Passings

In Memoriam, Bill Burgess, 1937-2018

A skier who gave so much to New Mexico skiing… and shovel racing

By Ellen Miller-Goins
Sangre de Cristo Chronicle
Posted 9/19/18

An older version of Bill Burgess' resume, one that ended with his role as Angel Fire Ski School Director in 1967, was called, simply "Ephemera."

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Passings

In Memoriam, Bill Burgess, 1937-2018

A skier who gave so much to New Mexico skiing… and shovel racing

Posted

"Ephemera: Things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time."

An older version of Bill Burgess' resume, one that ended with his role as Angel Fire Ski School Director in 1967, was called, simply "Ephemera." The resume both illustrates his creativity-- and his love for teaching skiing, a profession he enjoyed for more than 60 years.

Marketing director; ski school director; first elected president of Ski New Mexico; director, then vice president, then president of the Rocky Mountain Ski Instructors Association (now called the Professional Ski Instructors of America -- Rocky Mountain); director of the Professional Ski Instructors of America; "star" of learn-to-ski television; vice president for sales and marketing for the Somerset Corp. (Jackson Hole, Wyoming); sport organizer for the ESPN X Games shovel race competition -- it's hard to know where to stop listing his achievements and contributions to skiing, all of which led to Burgess' induction into the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame in 2009.

"There is very little in Angel Fire or in New Mexico skiing that was not influenced by Bill," Robin May, Angel Fire Resort ski school director and Burgess' longtime friend, wrote in a Facebook post.

William R. "Bill" Burgess, 81, ski instructor, "letterhead" (sign maker), raconteur, and, by his own description, "itinerant ne'er-do-well" died of cancer Monday, Sept. 3, in Chandler, Arizona. He is preceded in death by parents Helen M. and Marshall P. Burgess, and his brother Thomas M. Burgess.

A memorial service is planned Saturday (Oct. 6) from 1 to 4 p.m. at Angel Fire Resort's Village Haus. Beer, wine, burgers and hot dogs will be served.

The love story begins

Burgess was born July 28 1937, in Spokane, Washington. By his own reckoning, skiing became a huge part of his life when he learned on a set of hand-me-down skis and boots from his sister at Mount Spokane. After skiing there for several years, he was offered an instructor job and taught his first class in 1955.

In 1960, while stationed at Fort Ord, California, in the U.S. Army, Burgess went to the Presidio in San Francisco and talked his way into the 6th Army recreation group, which was going to Squaw Valley to help with the Winter Olympic Games. Bill was assigned to a ski platoon and led the platoon all over the mountain following Willy Schaeffler, the director of ski events for the Olympic Games at Squaw Valley.

"I worked directly for/with Willy and did his bidding, which was mostly side-slipping and skiing virtually every venue," Burgess told The Chronicle.

He eventually became one of the first certified ski instructors in the Army. After getting out, Burgess taught at several ski areas throughout the West and became a certified instructor with the Rocky Mountain Ski Instructor Association, badge number 705.

In 1966 Bill arrived at the LeBus family's brand new Angel Fire Ski Area to teach skiing and to help promote the fledgling resort with a ski area, country club, golf course and real estate.

In 2001, on the eve of the ski mountain's 35th Anniversary, Burgess told The Chronicle, "We didn't even open for the Christmas holidays as planned that season. The lift in the village had major gearbox problems and the long lift in the Back Basin was not quite finished. But we had skiers, so we put benches in the back of a Thiokol Sprite and hauled them up. We had fewer than 1,000 skiers that first year. Some even paid! I think lift fees were $6 for adults."

In a 1996 Chronicle article, Burgess told Charles Poling, "The reason I came to Angel Fire is that it was the first time I could combine the two things I really like to do in life: advertising art and teaching skiing,"

It was a year-round position that paid $500 a month -- "a whole lot better than most ski bums were doing!"

Angel Fire in those days was not yet a ski town. It was still a working ranch. Burgess was called on to help with such cowhand chores as castrating the young bull calves.

The second year, Angel Fire didn't open. Although the story circulated that lack of snow kept Angel Fire from opening, Bill recalled that it was "really financial trouble." He moonlighted at Red River as a ski instructor and taught briefly at Big Mountain in Montana before returning to Angel Fire to work several years as assistant ski school director, area manager and marketing director.

"Bill had a card made up that, I think, said, 'Director of Marketing, Chief Bingo Caller, Assistant Plumber,'" May said. "Bill created the first logos (for Angel Fire), helped locate and erect the first lifts and laid out some of our iconic runs. When the Lebus family got him to set up the first satellite Post Office, he took Drawer A….the Resort got Drawer B!

"He did a little bit of everything. He could fabricate just about anything -- not just stories."

Burgess was also instrumental in opening the first Nordic ski area at Angel Fire.

In 1970, he was elected to the board of Rocky Mountain Ski Instructors of America. He told The Chronicle in a 2004 interview, "I discussed with the board the plethora of Nordic enthusiasts who were teaching, oft times operating out of a '56 dodge station wagon and ill-equipped in skills, safety and survival gear."

