Sandy Poulsen: "First Lady of Squaw Valley"
October 2, 2007
On Sept. 19, 2007, about 750 friends and family from throughout the West came to Squaw Valley to honor the life and memory of Gladys “Sandy” Poulsen, who died quietly on Sept. 2 after a courageous battle with ovarian cancer. Fondly known as the “First Lady of Squaw Valley,” Sandy and her husband Wayne, who died in 1995, were the first to move into the valley with the dream of developing the surrounding mountains into a world-class ski resort.
In some ways, Sandy Poulsen was an unlikely pioneer. She was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on Aug. 3, 1918, to Oscar and Gladys Kunau. Sandy was raised as a debutante in a world of comfort and privilege. Her father had achieved financial success in the textile industry and the family lived in a penthouse at the luxurious Sherry-Netherland Hotel, which overlooked Central Park in mid-town Manhattan.
After high school Sandy entered Smith College, a private women’s liberal arts college in Northampton, Mass. She enjoyed her classes and weekend ski trips in New England.
Among her best friends was Kathleen Harriman, the daughter of Union Pacific Railroad tycoon Averell Harriman. During the 1930s, Harriman noted that more Americans were becoming interested in winter sports. As Chairman of Union Pacific, Harriman realized his railroad traversed some of the most scenic and mountainous areas in the West, and in 1935 he hired an agent to search out a good location for an upscale winter resort that could be accessed by UP trains. The best spot turned out to be near Ketchum, Idaho, and on Dec. 21,1936, Sun Valley Resort, the West’s first destination ski area, opened to international publicity.
In 1941, Kathleen Harriman suggested that Sandy take a ski trip to Sun Valley on her father’s railroad line. The idea intrigued Sandy, who was tired of the hard, icy snow conditions on the slopes in New England. Kathleen told her that the snow at Sun Valley was deep and soft. Sandy had recently seen the romantic movie, “Sun Valley Serenade” starring Sonja Henie, a world-class ice skater and Olympic champion. The stunning alpine scenery drew Sandy like a powerful magnet, so she packed her things and bought a train ticket for a trip to Idaho. It took her five days to reach Salt Lake City and then another day or two to reach Sun Valley, where she boldly checked into the ski lodge unescorted.
Sandy Kunau signed up for ski lessons and soon met her future husband, Wayne Poulsen, a pilot for Pan American Airlines and ski champion from Reno, Nev. The couple hit it off right away, spending their days on the slopes and dancing in the Sun Valley Lodge every night until it closed. Years later Sandy liked to joke that she let her skiing ability improve very slowly so Wayne would have to spend more time teaching her the techniques. Sandy spent the rest of the winter at Sun Valley learning to ski with Wayne and by the time spring arrived they were engaged. Wayne told Sandy about Squaw Valley, a remote alpine valley tucked into the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe, and they would live and raise their family there when they got married.
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Their glamorous wedding was held in August 1942 at the beautiful Santa Monica oceanfront home of the famous Hollywood actress Norma Shearer. Shearer’s first husband had died tragically in 1936, but in an interesting twist of fate, she too had decided to take a ski vacation at Sun Valley during the same winter as Sandy Kunau. While there, she met and fell in love with Martin Arrouge, a San Francisco-born ski instructor 15 years her junior. “Marti” Arrouge also happened to be one of Wayne Poulsen’s best ski buddies from the early days in Nevada. Later the young men had both become ski instructors at Sun Valley. The romantic magic of Sun Valley depicted in the movie must have been true; at the resort both Poulsen and Arrouge met their future brides and lifelong partners.
Marti Arrouge’s father was a Basque sheepherder who tended the flocks that grazed in the meadows of Squaw Valley during the mild summer months. When Wayne and Marti were in high school, it was Marti’s father who invited the two teenagers up to fish and hike in the nearby mountains. During that summer sojourn, Poulsen fell in love with Squaw Valley and began to dream that he could develop it into a wonderful ski area.
At the time Wayne told Sandy about living in Squaw Valley he didn’t own anything there, but true to his word, in 1943 he purchased 640 acres from Southern Pacific Railroad. Wayne whisked Sandy away from her upscale lifestyle in Manhattan and moved her into a tent in remote Squaw Valley.
