Olympic Heritage Celebration: Stories from the 1960 Winter Olympics
January 11, 2010
Fifty years ago, when the bleak forecasted skies parted and snow arrived with a wallop, instead of a whimper, Squaw Valley breathed a sigh of relief that the decision to host the VIII Olympic Winter Games for the first time in North America in 28 years andamp;#8212; it was indeed a miracle.On Friday, Jan. 8, that miracle was relived (except with rain this time) and celebrated in true Olympic style starting with a Commemorative Torch Relay that circumvented its way into the entrance of Squaw Valley. There, at the Tower of Nations (79 ft.), Nancy Cushing, widow of Alex Cushing (Squaw Valley Founder andamp; Patriarch) emotionally lit the cauldron. Her words resonated as cameras recorded the moment. andamp;#8220;Squaw Valley is not just a winter resort andamp;#8212; it’s a legend andamp;#8212; a place which captivates all who experience its majesty, beauty, power and attraction. Let’s celebrate this legend, and the Olympics, which were our crowning glory.andamp;#8221;The Olympic Heritage Celebration (Jan. 8-17) is the inaugural program and official launch of the Squaw Valley Ski Museum, a proposed center for the celebration of snow sports and mountain culture. Consisting of a group of dedicated community volunteers, working with local and regional organizations, the planned regional cultural center will collect, preserve, exhibit and interpret the skiing heritage of the Sierra Nevada andamp;#8212; including memorabilia from the VIII Winter Olympics. Events spanning everything from a Biathlon Re-Enactment and Figure Skating Exhibition andamp;#8230; to an Olympian Legends Ball andamp;#8230; the 10 activity filled days guarantee something for everyone. View photos of the 1960 Winter Olympics from local Bill Briner at http://www.sierrasun.com/1960olympicphotos.
When famed Olympian, Andrea Mead Lawrence, skied down Squaw Valley’s well known Red Dog run to hand off the Olympic torch flame to Olympian, Ken Henry, who lit the cauldron, no one had a remote clue that she was pregnant with her fifth child, daughter Quentin Lawrence.Today, Quentin, 49, lives near Salt Lake City and she says there isn’t a day that goes by that she doesn’t think of her mother. andamp;#8220;My mother’s parents reared her under the principle that if the weather’s good, you ski; if it’s bad, you go to school,andamp;#8221; she said. With her mother skiing in the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, at the young age of 15, this should come as no surprise. Some of Andrea’s medals are displayed in the Vermont Ski Museum, and Mammoth Ski Museum, but the actual torch used in Squaw Valley remains shared among the siblings. andamp;#8220;It’s truly beautiful and is a constant reminder of my mother’s joy of skiing, and love for the outdoors.andamp;#8221; In 2002, during the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games, Quentin experienced one her fondest memories of her mother. Andrea had been invited to carry the torch during the planned relay, and made a specific request to Olympic Head, Mitt Romney, to include Quentin as the designated andamp;#8220;hand off person.andamp;#8221; andamp;#8220;Mom wanted to make sure I was the one to receive the torch from her hands,andamp;#8221; Quentin said. andamp;#8220;The significance, for whatever reasons, made it one of my most special moments with her.andamp;#8221; After, the entire family attended Opening Ceremonies together.Recently, back in March 2009, Andrea passed away at her home in Mammoth Lakes, after a long and arduous battle with cancer. Through those last remaining years, Quentin was Andrea’s caretaker as she watched her mother put up a relentless fight, never giving in. After a memorial service that counted more than 700 people in attendance, lasting almost three hours, the family went on to discover a andamp;#8220;boxandamp;#8221; their mother had kept, full of Olympic memorabilia. Quentin says they have yet to go through it but plan to hand over select items that can be shared with Museums who have expressed interest.Although Andrea did not participate in the 1960 Winter Olympic Games (her last Olympics was 1956), the fact that her mother was still involved in the sport and asked to carry the torch andamp;#8212; and that her father, David Lawrence, was Coach for the Women’s Ski Team at Squaw andamp;#8212; makes her doubly proud. andamp;#8220;My mother had told me that she kept her pregnancy (with me) a secret to everyone at the 1960 games. I think, after she shared that with me, it created a special bond between us. We were best friends and I am honored and proud to be her daughter. She taught me to appreciate the mountains, and the outdoors, and I will always cherish what she passed on to us through her very personal hard work and commitment to preserve the Eastern Sierra Mountains.andamp;#8221;To Quentin, andamp;#8220;skiing is like breathing,andamp;#8221; she says. Living in Utah she is the first to express her appreciation for its exceptional powder and exquisite resorts. But there will always be a one-of-a-kind affection when it comes to the Tahoe region, and especially Squaw Valley. It’s where a secret gave birth not only to her gifted life, but to a relationship with a mother whose passion was passed on to good hands.