Burgess says he worried what these fly-by-night "instructors" would do to the image of his sport the day headlines blared, "Ski instructors' group killed in avalanche."

"We agreed the best way to infiltrate their ranks was for one of us to get involved in that part of the sport." The board voted to send Burgess to the great Sven Wiik, former U.S. Olympic Nordic coach and owner of the Scandinavian Lodge and Mount Werner Training Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado to take part in Wiik's weeklong Nordic instructor program.

"I was pretty juiced about it," Burgess said. "A year after that I opened up Angel Fire Nordic Ski School."

His plan to infiltrate worked, too, Burgess says. "This gave us (the board of RMSIA) access to those guys. What we did was offer them a vehicle for advanced first-aid training and a certification program. At the time, most of it was backcountry ski touring. It took us three years to form a Nordic division, then national (PSIA) followed suit."

Shovel racing is born

The seeds for Angel Fire's "Shovel Racing World Championships" were planted in the '70s when lift operators, looking for a quick way to return to the base area, began using their work shovels to ride down the slopes.

In January 1972, Burgess told The Chronicle, a scoop rider named Mike Miller kept challenging him to race "and to get him out of my hair, I consented to hold the first race."

The next year Burgess and others began planning and in 1974, Angel Fire hosted "the world's first official shovel race."

Traditionally, the first week of February was a slow ski week, and Bill used the idea to boost attendance. It eventually grew from just No. 12 grain scoops to high-tech drag sprints between racers on super-modified sleds.

Burgess commentated, but in the early days he competed, too, both as a straight-up shovel rider and creator of parade-float contraptions that always included a shovel… somewhere.

In 1982, he moved to Jackson Hole to become sales and marketing vice president for Somerset Corp. While there he landed an annual gig teaching a royal Saudi family in Europe.

"(Jackson Hole) was a very vibrant place then, but it went ape in growth, and I got sick of freezing my butt off in the winter," Burgess said. "(Angel Fire's) skiing weather here is better than anywhere in Europe or the U.S."

Burgess came back to Angel Fire in 1987.

Longtime friend Curt Hanlen, now of Albuquerque, also wore many hats while working in Angel Fire from 1983 to 1992, including skier services director, assistant marketing director (handling special events), marketing director and director of operations

"We didn't have much of a marketing budget, but we brought the party to Angel Fire," Hanlen said. "Bill was always famous for throwing something up against the wall and seeing if it sticks. He was the most creative, articulate spontaneous, man I've ever known. Whether it was shovel races or Paul Bunyan days, we didn't have a big marketing budget. We created the fun. We created events all the time. In 1992 we had over 30 events. And those events were made better because Bill was part of them."

The duo co-hosted the shovel races, too, Hanlen said. "I was the play-by-play announcer and he was the color commentary. The years we did shovel racing together were arguably the best years of that legacy event. He always found things to keep people's interest. There were a couple of races where we had 1,000 to 2,000 people watching. Those four years were the best they've ever been before or since.

"He was the quintessential MC."

"I love the power of the microphone," Burgess told The Chronicle in 2001. "I love to tell jokes which make people smile, laugh or puke. I love it. I really do."

Hanlen and Burgess also hit the road to promote Angel Fire.

"We convinced (then owner) Gary Plante to let us do ski shows around the country and give away a gift certificate for a free lift ticket. We said if we give someone a single ticket in Dallas or LA or Boston, they're going to buy lodging, ski rentals, food.

"We put a sign in our booth. 'Ask me about free lift tickets.' We gave away about 10,000 but the return to Angel Fire more than made up for the free lift tickets.

If a show fell during Halloween," Hanlen said, "Bill's costumes and how he decorated our booth was a real show stopper.

"Bill was unmatched in his ability to come up with ingenious advertising campaigns. He and I created the original white sale $19 lift tickets in January and the first two weeks in February.

"It was so fun to collaborate with him. He lived life the way he wanted to, and he left it the way he wanted to."

The man and his art

Burgess was also an accomplished artist. As owner of The Art Works in Angel Fire, he specialized in painting signs and sculpting. In the early days of his business, he liked creating advertising art and brochures, but he scaled that back because of what he viewed as an overemphasis on computers.

"I like to do dimensional art," Burgess told The Chronicle. "I'd really rather make sawdust than sit behind a computer."

Robin May wrote, "Bill was an apprentice to the great (Spokane) artist Harold Balazs and started the Art Works, his graphic art studio and sign-making studio, in Angel Fire in 1966. Many of the iconic high-quality signs in the Enchanted Circle were designed and produced there. Bill was one of the last real Letterhead hand-painting calligraphers to practice that art in the country."

May told The Chronicle, "Bill worked in all sorts of mediums. I have the original country club doors that he did. He made the bronze handles. He said, 'Yeah, that was my first time-ever bronzing.'

"He did sculptures, he did etched glass, gold leaf, he did sandblasting, he did oils, he did egg tempura, he did silk screening, just about any type of art. He was curious to learn new skills. If he read about something, he wanted to try it.

"After teaching skiing, his biggest love was art."

