Bob Parker, a crucial figure among founders of Vail, died June 29

Allen Best
Special to the Daily
Bob Parker skis Vail's Back Bowls in the late 1960s with Mount of the Holy Cross in the background.
Barry Stott | Special to the Daily |

Robert Ward Parker, a veteran of the famed 10th Mountain Division who returned to Colorado to become an integral figure in the post-World War II ski industry, died June 29 in Grand Junction. He was 94.

Much of his life was involved with skiing, from his childhood in New York and Wisconsin to training for mountain warfare in the Alps. Later, after working as a mountain guide and a ski journalist, he helped create the Vail ski area.

At Vail, which opened in 1962, his marketing efforts to draw the world’s attention were so successful that only a decade later, it was the favored mountain resort for Gerald R. Ford, even before he became the U.S. president. Parker also helped create a second ski area, Beaver Creek, during a time of increasing environmental scrutiny.

Skiing into history

Parker was born on July 9, 1922, in Evanston, Illinois, to Lester W. and Katherine Howard Parker. Because of his father’s work as a teacher, the family moved about often when he was a youngster.

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Parker first skied as an 11-year-old in Rochester, New York, using boots strapped to skis, the technology of the time. Three years later, in Wisconsin, he used the first toe-iron, heel-strap bindings, similar to those used today by telemark skiers. Safety-release bindings didn’t come until much later. The following year, in 1938, he rode a ski lift for the first time, at Rib Mountain, Wisconsin.

When the United States entered World War II, Parker was a freshman at St. Lawrence College (now University), where he was on the ski team. He had aspired to become a member of the National Ski Patrol, but instead enlisted in the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington. The regiment became part of the 10th Mountain Division, the U.S. Army’s effort to prepare for winter battles in the Alps or other mountainous terrain.

The division trained from late 1942 to early 1944 at Camp Hale, a new army base located along the Continental Divide about 130 miles west of Denver. The division attracted an unusual mix of skiers from elite schools, as well as ranchers and lumberjacks experienced with mountain travel.

In late 1944, the 10th Mountain Division was sent to Europe to help dislodge the stubbornly resistant German forces from Italy’s Apennine Mountains. Bloodied by fighting that was among the fiercest of the war, the 10th then pursued German forces across the Po River and, when the war ended, were driving them from the foothills of the Alps.

In Italy, Parker served as a radio operator in a regimental intelligence and reconnaissance platoon. He was later cited by the Army for calmly operating his radio, even when it was necessary to expose himself to enemy fire.

Near the town of Castelfranco, he was in a vehicle that drew fire from a house. A citation issued by the U.S. Army several months later recounted that he leaped from the vehicle armed only with a carbine and approached the window from which the shots had originated.

“He leaned into the window and, seeing one of the hostile soldiers trying to escape, he fired one shot, severely wounding the enemy,” the citation said. “Immediately, he sighted more enemy in another room, and by quick thinking, he was successful in the elimination of these soldiers also.”

The Army awarded him a bronze star with oak cluster.

After the war

After the war, Parker enrolled at the University of Washington, earning a bachelor’s degree in English in 1949. While in Washington, he became president of the university ski club, guided climbers on Mount Rainier and met his future wife, Barbara Guy. He also spent a season as a ski patroller in Aspen.

In 1950, he and Barbara moved to Europe, where Parker worked for the U.S. Army as an educator while also earning a certificate in French from the University of Grenoble. He also was awarded a diploma in mountain guiding by the French National Alpine School. They remained to ski, climb and bicycle extensively in the Alps. His 10th Mountain Division experience in Colorado had instilled in him a love of mountains, and this time in the Alps sealed the passion.

In 1952, he began writing about skiing as the European correspondent for National Skiing, a trade publication. In 1955, after moving to Denver, which was becoming the center for North American skiing, he served five years as editor of Skiing magazine. He stayed until 1962, when, after an argument with the publisher, Merrill Hastings, he took a job at Vail, the ski area then being readied for opening.

Vail original

At Vail, Parker left his most indelible mark. The ski area was conceived in 1957 by Pete Seibert, another 10th Mountain Division veteran, and a local ski enthusiast, Earl Eaton. Creating a ski area — and a few years later, the eponymously named town — from a sheep pasture required everybody involved to wear many hats. Parker wore more hats than most.

He named many of the ski trails, organized ski races and tapped his contacts to gain national and even international attention on a shoestring budget. He even reshuffled supply lines from Europe to ensure delivery of the resort’s first gondola in time for its scheduled opening.

Much of his early marketing involved ski racing. The U.S. Olympic Ski Team agreed to train at Vail in 1962, even before operations formally began. He was among those who lured Pepi Gramshammer, a famous Austrian ski racer then at Sun Valley, to relocate to Vail. In 1965, he worked with others to make Vail a venue for what in 1967 became the World Cup races.

