Four generations of fun: Olson/Parker family are fourth generation Vail skiers
January 5, 2018
VAIL — Time passes, as it always does, and before you know it you're watching your great-grandson become your family's fourth generation to ski Vail.
These days, it's as easy as boarding a jetliner to travel from Houston to Vail.
But when Sam and Norma Lee Olson started coming in Vail's first season, 1962-63, it was a three-day drive to a rough-and-tumble mountain town with dirt streets.
If you called central casting for a classy, spirited, strong-minded Texas woman, then they'd send you Norma Lee Olson.
"I screamed and hollered when we first went to Vail, but guess who loved it more than anybody," Norma Lee said. "It truly is my little spot of heaven on Earth. My heart skips two or three beats when I talk about it."
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That first trip, many of Sam and Norma Lee's Houston friends had invested in the upstart ski area, and wanted to see what their investment looked like. About all they knew was what George Caulkins and Pete Seibert had told them.
Norma Lee says she remained unconvinced, but not for long.
"I was a Grade A you-know-what when it came to putting any Texas money in that Colorado bucket of snow. I told Sam, 'We are not doing this.' But before long, I was scared to death we wouldn't invest," she said.
Sam and Norma Lee loved what they saw, bought a place in Manor Vail and made it a family affair.
"Vail is my happy place. It's my mom's happy place," said Cindy Parker, Sam and Norma Lee's daughter.
Just this week, Parker Pope, Sam and Norma Lee's great-grandson, became the family's fourth generation to ski Vail.
Norma Lee calls herself a reluctant skier, and at one point told her instructor "what he could do with those skis."
"That Houston bunch told me I had to learn to ski or I'd have to sit in the village playing bridge, which I despised," Norma Lee said.
She learned to ski on Showboat."I learned to ski fast. I had to, because they wouldn't wait for me," Norma Lee said. "It's the most exhilarating thing I've done," she said.
Before long, even broken bones wouldn't get her off the slopes. When a man clipped her from behind in Game Creek Bowl, she refused to give up a minute of skiing with her family. She finally went to a doctor after they returned to Houston, only to learn that she had skied all week with a broken collarbone.
For that first trip the Olsons packed their three kids, Bill, Janet and Cindy, and headed to Vail with a group that read like a Who's Who of Vail Pioneers.
Joyce and Gene Murphree were in that original 1963 group. They owned the land where Pepi's Gastof Gramshammer is now which Pepi and Sheika opened in 1964.
Raymond and Camille Hankamer came, too. They and their partners built, owned and operated Vail Village Inn, the first hotel to open in Vail.
They drove in, and stayed at the Vail Village Inn with much of the Texas contingent.
"Early Vail was wonderful and sparse," Norma Lee said.
The Lodge at Vail had just opened, and there was a gas station on the corner. They had breakfast up the street at the Red Lion.
The Olson clan skied Meadow Mountain when it was open (1966-69). They were here as Vail paved its first streets (1968). They skied Northwoods when it opened. They were on Beaver Creek for Opening Day, Dec. 15, 1980, warming up in the tennis bubble at the bottom — the only structure in Beaver Creek at the time.
Cindy and Kelley Parker's first date was Jan. 1, 1979, on Vail Mountain. Legendary local pianist Mickey Poage serenaded them in Vail Village.
Cindy and Kelley, like Sam and Norma Lee before them, are living happily ever after, and enjoy being homeowners in the valley. Cindy smiles and confides, "Vail has always been my happy place like my mother's."
Cindy has the family's original New Year's Eve hats from Vail's first New Year's Eve party, and her first pair of lace-up ski boots from the early 1960s. They don't make 'em like that any more, for which she says she's thankful.
She remains the proud owner of her original Vail lift passes, the ones that cost $5 a day.
Like many who migrate to the mountains, they come up from Texas in May and go home in the fall.
"I cry when I leave. I love it that much. I'm very thankful that I get to come as often as I do," Cindy said. "Colorado has everything." Like everyone else, we came for skiing but stayed for the summers."
Sam Olson passed away July 28, 2017. Norma Lee, 91, resides in Houston. She has been back twice recently and was overwhelmed with the growth of her beloved Vail.
Cindy and Kelley Parker have two children. Coe Parker, 35, is married to Barbie. Ashley Parker Pope, 33, is married to John Pope. Parker Pope, their 4-year-old son, became the fourth generation to ski Vail.
Cindy said the lineage will expand next year when 2-year-old Allie Pope starts skiing.
God is good
There's a spot on June Creek Road where Norma Lee likes to stop and look around. She's a Baptist, and those roots run deep.
"I never failed to stop and thank the Lord for giving us the beauty for us all to enjoy," she said.
One time she kicked a rock out of that spot, 4.5 inches wide and 3.5 inches deep. It's a perfect heart. She doesn't let it get too far from her own heart.
"I've had a wonderful life. God has been so kind to me," Norma Lee said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.