Killington, Lifestyle, Ski and Snowboard, Sports

Women in the Vermont ski biz, not as rare as elsewhere

By Karen D. Lorentz

The history of owning and operating ski areas is one dominated by males. For a variety of reasons, including the era of ski-area development being a time when a “woman’s place was in the home,” women did not figure prominently in the founding and/or operation of  U.S. ski areas. 

However, the Green Mountain State was a major exception with several women leading Vermont ski areas as founders, owners/operators, general managers, or presidents. 

Pico Mountain, one of the 30 oldest continually operating ski resorts in the country, figures most prominently in this trend as do Killington and Okemo. 

Several other Vermont areas also benefited from women making a difference with their contributions.

The feisty Janet Mead founded and operated Pico with her husband, Brad, in 1937 but ran it by herself with help from Karl Acker and others after Brad’s premature death in 1942. June Acker ran Pico with husband Karl after their purchase of it in 1954 and carried on after he died in 1958. Verleen Belden handled the important accounting duties when she and husband, Bruce, purchased the area in 1964, remaining active until they sold in 1987.  

For 50 years, Pico benefited from the active participation and leadership of women, which also included female heads of ski school and the ski shop. Along with the hundreds of women who supported the children’s racing and learning programs through the active Pico Ski Club, women were integral to Pico’s direction — and reputation as a “family area.” 

Creating large ski areas from scratch

Susanne “Sue” H. Smith was one of the pioneering great “first ladies” of ski area development in Vermont. As one of several co-founders of Killington with her husband, Preston, she played a varied and ongoing role in the development of the East’s largest ski area. 

As an incorporator of the Sherburne Corporation, she served as a director and corporate secretary from 1956 until her death in 1995. In this capacity she oversaw stockholder-related matters and served as secretary for the board of directors. 

Sue Smith was indispensable for the many “little things” that she did in helping to launch Killington. She began the first “lodging bureau,” operating it out of the Smiths’ rustic farmhouse with part-time help. She stocked the first ski shop, did the bookkeeping, and when someone ran out of supplies or needed a chainsaw fixed, she attended to those errands.

(The late) Susanne  H. Smith viewed the creation of a ski area as “an exciting and adventurous opportunity.” She said of starting Killington: “We were not afraid to take risks and were willing to work hard to achieve our dreams.”

While “Pres” was busy building lifts and trails, she took the phone calls and handled the business details, including the stock transfers. Even after the mountain was open for skiing, she continued to host the many potential investors whom Smith would bring home. She was an impressive promoter for the project and a talented and outgoing hostess who could graciously manage home, children, and business details all at the same time. 

An avid skier, Sue Smith was interested in guiding the direction of Killington’s future in accordance with the 1968 Master Plan. Through her active participation, she contributed to the direction of the ski area and ski company, which became S-K-I Ltd. after a corporate restructuring in 1985 — and was, at the time, the largest ski-holding company that was publicly held and traded.

As a mother of two skiers, Sue often accompanied her children on the racing circuit throughout the U.S. and Europe. She also served on town committees in an effort to make Sherburne [the town prior being renamed Killington] a better place in which to live and raise children. 

Creating small ski areas from scratch

Virginia Cochran co-founded Cochran’s Ski Area with her husband, Mickey, when they bought a farmhouse with a backyard hill in Richmond in 1961 so they could provide skiing for their children. The couple taught thousands of local children and adults to ski at their rope tow hill and all four children went on to the U.S. Ski Team and were Olympians in the 1970s. (Barbara Ann took Slalom gold in the 1972 Olympics.) 

After Mickey’s death, Ginny’s vision of enabling kids to ski led to Cochran’s becoming the nation’s first tax-exempt, nonprofit ski area in 1998. The North American Snowsports Journalists Association gave her a lifetime achievement award in 2003, fittingly noting, “She’s a skier, first and foremost, a mother to skiers, a ski area operator, a ski instructor, a supporter of American ski racing and a benefactor of Vermont skiing.” 

Second area owners

Truxton and Betsey Pratt bought Mad River Glen from its founder in 1972.  After his death (1975), she ran Mad River until transferring ownership in 1995 to the Mad River Co-operative. She’s famous for banning snowboarders and carrying on the independent spirit of founder Roland Palmedo.

As Okemo’s second owner with husband Tim (1982 – 2018), Diane Mueller was the sixth woman to operate a Vermont area with her husband. As the “Director of Stuff,” a title she gave herself because she dislikes formal titles  [hers formally was executive vice president], she was instrumental in the area’s early emphasis on guest services, which in turn helped propel Okemo to the No. 2 ski area in Vermont and the East in terms of annual skier visits. 

In addition to participating in management meetings and decisions, she was a leader in the development of children’s programs and employee training. She expanded Okemo’s culinary offerings and focused on guest services, keeping in mind what a family goes through to take a ski vacation. 

Crediting her husband for “not being gender-biased,” Diane and Tim promoted several women to head ski school, ski patrol, human resources, competitions, and food and beverage departments in the 1980s.

Other leaders

In a breakthrough for women in the ski industry, Gloria Chadwick was hired as Big Sky’s marketing director in 1971 and a vice president of operations in preparation of the area’s opening in Dec. 1973. Wanting the challenge of helping another area develop, Chadwick moved to Burke Mountain in Northern Vermont where she served as president and general manager from 1975 to 1983. As a solo leader for a community-oriented area, she got a grant for snowmaking and spearheaded long-term expansion plans for the area. 

For her additional ski industry contributions, including executive director of the United States Ski Association (1961-68), first national coordinator for NASTAR, and director of the United States Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid among others, Chadwick was inducted into the United States National Ski Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Michigan in 1986.

Others also inducted were: Susan Plausteiner, who and served as CFO and owned Ascutney Mountain Resort with her husband Stephen’s family from 1993 to 2010, and Kelly Pawlak, who was the general manager at Mount Snow for 13 years. These women had important roles that contributed to the ski industry as one of the oldest, ongoing industries in Vermont. As such, it is important to the state’s economy, contributing $1.5 billion annually and 25,000 direct and indirect jobs. Vermont is now the No. 4 ski state by skier visits — after Colorado, California, and Utah.

As the ski industry changed and transitioned into the modern resort era with its service focus, many more women have been part of that and discovered more career and leadership opportunities at year-round mountain resorts.

Editor’s Note: Look for a related article, titled: “Ski industry careers are not just for men” in the next’s week’s edition.

One comment on “Women in the Vermont ski biz, not as rare as elsewhere

  1. Thank you for writing this Karen. As usual, your stories are thoughtful and thorough. I get asked all the time about women in the ski industry and this article will help me shed some light on a few women I was unaware of. Hope you are well,

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