Ski Bums

This is a story about how a small group of enthusiasts persuaded the University of Oregon administration to establish competitive skiing as a varsity sport.

In America, collegiate skiing started in several Ivy League colleges in the 1930s. It was not until shortly after World War II that a few Eugene-area citizens started a ski club. The owner of a small local winter resort volunteered to provide some modest financial support for the UO skiers who had aspirations of skiing competitively with other college skiers from Washington, Colorado, Utah, and California.

University of Oregon athletics director Leo Harris was asked to give his blessing to the plan to establish a team. A creditable university voice for the idea came from track-and-field coach Bill Bowerman. He had been a major in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II and was a longtime winter sports enthusiast. Bowerman volunteered to conduct the time trials leading to the selection of the team from about 30 aspirants. Harris agreed to the plan, and competitive skiing was launched at the UO.

Later, Bowerman stood for four hours in the rain and slush of Hoodoo Bowl, with stopwatch in hand, recording the racing times of those attempting to qualify for the team. The competitive events involved jumping and cross-county competitions and downhill and slalom racing.

Around the same time, athletes in other sports were advocating to elevate various “minor sports” to varsity status. Somehow the fledging ski program made the cut. Harris set the qualifications for individual competitors to earn a varsity letter at a very high level. He also made sure these fun-loving skiers kept on the straight and narrow. A chaperone—usually a faculty member—accompanied the ski team to every ski meet. Harris traveled with the team to the Reno Winter Carnival. Gene Harlow was the team’s nonskiing “coach.” Also, a training schedule was developed, which was supervised by a graduate student. Much of the training was at Hoodoo Ski Bowl, where the team occasionally helped reduce their room-and-board costs at Suttle Lake Lodge by waiting tables for the breakfast and dinner guests. It was not unusual for a team member to make a delicious cup of tomato soup from the free ingredients of tomato ketchup, hot water from the tea water dispenser, and a very liberal number of saltine crackers.

After graduation, this group of carefree, fun-loving, low-budget skiers moved on to new challenges. Larry Black, BS ’52, with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, started Black and Company, one of the first investment banking firms in Oregon after World War II. Dick Portwood, BBA ’51, became director of home and personal services in five western states for the US West telephone company after serving in the Korean conflict as a naval officer. Architects Saul Zaik, BArch ’52,  and George McMath, BArch ’59, left their imprint as widely acclaimed leaders in their fields of design and historic reconstruction. Zaik received coveted American Institute of Architects awards for the Timberline Lodge renovation, construction of the headquarters building at Crater Lake National Park, and construction of the Salishan shopping center. Norwegian exchange student Arne Borgnes, BA ’52, earned a graduate degree at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and became the international sales manager for Ford Motors. Jan Onsrud, BA ’52, became a CPA and settled in Eugene. And I became the president of Clatsop Community College in Astoria and acting president at Southern Oregon University. I also served as a Jackson County commissioner.

Not too bad for a bunch of carefree, fun-loving ski bums!

—By Stewart McCollom

Stewart McCollom, BS ’55, was a varsity skier for the UO and lives in Ashland.