Vail tales: ‘Sarge’ Brown: Vail was his mountain
VAIL – Uncle Sam may own the military, but units belong to the sergeants. Bill “Sarge” Brown brought that attitude to Vail Mountain.
Brown was a decorated U.S. Army veteran, who saw action, and lots of it, in both World War II and Korea – earning five Purple Hearts (for being wounded in action), three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars. That’s heroism.
Brown saw much of that combat with the 10th Mountain Division, the unit that invented the U.S. ski industry. Brown helped train our country’s first ski troopers.
Through that long military service, Brown earned the army’s top rank for enlisted men, but he never became an officer.
“An officer has a different attitude, different training,” Dr. Tom Steinberg said in a 2008 story about Brown. “The sergeants are down taking care of the details. It was just Bill’s desire to be down there managing things on that level that meant something.”
Brown took that passion for details to the fledgling U.S. ski industry.
When he was named mountain manager at Vail in 1970, Brown surprised a lot of people – this was his unit now, by golly, and it was going to be run his way – the right way. It didn’t much matter who you were, either.
Once, the French women’s ski team was training at Vail, and team members were cutting the lift lines on their way back up the hill. The way Bob Dorf remembers the story, Brown found out and, as was usually the case when things weren’t being done the right way, there was hell to pay. Brown had the lift shut down as the team was dangling above the Pickeroon trail.
“Sarge gave them a small lecture on how we do things on his mountain,” Dorf said. “They were all nodding their heads in agreement, and there were never any problems again,” Dorf said. “You didn’t mess with his mountain.”
On the other hand, when Gerald Ford was president, he and his family did have a lift to themselves. There are certain perks to being the commander in chief.
Like most good sergeants, when Brown chewed someone out, it was in the pursuit of a higher cause.
In the case of Vail Mountain, that cause was dedication to guests and giving them a great experience.
“Integrity, ethics, commitment to work, an understanding of the guests,” former Vail Associates owner George Gillett said in a profile of Brown. “Consistency – to deliver a consistent product every day, no matter what the condition, temperature, weather, how tired you were, how sick you were.”
In that story, Gillett said Brown could be a curmudgeon.
“Scared the hell out of most of us most of the time,” Gillett said. “Then you found out later he was doing it mostly to help you grow and help you get better.”
Brown was helping Vail get better when he took the lead in installing the mountain’s first snowmaking equipment, on Golden Peak. He believed in wide trails, so people could enjoy themselves without worrying about crowds. And he started the mountain’s overnight grooming, so those wide trails would be smooth when the first guests got off of the lifts.
Helping Vail get better included being part of the Vail Valley Foundation team that landed the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships. Vail used to host regular stops on the World Cup circuit – a task that’s now been taken up by Beaver Creek – but hosting the championships was a big deal.
As part of the team lobbying for the 1989 event, Brown made numerous trips to Europe, and he wanted to be sure he was where he was supposed to be, when he was supposed to be there. That was his way.
John Dakin, of the Vail Valley Foundation, recalled that Brown wore two watches on those trips – one set to the time where he was going, the other set to good old mountain time.
With all he expected, and his singular ability to defy hell, high water or executives – the ski-business equivalent of officers, probably – friends also described Brown as a decent, caring man.
Reporters who would call Brown at his retirement home in Grand Junction would usually be invited to visit the next time they came that way.
Bob Parker, Vail’s first marketing manager, recalled that sensitive side at a 2009 celebration of Brown’s life: “He was one the the most thoughtful and considerate men in the world to those who believed in him,” he said.