Tom Russo to be honored Sunday as Vail Valley Volunteer of the Year during World Cup races at Beaver Creek
Russo will be honored at 12:15 Sunday before the second run of the men's giant slalom
Most everyone who has witnessed Memphis jukin’ icon Lil Buck perform at the Vail Dance Festival over the years is impressed if not enamored with the dancer. And you have Tom Russo to thank, at least in part.
“I like to joke I brought Lil Buck to Vail for the first time,” said Russo who picked Charles “Lil Buck” Riley up from Denver International Airport in 2011 and drove him to Vail as part of his duties as a Dance Festival volunteer.
It’s one of many long-standing contributions Russo has made to the community since the early 2000s. The Vail Valley Foundation has announced that Tom Russo is the 2019 recipient of the Vail Valley Volunteer of the Year award. The award is given out each year to a deserving person who has contributed volunteer time, effort, and vision to the entire Vail Valley community.
Russo will be honored at 12:15 Sunday at the Xfinity Birds of Prey before the second run of the men’s World Cup giant slalom.
“We are fortunate to live in a community with a phenomenal volunteer spirit, and Tom embodies that perfectly,” said Mike Imhof, president of the Vail Valley Foundation, which administers the award, in a news release.
Russo has volunteered for the Vail Valley Foundation’s Vail Dance Festival, Birds of Prey Talon Crew, The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, and the Vilar Performing Arts Center. His volunteer contributions also extend to other nonprofit organizations like the Bravo! Vail Music Festival, the Eagle Valley Community Fund Rummage Sale, and more, for more than 16 years.
“Over the years, Tom has diligently worked as a volunteer not only for the Vail Valley Foundation but also for other important organizations around the Valley, always bringing his analytical mind to every job and focusing on how to do it better,” Imhof said. “Tom gives tirelessly of his time and energy, is an invaluable extension of each nonprofit organization’s staff, and we’re so lucky he found his way to the Vail Valley in 2003 shortly after he retired,” Imhof said.
For Russo, he’s been fond of the Vail Valley Foundation and its mission from the get-go, he said.
“The Foundation does so many great things between the cultural, the athletic and the education work; it’s something that I really like being affiliated with,” he said.
After retiring from his job as a corporate attorney for DuPont and Conoco, a position that allowed him to live in Delaware and Texas as well as in Tokyo, Moscow and Norway, Russo moved to Beaver Creek full time in January 2003. He’d purchased a condo in Beaver Creek back in 1989 after a serendipitous meet-up in Tokyo, where he lived at the time. He’d been drinking coffee with a friend who told him the Vail Valley was the “only place to ski.” When he returned to the states for a wedding soon after, he visited Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Bend, Oregon, and the Vail Valley.
As his friend had predicted, the Vail Valley was the best of them all, Russo said. “Turns out he was right, it was totally fortuitous.”
When Russo moved here, he didn’t know a soul, but not one to sit around, he skied most days that winter and immediately started volunteering for the Beaver Creek Resort Company and WECMRD (now Mountain Recreation).
“That was my ‘in’ with the community,” he said. “It was nice to be needed and to be able to contribute.”
Soon he started volunteering as an usher at the Vilar Performing Arts Center, a mere five-minute walk from his condo in Beaver Creek. That spring, the VPAC staff asked him to be the house manager for the summer.
“It was almost like a job, but I loved it,” he said.
“Tom has been so incredible to work with and we are lucky to have him,” said Jen Mason, who knows Russo from her time at the VPAC and the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. “We have so many wonderful volunteers in this community, but what I love about Tom is how fun he is to be around. We love his enthusiasm and attention to detail. He really takes pride in the work and encourages everyone to seek excellence in everything they do. It’s contagious, and we love that.”
Russo also began volunteering for Bravo! Vail during his first year here.
“Tom truly gives all of himself to others,” said Caitlin Murray, Executive Director of Bravo! Vail. “He is an ever-present smiling face, ready to answer any question, point you in the right direction, offer a steady hand to guide you down the stairs. He makes a Bravo concert complete.”
Since that first year of helping out, Russo has been an integral part of almost all the performing arts events in the community, including continuing his role in house management at the VPAC, which allows him to work closely with the other volunteers, answer questions, resolve problems, and just generally help people, which is something that fulfills him, he said.
Plus, he gets to watch the killer shows that frequent the theater.
“There have been so many great shows over the years, from Robin Williams to Ringo Starr, but every time Jackie Greene played at the Vilar, those were among my favorites,” he said.
Russo worked at Xfinity Birds of Prey each winter on the famed Talon Crew until he ruptured a disc in his back; he took several years off, afraid of reinjuring it. His friends started razzing him about returning, and it worked: Russo started volunteering for Birds of Prey again last year. He’s been hard at work this week alongside the 600 other volunteers it takes to get ready for the ski races.
“I was on the lift by 6:45 this morning and off the course at 4 p.m.,” Russo said during the 2019 Xfinity Birds of Prey preparations. “I love the camaraderie of working Birds of Prey; that’s why I used to work all 10 days before my injury.”
One memory rises above the rest for Russo: “I used to be a gate judge and one year, way before the 2015 Championships, they’d moved the Women’s Super G race to Beaver Creek, and I was a gate judge when Lindsey Vonn won. The year when Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves swapped podium spots in consecutive races was also special.”
For more than a decade, Russo also invested 150+ hours each summer helping with the annual Rummage Sale, until it’s run at the Minturn location ended at the Maloit Park location in 2017. “There were so many beneficiaries of the sale, he said. “I loved that so many people were helped.”
Sometimes, when Russo gets home late from volunteering at a Vilar Center show and he’s feeling extra tired he contemplates retiring, but then he thinks better of it.
“I just love being there,” he said. “I love every day at the Vilar when I work, seeing a lot of the patrons and the friendly faces of people I’ve known for years.”
Russo joins a group of distinguished members of the community who have received the award since 2000.
Past Vail Valley Foundation Volunteer of the Year recipients
- 2000: Kim Bender
- 2001: David Ozawa
- 2002: Barb Treat
- 2003: Dick Pownall
- 2004: Bill Douglas III
- 2005: Tenie Chicoine
- 2006: Fred Hassle & Jim Sanders
- 2007: Susan Frampton
- 2008: Kathryn Benysh
- 2009: Cheryl Jensen
- 2010: Doris Dewton
- 2012: Cookie Flaum
- 2013: Debby Jasper
- 2015: Brad Ghent
- 2016: Nancy & Mauri Nottingham
- 2017: Jan Hiland
- 2018: Tenie Chicoine
For downvalley humans, it’s pretty cool when elk decide to hunker down around Eagle for the winter. For the elk, it’s more of a lesser-of-two-evils situation.