Morrie Shepard, Vail’s first ski school director, has taken his last lift ride
Editor’s note: The Vail Daily has been writing about Morrie Shepard for years, and the quotes in this story are pulled from a large archive of material.
VAIL — Skiing is many things, but for Vail Pioneer Morrie Shepard, it was always fun.
Pete Seibert lured Shepard to Vail from Aspen, and Shepard drove over on May 1, 1962. Shepard’s title was Vail’s first ski school director, although no one stuck to their job description. Everyone did everything. Shepard was also a building inspector, fire chief, building coordinator and professional fun-haver.
Morrie’s stories have no end, but he does. Shepard died Thursday, Oct. 12, at his home in Eagle.
Shepard was the consummate storyteller. His hilarious tales of skiing, and his students, created a colorful history of the Colorado mountains.
Like the time when Morrie and Pete were kids in Sharon, Massachusetts, where they grew up. They started a ski area. One snowy New England day, they rigged up a gasoline engine to power a rope tow up a hill so they and their friends could ski without hiking.
Or the time in January 1963 when Shepard was one of less than one dozen people skiing Vail that day. The fledgling ski company had six paying customers.
“That’s probably still a world-record low,” Shepard said.
And the time a couple of weeks later when Seibert announced that they were going to open Sun Up Bowl for the first time. It seemed like everyone on the mountain was crouched behind the rope, ready to be the first to spring into Vail’s already famous Back Bowls.
“It looked like the Oklahoma Land Rush. No one had ever seen anything like it,” Morrie said.
When Shepard and Seibert skied past the rope and stopped, looking for a better view, someone in the crowd yelled, “They’re going to ski it all out!”
It wasn’t possible then, and it’s still not, Shepard said.
“We dropped the rope and we heard whoops and laughing, and we knew it was going to be a success,” Shepard said.
Dusty Delario has been around Vail since 1962 and was part of Vail’s original ski school. There was that adventure around Thanksgiving 1962 when Vail’s original ski instructors skied off of a platform four stories up Denver’s May D&F department store to promote their fledgling ski area. They did it and no one died, so it must have been fun. They didn’t grumble much about it. Morrie had a way of cutting to the heart of the matter by asking, “Where are you going to be teaching next season?”
Shepard of Sharon
Shepard was born July 2, 1925, in Boston to Helen Macintosh Shepard and Morris Haines Shepard. Shepard found a set of skis in the basement in 1933 and was hooked. He and Seibert skied on a neighbor’s hillside and on trips to New Hampshire with the Boy Scouts.
“If there was frost on the ground, I had those skis out. If there was snow on the hill, I was out there, too,” Shepard said.
He dreamed of being a ski instructor and emulated Hanes Schneider and others. Summers he worked as a caddy at the Sharon golf course for a dollar a round and worked in a metals shop in Sharon.
Shepard graduated Sharon High School in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy Air Corps. He earned his commission in 1946 as World War II was ending.
After the Navy helped him earn his commercial pilot’s license, Shepard planned to go to work for United Airlines. But life takes detours. He took a road trip out west with friend Jim Ross in 1947 to visit Seibert, who had settled in Aspen after the war.
Shepard said they came over Loveland Pass on the gravel road and swore they’d never leave.
That was November 1947, and the Aspen ski school was very busy. The director wandered over and asked Shepard to teach a few classes.
Those first lessons were on Aspen’s soccer field because it had a foot and a half descent. They’d slide for a while, and when they could snowplow to a stop, they were sent up the mountain.
‘Make it Fun!’
Shepard and Seibert both worked on Aspen’s ski patrol in 1947. Shepard taught skiing and had a painting contracting business in the summer.
In 1951, Shepard married Gloria Neilson and began building his own home. He became assistant to Friedl Pfeifer and Fred Iselin in the Aspen ski school and taught the top class for more than 10 years. It was from mentors Pfeifer and Iselin that he learned the philosophy, “Make it fun!”
Seibert started wooing his childhood friend to Vail. Dick and Blanche Hauserman took Morrie to dinner for an interview. They made Shepard an offer that he could have refused, but didn’t.
Shepard and Rod Slifer arrived in Vail the same day, May 1, 1962. Slifer was the assistant ski school director. Architect Fitzhugh Scott’s house was the only one in what would become Vail.
In one summer they built the lifts, the gondola the trails, installed a water system and essentially summoned a ski area out of the ground. By December, they were ready to receive visitors.
“We didn’t have many buildings, but we didn’t need many,” Shepard said.
They’d park their cars where Gastof Gramshammer is now, ski all day, get in their cars and go home.
When he wasn’t being the building inspector, running construction crews building infrastructure or serving as fire chief, Shepard helped Seibert laying out trails and hired 10 ski instructors for that 1962-63 season.
Lange and back again
On May 1, 1965, Shepard left Vail and moved to Dubuque, Iowa, to help Bob Lange help develop the first plastic ski boot.
Lange had asked him to try a prototype, and he agreed. Shepard tells of cutting his fingers on the frozen Lange boot laces and how much his feet hurt in those first prototypes … but he was a great and graceful skier and said he had never skied better. He took a pace day from the plastic prototypes to try his old leather boots. They flopped around so much that he could barely get down the mountain. Shepard threw his leather boots in the trash and never looked back.
After working two years in Lange’s Dubuque, Iowa, factory, he built a new factory in Broomfield, and he and his wife Suzie moved to Boulder, where Shepard continued to improve boot technology.
The mountains and skiing called them back to the Vail Valley in 1982. He skied and golfed with family and friends until last year.
“Those four-passenger ski lifts bring so many people up the mountain and pour them onto those runs that I had to learn to turn!” Shepard said.
Shepard was inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2003.
Morrie is survived by his wife of 50 years, Suzie, his children Morrie Shepard III, of Parker; Linda Shepard, of Cordes, France; Amy West, of Clark; five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren; and two stepdaughters, Lettie Kuehn, of Ridgway, and Bambi Forbes, of Edwards. One stepdaughter, Debbie Kuehn, passed away in June of this year.
A celebration of Morrie’s life is being planned. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame, Hospice of the Valley or the Bravo! Vail Endowment Fund.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.