By Karen D. Lorentz
Ski aficionados, friends and family gathered at the Grand Hotel in Killington on Saturday, Nov. 1, to honor Killington’s founder Preston Leete Smith.
Smith, 84, was the recipient of the Spirit of Skiing Award, which the New England Ski Museum (NESM) bestows on a person whose career exemplifies what Otto Schniebs quipped, “Skiing is not just a sport, it is a way of life.”
Bo Adams, NESM Board chairman, praised Smith as a pioneer who contributed to the sport to the benefit of all skiers. He noted that under his leadership Killington developed such innovations as the ticket wicket, the long ski season with early openings and late closings, the development of GLM, and the assemblage of one of the best management teams in the industry — all of which led to the phenomenal growth of the Sherburne Corporation.
He recounted Smith as being “hooked on skiing” by age 16 and finding great partners in (the late) Joseph and Mary Sargent, who was in attendance and recognized.
Recognition from peers, managers
Killington President Mike Solimano, who has been at the resort for 14 years, noted that he first learned about Smith through reading the book on the history of Killington and the employee newsletters where Smith shared observations with his staff.
Solimano said that in 1985, Smith had written, “I believe skiing is a great elixir” and had explained how the efforts of staff would be appreciated by our visitors and put a smile on their faces.
He also noted some of the challenges that Smith endured, including the mid-1980s mockery from a bumper sticker, “Where the Affluent meet the Effluent,” and a cartoon of a plunger riding a chairlift with a line “From toilet to slopes.”
This occurred when Killington began to recycle its treated wastewater for re-use in restrooms, not for snowmaking. [In fact, the perpetrators have since apologized, noting that Smith and Killington were ahead of the times in treating water as a precious commodity.]
Noting plans that Smith drew up for a village in 1967 and a memo in which Smith had written that he hoped it would be completed in 15 years, Solimano said, “we’re still hoping to start our village.”
On a bright note, he announced the snowguns were on and that the resort would open on Monday (Nov. 3), a date in keeping with Smith’s legacy of a longer ski season.
Solimano noted that the “key business drivers today are the same principles” he gave us in the 1980s, concluding, “Pres gave us a great guide to follow.”
Cal Coniff, a longtime, former president of the National Ski Areas Association, contrasted the Killington Road of the resort‘s first year and his drive up it that day, observing how many inns and businesses “owe their livelihoods to Preston.”
Referencing Tom Brokaw’s “the greatest generation,” Coniff said Smith was from the generation of the great pioneers in the ski industry. He praised Smith’s dedication to productivity, recalling a drive to get more productivity out of Killington’s lifts and cited Smith’s “knack for hiring good people” and ability to delegate.
Killington was “on the cutting edge of a lot of ski industry technology… Pres Smith always stuck out in my mind for his vision to build a good ski resort,” he concluded.
Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, hailed Smith for making “après ski what it is today,” which drew appreciative laughter. On a more serious note, he expressed gratitude for what Smith did for the Vermont ski industry, noting it is the number one ski state in the East and number three in the country today.
Killington’s first marketing director Phil Camp recalled being hired by Smith and told he “could do anything to get skiers here but to never go over budget.” Camp also said “it was all about the snow.” He recalled “the bucket and shovel brigade” that rode a chairlift to go up the mountain and get the snow out of the woods and onto the trails. It was illustrative of the dedication to provide a ski experience and a long season, Camp noted, thanking Smith for his career start at Killington.
Dave Wilcox, former vice president of mountain operations, thanked Smith for giving him “one hell of a career” of 45+ years in the ski industry. “Snowmaking, lift capacity, and budgets — boy was I part of that,” Wilcox said, adding, “he was an incredible leader.”
Praising Smith’s leadership and direction to his team, Wilcox told stories that illustrated Smith’s tenacity, observing that Smith always wanted to provide a ski experience, no matter the weather or conditions.
Wear ski clothes
Smith expressed being deep appreciative of the honor before sharing a few reflections.
Acknowledging Otto Schneibs for bringing an Austrian influence to this country and the Dartmouth Ski Team to fame, Smith addressed skiing as “way of life,” noting “some are born to it or choose to go there while others learn about it and yearn but can only be there part-time.”
The NESM is a “main anchor to our way of life,” he added.
“I was endowed with an innate love of winter,” Smith said, recalling his first snowstorm, when the snow was “above my waist” and “awesome.”
“I was four years old,” he added, noting a lifelong love and appreciation of winter and snow, skiing and ice-skating.
In true Smith fashion, he also shared his view of the industry, noting that one of his challenges as a ski area operator was to figure out how to “transfuse” that exhilaration found in mountains, snow, and skiing to all people.
He recalled discussing the “fundamentals to get people off the couch” with his second marketing director, Foster Chandler, noting they “spent hours trying to express in print” the joys to be found in the sport. Smith recalled a problem the ski industry still faces today — those who say, “I hate winter, I hate snow, I hate the cold.”
Noting how so many are lured to skiing by the beauty of winter and its many wonderful attributes from pogonips to rime ice, azure blue skies to the crunch of snow, Smith said “the problem is how to inform the other guy — not everyone will be lured, but everyone can do it.”
Acknowledging “the long road to become a good skier and diehard,” he mentioned the intimidation some experience on a first ride up to the top of a mountain as well as the lack of understanding about what the sport offers, noting, “it behooves us to protect the Alpine world from misrepresentation.”
Explaining that, Smith admitted to a “pet peeve” — weather reporting and the so-called wind chill factor.
It was developed from army tests, but wind chill factor refers to perceived temperatures on naked or exposed skin and is “downright misleading.”
We hear weather reports that “it is 38 degrees but the wind is going to create below freezing temperatures,” but that is simply “not true,” he stated, saying 38 is 38.
“But it happens all the time on TV,” he said, noting, “If you faithfully wear ski clothes, there is no wind chill.”
He suggested a “novel idea for meteorologists when it’s going to be extremely cold. Rather than scare people, tell them to wear warm clothes, and we could stop creating wusses,” he said, eliciting a gale of laughter.
“In all my years, I saw very few people skiing naked,” Smith said, as he told of skiing around the world and a lifetime of memories of “unparalleled adventures.”
“It’s so important to preserve and pass that on and that is the work of the NESM which deserves our support,” he noted, as he thanked those who contribute to preserving skiing’s heritage.
Smith concluded his remarks with one last admonition to “always wear ski clothes and avoid wind chill” and received a standing ovation.