At the young age of 25, Robyn Genest found her second job working for the California Department of Employment as an officer, stationed in Olympic Valley. Her job description soon included hiring staff to work on the 1960 Winter Olympics that would soon take over Squaw Valley Village. But little did she realize that this small, unassuming job would land her very own Bronze Medal andamp;#8212; without every setting her foot on an ice rink, or ski slope.Working diligently out of the administration building that was positioned where the parking lot is today, Robyn handed out employment vouchers, filled out forms, gave out credentials and saw the employment numbers rise to accommodate the influx of visitors, and athletes from around the world. After the Games concluded her work went on, moving from the makeshift trailer that was her office during the two-week competition, back into the Administration Building. andamp;#8220;By then they called my job andamp;#8216;completion work’,andamp;#8221; which included filing termination papers, filing injury claims and overseeing all the details that were left behind,andamp;#8221; says Robyn. By now her employer had become the Olympic Organizing Committee and this final post lasted between 30 and 60 days. Once the Olympic Organizing Committee’s work was completed, everything reverted back to the California State Parks, where Robyn was hired as a clerk. She stayed in the area and over the years worked for the California Highway Patrol and a few county agenciesa. Now retired, Robyn spends a great part of her time giving back to the community she loves by volunteering with SnowFest! and the Lake Tahoe Summer Music Festival.Once the Heritage Celebration was announced, Robyn welcomed the visit down memory lane. While preparing to leave the house and head out to Sugar Pine to work some events, she inadvertently discovered a piece of memorabilia that she thought was permanently lost: andamp;#8220;I thought I might take some stationery with me and when I opened a desk drawer I noticed my original 1960 Olympic Credential Staff Badge peering out from under an envelope. I couldn’t believe it!andamp;#8221;Items like these add to Olympic memorabilia items that she’s donated to the State Park at Sugar Pine, like Robyn’s official uniform jacket and extensive pin collection that are soon to be displayed in their Carriage House. andamp;#8220;My favorite pin is one from Japan. It’s about a half-inch long and has an ice skate with a Japanese sun pictured on it. Like all the pins in my collection, it was given to me,andamp;#8221; she says with great pride.Yet the biggest surprise of her Olympic experience came when one day a small box arrived from the organizing committee. Inside was a bronze medal with one side engraved with the Olympic insignia and the other with the torch. andamp;#8220;You know, it just showed up, with no warning. I was very honored and privileged to receive it. I have no idea if anyone else did. But I do know we all were given pins,andamp;#8221; she said.Robyn may be one of the very select people that has bragging rights to a Bronze Medal, and isn’t an athlete, but she also has memories that will live on forever. andamp;#8220;I remember watching the Opening Ceremonies,andamp;#8221; Robyn said. andamp;#8220;It started lightly snowing when the athletes entered the Ice Arena. All of a sudden, the snow stopped and the sun streamed through, shining down on all of them. Then, Walt Disney opened a box of doves. When the ceremony ended, the sun disappeared and it started snowing again. It was a miracle to behold,andamp;#8221; she joyously exclaims.
While standing at the base of the almost 80-foot Squaw Valley Olympic Tower of Nations, camera in hand, no one would suspect an unassuming, quiet photographer harbored a special attachment to the torch relay that was about to turn the corner. The carrier’s flame would not only re-light the cauldron after 50 years, but re-kindle a young man’s memory of a similar path, with the same mission.Born and raised in Auburn, Calif., Mike Virgil was a student at Placer High School when the invitation came to participate in the 1960 Winter Olympic Torch Relay. He was a junior and on the track team (100/220 Sprinter). Recruiters had come to his school as well as Del Oro, Colfax, Roseville and Sierra College specifically to pick young, strong, able runners who could support the relay course and get the flame to its destination.andamp;#8220;Disney artist, John Hench, designed the torch and I believe the flame was lit in Norway, and then was brought to Los Angeles by plane from Oslo. From there I think it went up to San Francisco, by foot, and then eventually into Auburn,andamp;#8221; says Virgil. andamp;#8220;We were all asked to run one mile. It’s funny, but one athlete actually got sick at the last minute so they asked me to run his mile for him. I guess I’m one of the few people who actually got to run the torch andamp;#8220;twiceandamp;#8221; in a lifetime!andamp;#8221;Fifty years later, Virgil still recalls where and when the torch made its way to the landmark event: andamp;#8220;I remember it got to a certain point and then it was handed off to a group of skiers who cross country skied it through back country. Eventually, it was skied down the face of Squaw and into the village for the lighting ceremony.andamp;#8221; Just as he finishes his recollection, a cheer emanates from the highway and Virgil turns to watch para-olympian, Bill Bowness, ride in the flame handing it off to Nancy Cushing at the base of the Tower. If you looked close enough, you could see the gleam in Virgil’s eyes as he raised his camera to capture the moment.Happily retired after 50 years of service and employment with Andregg Geomatic, Virgil decided to take his long time hobby and turn it into his second career setting up shop with his wife, Janet, as andamp;#8220;Auburn Photographyandamp;#8221;, in Loomis, California (www.auburnphotography.com). Specializing in historical photos and well as contemporary, they are caretakers of the Charles E. Barieau Collection. andamp;#8220;I picked up a Kodak box camera at the tender age of 13 and haven’t stopped since,andamp;#8221; says Virgil. Over the years, Olympic torch relays have grown and developed, adapting to the trends and designs they have spawned. The Olympic flame represents the positive values that Man has always associated with fire, and the purity the flame represents. Each route for the flame has its own flavor and should compliment the discovery of the history and culture of that part of the world it is touring. Mike Virgil had a personal relationship with an Olympic flame that graced his homeland back in 1960. And believe it or not, the origin of that same flame was captured looking through his camera lens on Jan. 8, 2010. Legend and history has followed the eternal flame through water, snow, air, horseback and even camel. Yet, no brighter does it burn than in the heart of this Sierra native.