They spent the summer in the valley, bathing in the frigid waters of Shirley Canyon and eating the fresh trout Wayne caught everyday. It was tough going in the early days, but Sandy had no complaints. She often recalled how peaceful the valley was and although the couple had virtually nothing in the way of material possessions, they were full of hopes and dreams. After World War II ended, the Poulsens purchased two surplus army barracks and converted them into a real home that could withstand the severe Sierra winters. It was the first house built in Squaw Valley and survives today as Graham’s Restaurant.
Wayne spent about two weeks a month flying for Pan Am which left Sandy on her own as she began to raise the first of their eight children. As the children grew older they attended Tahoe Lake School near Tahoe City and later Truckee High. During winter the bus rarely made it to Squaw Valley so for many years Sandy drove the kids to school in an old beat-up station wagon. During Wayne’s frequent extended absences, Sandy took on the various roles of a ranch boss, postmaster, Realtor, writer, and mother of eight ski racers who constantly needed rides to competitive events. Two of the children went on to become Olympic Ski Champions and one became All-American.
While skiing at Alta, Utah, in 1946, the couple met Alex Cushing, a Harvard-educated lawyer with financial contacts. The Poulsens needed investors for their dream of making Squaw Valley into a ski area. In 1948 Cushing became their partner in the Squaw Valley Development Corporation. The business relationship did not work out, however, and Cushing went on to develop the valley as a ski resort while the Poulsens began a successful career in real estate selling the land they owned there.
Sandy Poulsen always had a sense of adventure. She was one of the first women to earn a commercial pilot’s license. After World War II the Poulsens purchased a single-engine plane. The war surplus, two-man aircraft had an open cockpit; Sandy and Wayne wore leather helmets and communicated using a rubber tube. After they bought an amphibious floatplane, they took family camping trips to Alaska or fishing trips to remote Sierra lakes. In later years, they sometimes used the floatplane to visit Tahoe lakefront restaurants for dinner.
One of the classic stories about Sandy involves her “improving” skiing ability.
During the design stage of the ski resort in 1948, Sandy and Wayne were skiing a very steep, north-facing slope. Wayne was an expert skier and proved it by carving turns straight down the steep pitch. Sandy, however, was terrified and could only negotiate the slope by traversing into the trees to secretly make a kick turn. (Wayne had told her he wanted her to “ski” down the mountain, not traverse the slope with kick turns.) Despite Wayne’s admonishments to ski, Sandy continued to kick turn and traverse the slope little by little until she reached the bottom. Wayne, who was patiently waiting and counting the number of traverses, calmly informed her that she had made 22 kick turns to negotiate the hill. He then named the mountain KT-22 in honor of her embarrassing descent. KT-22 remains one of America’s favorite and challenging ski slopes.
After a lifetime of impressive accomplishments in skiing and aviation, Wayne Poulsen died in 1995. It’s hard to separate the achievements of Sandy and her husband Wayne, their love affair lasted 53 years. In 2004, Sandy accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Squaw Valley Institute given to honor both Wayne and Sandy. In 2005, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names officially designated a peak in Squaw Valley as “Poulsen Peak” commemorating Wayne Poulsen, a ski area pioneer and founder of Squaw Valley.
Sandy’s love for Squaw Valley was only surpassed by her love for her husband and her family who survive her including her eight children: Christian, Wayne Jr., Lance, Eric, Sandra, Craig, Glen and Russell, as well as her 18 grandchildren and one great grandchild. Sandy Poulsen was a true pioneer, a loving mother, a great lover of life, an inspiration and a pillar of strength.
Sandy Poulsen regularly attended the Squaw Valley Chapel, which was built on land donated by the Poulsens for the 1960 Winter Olympics. The charming chapel is a fitting tribute to Wayne and Sandy, located between KT-22 and Poulsen Peak. In 1992, Sandy Poulsen said, “I grew up in New York, in a penthouse, but I ended up living in a tent in Squaw Valley. Yet I couldn’t have been luckier.” Rest in peace Sandy.