The late Drew Judycki, owner and general manager at Red River Ski Area, once said, "Burgess is the most versatile person I know. Skiing, welding, heliarcing … he works with etched glass. Burgess can do a little bit of anything and everything."

Along with being instrumental in the early development of Angel Fire Resort, Bill was a co-founder of Ski New Mexico and the Angel Fire Chamber of Commerce. Through the years he has served as a board member and officer of both organizations. He was the second person to be voted as "Outstanding Person in Travel" by his peers in the Association of Commerce and Industry (Ernie Blake was the first to receive the honor).

"He was a pioneer in the ski industry in New Mexico," said George Brooks, executive director of Ski New Mexico. "He was a longtime board member of Ski New Mexico and he's going to be missed."

Bill famously painted a map of New Mexico ski areas for Ski New Mexico.

"Colorado was not there," May said. "I think it had Wyoming on our northern border."

That painting, which became a "There Is No Colorado, Ski New Mexico" ad that was featured in ski publications, was popular with New Mexico skiers -- and infuriated Colorado resorts.

"He created all these logos, but he would take logos off everything he owned," May said. "If it was a car or a pair of skis, he couldn't stand having a logo there. And he never signed any of his artistic signs. He'd hide 'WB' somewhere in the art. He was a Rube Goldberg when it came to making contraptions. He'd find something fanciful, and he'd put it away knowing he'd do something with it someday. As soon as he bought something, he was already changing it to see how he could make it better."

May recalled he had a gate latch that Burgess found annoying. "One morning I got out there and there he was putting in a new gate latch he had designed.

"He was a funny guy. Very spontaneous. Unfiltered… And he was loyal to his friends to a fault. I'll miss him coming over to drink coffee and b*&%$#."

But it was always the skiing…

Despite his many contributions to art, skiing, and New Mexico tourism, including a position on the Tourism Association of New Mexico board representing New Mexico's ski and resort industry, more than anything Burgess loved skiing and teaching skiing.

He told The Chronicle he loved smaller resorts like Angel Fire and Red River because "they're more intimate -- for employee and guest. It's nice to know everybody in the ski school, for example. In the Rocky Mountain division of PSIA alone, there are over 6,000 ski instructors. There are a lot of instructors at Vail, for example, that have been there a couple of years, and they don't know one another."

About teaching the sport he loved, Burgess told The Chronicle, "My favorite class is Level B (a beginner but not a 'never ever'). We call those classes the 'killer Bs' because they've taken it over and over, and they just can't leap to the next level. They are, without a doubt, the biggest challenge to a ski instructor, and the worst ones are the ones who know they have a problem because of their exasperation. They have so much information it becomes clutter. You've got to get them to progress from point A to point B with a grin -- if you can get them to loosen up and show them that you care. I do it by telling them right up front that they're my favorite group of skiers 'cause they're not where they want to be.

"I think all teaching is an ego trip because you take somebody who has a desire to learn and you know that, because of your input and guidance, that they have become better skiers and that feels wonderful."

Burgess once shared how much he loved to "fly" on skis. "When I started skiing, we jumped over everything. I'm 74 years old and I still like to get air!"

Fly high, Bill.

Thanks for the memories…

Bill is survived by his sister Phyllis A. Ells (husband Glenn) of Deer Park, Washington; brother Patrick J. Burgess (wife Diane) of Edmond, Oklahoma; wife Sidney (Wheeler) Burgess of Chandler, Arizona; daughter Andrea E. Culver (and husband Jesse Culver) of Boring, Oregon; sister-in-law Florence (Thomas' wife) of Kalispell, Montana; stepson Jerry Wheeler (wife Susan) of Chandler, Arizona; grandchildren Braeden, Garrison, Emeline and Everley Culver, all of Boring; and many nieces and nephews, including frequent visitors Emily Greenhill (husband Reed) of Oklahoma City, Reid Burgess (significant other Britt Williams) of Santa Fe, and Rob (wife Sherry) Villalobos of Deer Park, Washington.

Editor's note: The following are from former Chronicle owners Marcia and Guy Wood and longtime area resident Joe Haukebo of Hawk Publications. Please add your remembrances and thoughts in the comments below.

"We'll remember Bill as the inspiration behind Angel Fire's World Shovel Races… and his always familiar voice behind the mike giving lively blow-by-blow competition patter.

"We'll also remember the 2009 Ski Hall of Fame inductee for his other passion -- sign-making. His creations long preceded digital printing and were truly handcrafted. The sign he imagined and created for our Sangre de Cristo Chronicle had a black ink well, golden quill and our logo (reversed in white) on a field of royal blue outlined in gold. Too beautiful for words and a stroke of genius. He had lots of fun with other sign makers. We once wrote about his trip to Iowa with a group of sign artists to paint murals throughout one small town. He loved that summer vacation. Just think, his mural is a bit of Bill that lives on.

"Bill's humor, talent, and wealth of knowledge about Angel Fire made him one of a kind. We'll miss you, Bill." -- Guy and Marcia Wood

"Bill had a Suburban from the resort and it was all jacked up and people would steal it and go to Albuquerque and then they'd bring it back and leave it. He'd come out of places and his Suburban was gone." -- Joe Haukebo

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