Morrie Shepard: Well-deserved fame
Morrie Shepard held the door open to United Airlines building in Boston for fellow Navy Aircore pilot Jim Ross in 1947. Ross went inside and applied for a job, while Shepard turned around and headed for Aspen, where he landed a job as assistant ski instructor.
“Actually, two of us went to high school together, and joined the Navy Aircore before graduation in 1943 because of the free education and pilot training,” said Shepard. “We grew up in Sharon, Mass., with Pete Seibert, and skied together all our lives.”
Shepard became a Colorado Ski Hall of Famer – a far cry from a career as a commercial pilot – alongside Max Marolt, Kevin Delaney, Frank Penny and Park Smalley on Oct. 18, 2003.
“After a life of skiing, to have an event like that take place was a very moving experience,” said Shepard. “Skiing down the hill was always really fun, but all the people I worked with, lived with and associated with was what really made it special. And, a lot of them were there that night.”
Couples came to the induction gala from Ohio and Idaho. A ski instructor he used to work with came up from Phoenix and the former owner of Vail, Dick Bass, made the trip from Dallas.
“The people were what made the ski business. They are what it is,” he said.
Seibert played an instrumental role in convincing Shepard to make the move from Aspen to Vail.
Shepard came to Vail in 1962, taking the job as Vail’s first ski-school director. He also acted as a building inspector, fire chief and construction coordinator during the next three years.
“There wasn’t anything in Vail when we started construction in 1962,” he said. “It was sheep pasture, and everybody had to do everything.”
In 1962, Bob Lange gave Shepard a pair of prototype ski boots, which were made of plastic – much harder and stiffer than traditional, leather boots – and sported blue and white laces.
“They created a lot of interest, especially on the feet of the ski school director of Vail,” Shepard said.
After the first couple of weeks, since the boots were so stiff, he decided to give his feet a rest and try out his old leather boots again.
“When my skis hit the snow at the top of the lift, it was as if I was paralyzed,” he said. “I skidded and fought my way to the bottom, and I haven’t used leather boots since.”
Shepard went into business with Lange, becoming the national sales manager of the first, mass-produced plastic boot.
Shepard also helped in the design of the boots, which were made from DuPont’s experimental plastic, Adaprine.
“Adaprine was a brand new material. DuPont didn’t know how to use it. They could mix it in a cup and say, “Look at how good this stuff is,’ but not in large quantities,” he said.
So, Shepard and Lange, among others, set about inventing a machine, which they called Mickey Mouse No. 1, to mix large quantities of the substance.
“Not one person in the Lange company knew about shoes. If we did, we never would have tried to invent a plastic ski boot,” Shepard said. “It was so complex. We didn’t know what kind of problems we were up against.”
It took three years in DuBuque, Iowa, for Shepard to convince Lange to move the company back to the mountains.
Lange had success with ski racers in Europe, and the company took off.
Garcia, a distributing company, merged with Lange in the early 1970s, and Shepard was laid off.
However, on the same day he was laid off, Shepard got a job at a real estate agency.
“That was the end of my career in the ski industry until two Saturdays ago, when I was inducted,” he said.
Now, Shepard plays golf five days a week, except for the months of December and February, when he skis nearly every day.
“Personal relationships don’t seem important to the ski business anymore. Most ski areas are owned by big businesses that own more than one, and big companies are oriented toward the bottom line,” he said. “In the old days, we were all enthusiastic amateurs. That’s the way it was when we started Vail.”
Andrew Harley can be contacted at (970) 949-0555 ext. 610 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.