The man who built Squaw Valley USA from the ground up, and whose ambitious plans catapulted Lake Tahoe onto the international stage at the 1960 Olympics, will be honored in a memorial Saturday at the Olympic House sundeck at Squaw Valley.
Alex Cushing, the ambitious dreamer who left an indelible and unmatched imprint on Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe and California skiing, died of pneumonia Aug. 19 at age 92.
His death concluded a 60-year occupation in Squaw Valley ” the same alpine canyon where he stood in 1946, hobbled by a ski injury suffered at Sugar Bowl, and realized the mountain would be his job, his passion and his life.
In those 60 years, Cushing’s influence extended far beyond Squaw Valley’s slopes.
“It was his vision along with an outsized supply of stubbornness, artful audacity and Cushing charm that brought the Olympics, a freeway and an economic life to Lake Tahoe,” wrote Bob Richards, the executive director of the California Ski Industry Association, in remembering his friend.
Family members, past employees and military from the Fallon Air Force Base will pay tribute to Cushing at the memorial, said resort spokeswoman Savannah Cowley.
Stories of Cushing’s early years in Squaw Valley are now the stuff of Tahoe lore. The 6-foot 5-inch Cushing toured Europe’s halls of power in the 1950s, peddling an upstart Sierra Nevada ski mountain on the brink of bankruptcy as the site for the 1960 Olympics.
Cushing’s trademark charisma and persuasiveness pulled off the impossible, snatching the Olympics from favored Innsbruck, Austria.
The Tahoe region would never be the same. With the Olympics came exposure, infrastructure and a building boom.
Squaw Valley morphed from an unknown mountain to a world-class ski mecca.
“He was the start of Tahoe skiing,” said Jimmy King, Squaw Valley USA mountain manager and long-time Cushing friend. “Everything just grew from him.”
King remembers his first encounter with Cushing. A new face at the ski resort after graduating college, King got a surprise invitation from Cushing to visit his home and discuss his ideas.
Undoubtedly nervous, King strode into the room to an open chair and sat down. Calamity ensued.
“I sat down and the chair collapsed under my butt,” said King. “[Cushing] was dying of laughter, and those were the first things out of his mouth.”
It was Cushing’s personable nature and attention to employees, from janitors to management, that made many long-time Squaw workers feel like part of the Cushing family.
King said the man and the mountain will go down in history together, inseparable.
“Even though it’s called Squaw Valley, it’s Alex Cushing,” said King. “That will hold for eternity.”
As with many pioneers, not all admired Cushing’s methods. Squaw Valley USA had numerous run-ins with environmental groups and governmental regulators under Cushing’s direction.
But in the end, Cushing possessed both the vision and the head-strong character to pull off plans that many doubters deemed impossible. From the Olympics to High Camp and the Village at the mountain’s base, Cushing’s visions became reality through hard work.
“He dreamed,” said Sue Bennett, a Squaw employee since 1969. “He’s not like most people who sit back and say ‘Look what I did.'”
Ernst Hager, Squaw Valley USA general manager, said Squaw Valley will continue building on Cushing’s legacy and will remain an independent, family owned ski resort in the world of increasing ski conglomerates. But another visionary like Cushing will never come along again.
“We are certainly going to miss him,” Hager said. “You cannot replace Alex Cushing.”
Historical details for this article were referenced from “Squaw Valley USA: The First Fifty Years,” a publication of Squaw Valley Ski Corporation.
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