They’re hard not to miss in those puffy, patch worn, orange jackets with the big white cross on the back. Loud and colorful, from their pin crusted hats to their stories of andamp;#8220;boot packingandamp;#8221; the slopes during the VIII Winter Olympic Games at Squaw Valley, Hart Axley and John Bishop stood out amidst all the attention given the Olympians, and reminded us about the stories behind the medals.Back in 1960, Hart and John were Volunteer Ski Patrollers who filled in where paid staff lacked, and worked avalanche control for the Games. While Olympic planners paced their headquarters with jittery nerves and empty promises, Mother Nature pulled through in January with a series of cold storms that dumped the slopes with more than 10 feet of fresh snow. The relief was brief, however, as rain andamp;#8212; not snow andamp;#8212; drenched the Sierras in early February, tightening the gap on andamp;#8220;all systems goandamp;#8221;. Conditions were so ominous that managing director for the Games, H.D. Thoreau, made an emergency announcement. Thankfully, a miracle prevailed as a storm blew in the morning of Opening Ceremonies, cutting visibility to zero and depositing 8 inches of snow on spectators and participants. Right on cue, the heavens parted and a brilliant sun drenched a blue sky as President Richard Nixon declared the Games open.Elation was brief as soon after the miracle, the rains came. andamp;#8220;We were one of the first one’s on the mountain after it stopped raining,andamp;#8221; says Hart. andamp;#8220;They had a total of over 30 inches of fresh snow and they had to clear the mountain for avalanches. It was our job to get the ammo shot and make the mountain safe.andamp;#8221; Little did our unsung heroes know that despite their valiant efforts, some unassuming homesteaders on the mountain were unaware of what was going on, right under their noses.Boasting their efforts with glee like charm, John and Hart start to relay a story that could be their own secret, until now. andamp;#8220;We’d been shooting ammo from Little Papoose into KT … and we’d ski down and go up again, repeating the targets. When all of a sudden, these two guys from CBS come running out in their long johns, hysterical! It seems one of the shots exploded (on impact) and blasted out some of the windows at the warming hut CBS was using as a transmittal hub (to New York). These poor guys must have thought it was the end of the world!andamp;#8221;National Ski Patrol Founder (NSP), Charles Minot Minnie Dole, established a national organization after he broke an ankle skiing and had to be dragged down a slope on a piece of roofing tin in 1938, and later lost a friend who perished on the slopes. Since the first Olympic Ski Patrol was established to provide medical services at the Squaw Valley Winter Games in 1960, members have been found volunteering on medic staffs at summer, and winter Olympic Games ever since. andamp;#8220;It wasn’t just a job,andamp;#8221; John said. andamp;#8220;It was an experience.andamp;#8221;Today, Squaw Valley’s 4,000 acres receives an average of 37.5 feet of snow each winter and has one of the largest avalanche programs in the country. Volunteer patrollers often arrive at work before 4 a.m. to prepare the mountain and ensure skiers safety. As people keep walking up to Hart, it’s easy to see why. With his 100 pins that camouflage the color of his red ski cap, he and John seem to be the liveliest act going in the Village courtyard. Athletes may have medals and staffers may have stories, but these two courageous souls went where no one else dared. Their trek might never be recorded in the annals of Olympic history but without them, those records would have never been accomplished.
These photos are from the book Snowball’s Chance – The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, by David Antonucci. Find it in area bookstores.