In 1963, when snow failed to arrive early, he recruited Utes from Southwestern Colorado to perform a rain dance, which the Utes agreed could be called a snow dance on this one occasion. The snow didn’t arrive immediately, but it did come before the all-important Christmas crowd.

Parker coined the phrase “Ski Country USA” for Vail but agreed to let it become the namesake for Colorado’s skiing trade organization. He served as president of the organization. A later director, Bob Knous, remembers that Parker was clear about the need to “remember the past, see the future and apply it to the present.”

During Parker’s time at Vail, the ski industry rode a bulging baby boomer demographic and broadly rising prosperity to transition from a novelty sport enjoyed by economic and athletic elites to a mass-participation sport.

Vail, with its moderate slopes and easy accessibility, reflected that transition. During Vail’s first season, one day the resort had only 12 paying customers. By the time Parker officially retired in 1987, Vail Mountain was doing more than 1 million skier days per winter, tops among North American ski areas.

Rising success

Vail’s success was enabled by affordable, long-distance airplane travel. Under Parker, Vail created the first resort joint marketing program, working with American Express and two airlines.

“I don’t know if he was the first to figure it out, but he was the first to stand up and do something about it,” said Bill O’Connell, who worked as a marketer under Parker

O’Connell said Parker was open to new ideas. In 1980, for example, he asked for funding to reach out to Australian skiers. Skeptical at first, Parker warmed to the idea. Vail soon captured a major new international market. In the early 1970s, Parker launched a marketing campaign in Mexico, which resulted in a strong relationship between Vail and Mexico’s wealthy elites that also continues to this day.

“This sounds pretty cocky, but it seems to me that everything we wanted to do, we did. And everything we did, worked,” said O’Connell, who no longer works for Vail.

Harry Frampton, who arrived in Vail in 1981 to lead the ski company for four years, said Parker impressed upon him the importance of delivering a quality product.

“He believed strongly that if the product was terrific, the profits would follow,” Frampton said. “He was the conscience of the company.”

A tragic blemish in Vail’s success was a gondola accident in 1976 that claimed four lives. By then a senior vice president of operations for Vail Associates, Parker played a key role in hearings that absolved Vail of negligence.

Environmental efforts

During Parker’s early years at Vail, the nation’s attitudes and laws governing environment protections shifted dramatically. Parker was engaged in several efforts to preserve public lands near Vail with wilderness attributes.

One case involved a highway route. State highway officials in the mid-1960s favored a route for the new Interstate 70 through the Gore Range Primitive Area. Truckers and chambers of commerce from Denver to Grand Junction agreed that short, faster route from Frisco to Vail was better. Colorado environmentalists argued for hewing to an existing route. With Parker’s influence, the ski company backed environmentalists. They prevailed, with the result that I-70 today crosses Vail Pass instead of entering a tunnel under Red Buffalo Pass.

In 1969, he became the lead plaintiff in a famous lawsuit, Parker vs. United States, once again involving an effort to preserve the integrity of the same proposed wilderness area by precluding a timber sale planned by the U.S. Forest Service.

Congress, in creating the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area in 1976, included both disputed portions of land.

But the same increased scrutiny of environmental impacts created greater challenges for the ski company when it set out to create a second ski area, called Beaver Creek. The ski company envisioned it as a prime venue for the 1976 Winter Olympics, which Denver had secured as host city. Colorado voters thought otherwise, in 1972 yanking state funding for the effort. Denver was forced to withdraw, the only time a host has abdicated either Winter or Summer Games.

Beaver Creek was opened in late 1980, setting the standard for state regulatory review of ski areas. It was, however, the last major ski area built in the United States for several decades.

Terry Minger, a former town manager in Vail, called Parker a marketing genius of the early ski industry, perhaps the best. But Parker was also something more, he said: a visionary, the biggest-picture thinker among Vail’s founders.

“Parker was about the world and how that little place in the Gore Range fit in the world and what it had to offer the world beyond an expensive hamburger and an incredible ski experience,” Minger said.

Hall of famer

Parker was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1980 and the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1985.

After leaving the ski company, Parker moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he intensified his study of Southwestern archaeology. His research resulted in at least one non-peer-reviewed paper.

He also continued to write poetry. Three of his poems were published in the New Yorker in 1951 and 1952. He self-published a book of his poetry in 2006, and in his later years, he also published a book called “What Did You Do During the War, Dad?”

Parker is survived by his son, Guy Parker; daughter-in-law, Lori Parker, granddaughters Chandler and Arden; and also by daughter Katherine Parker and a son-in-law, Mark Mikow. Memorial services are pending.

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