kim contributed “nothing over the past three years.”

While some worried that his writing and reporting might damage the school’s reputation, others pointed out that his near daily posts reflected his devotion to the college.

“Obviously, I care about Dartmouth because I think Dartmouth has potential,” Asch told the Valley News in 2012. “It still is an extraordinarily special school.”

Rick Mills, Dartmouth’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, didn’t view Asch as the enemy. They occasionally met for coffee at Lou’s in downtown Hanover to hash out differences.

“Joe was clearly controversial, but he loved Dartmouth,” Mills said. “He did things with a passion, and Dartmouth was one of those passions.”

Asch, a Montreal native, came to Hanover to attend Dartmouth in 1975, graduated in 1979 and earned a degree from Yale Law School in 1983.

He then went on to work at the global consulting company Bain & Co. before starting his own medical products business in England. The River Valley Club, the fitness club off Route 120 in Lebanon he helped found, was started three decades ago.

“Driven by entrepreneurial passions, Joe has brought a spirit of community and drive for over 20 years in building this club,” River Valley CEO Jennifer Poljacik wrote to club members on Tuesday. “We will stay open to continue with great service as Joe would have wanted and will keep you all informed as further plans to honor Joe evolve.”

But Asch wasn’t just a businessman to the many students he sought out to write for Dartblog. He became a mentor and friend to many aspiring writers, said Michael Beechert, a 2016 Dartmouth graduate and Dartblog contributor.

Beechert said he was contacted by Asch after writing a column for the student-run newspaper The Dartmouth. Asch was always quick to offer advice and opened his door to students seeking it, he said.

“He was a great friend of mine. He was incredibly generous to me and many other people,” Beechert said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “He cared a lot about his family, his friends, about Dartmouth College.”

“He was very astute and very much engaged, and I think he always had the good of the college in mind,” said Gado, a Hartford resident and professor emeritus of American literature at Union College.

Gado met Asch in 2007, when they became close allies opposing a Dartmouth College trustees’ decision to expand the number of hand-picked, or “charter,” trustees. Many alumni who were upset by the change argued it violated an 1891 Dartmouth resolution that led to parity between the alumni-elected and charter trustees

The college outspent its opponents in its campaign to alter the composition of the trustees board, but Dartblog helped even the fight, Gado said.

Gado said he stayed in touch with Asch, who went on to mount an unsuccessful campaign for trustee in 2010.

Asch’s confrontational style also came into play in his dealings with the Lebanon Planning Board, which he accused of overstepping its authority and scaring off future development.

He objected in 2015 to the board’s mandate that he install sprinklers in the River Valley Club’s FitKids Childcare center. The fire department recommended the sprinklers because of the young age of the children that would be enrolled in the program.

But Asch said the construction would cost an additional $75,000 and wasn’t required by the International Building Code. He ultimately relented, and the sprinkler system was activated in April of this year when a fire started by an electric stove was put out at the 9,400-square-foot building.

“The Lebanon Planning Board is widely held in disdain by most people who build in the Upper Valley,” Asch wrote in a 2016 letter to the Valley News. “The board makes construction inordinately difficult, expensive and time-consuming. It has increased costs for everyone, and it has driven away from our community companies who are unwilling to waste money on unnecessary construction.”

Asch was scheduled to appear before the Planning Board again on Tuesday night to present plans to expand the child care center.

“He was a very driven person,” said Dan Nash, a Lebanon engineer working on the expansion. “When I got his mind on something, he was all about striving for the goal.”

But Asch recently had been dealing with a series of personal setbacks.

His wife, Elizabeth, filed for divorce in July 2017, court records show. The couple, married since 1995, had been separated since January 2017.

Along with the divorce proceedings, which were alluded to in the farewell note posted on Dartblog, the couple was battling in court over control of the RVC’s day-to-day operations. Joe Asch had served as the club’s manager since 1998, successfully taking it through bankruptcy in 2001.

But in Grafton Superior Court, Elizabeth Asch recently challenged her husband’s authority, arguing that she owns 52 percent of Woodrow Fitness, the company that owns and manages the RVC.

As part of the case, Joe Asch, dressed in gray slacks, a sweater vest and white tennis shoes, testified for more than four hours last week in the North Haverhill courtroom. After hearing nearly two days of testimony, Judge Peter Bornstein denied Joe Asch’s motion that he be appointed manager of the RVC.

The judge indicated that he planned to grant Elizabeth Asch’s proposed order that she serve as the club’s manager for the time being.

But the case was far from settled. An additional hearing was expected to be held in late November.

Asch built the RVC into the Upper Valley’s premier health and fitness club, with 3,000 members who pay $1,000 or more annually in dues. The private club features indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a spa and a hair salon, along with four indoor tennis courts.

The RVC is a “thriving business” with total sales of $10 million a year, Asch’s attorneys stated in court documents.

“It’s my business,” Joe Asch said during his testimony last week.

 News staff writer Jim Kenyon contributed to this report. Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — a free, 24/7 service — can be reached at 800-273-TALK (8255).