Jack be nimble: Friends recall Winter Park legend Jack van Horn
April 15, 2011
Several weeks ago, a group of lifelong friends gathered at Devil’s Thumb Ranch to remember Winter Park legend Jack van Horn who recently passed away.
Jack lived in Winter Park for a little more than a decade, half-a-century ago, but he made a huge impression on those who knew him here.
He has been immortalized on the slopes with a Winter Park Resort run named in his honor: “Little Pierre.”
Jack’s time in Winter Park coincided with a revolution in skiing. Willy Bogner had just invented the first stretch ski pants, which were modeled by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman and, suddenly, skiing exploded in popularity. Skier numbers at Winter Park would quadruple before the decade was out.
But in those early days, Hideaway Park had just a handful of cabins. There were only three lodges open in Winter Park – Miller’s Inn, Beaver Lodge or Timmerhaus – and just one place to go for a beer – Adolph’s.
A tight-knit group of seven or eight young ski instructors who worked for George Engel ruled Winter Park in those days – among them were Jack van Horn, Bill Wilson (Bill Wilson’s Way), Maury Flanagan (Mt. Maury), Philip Miller, Carl Woodruff, Rudy Schnackenberg, Russ Bowlby . Most met their wives here, and many of them raised their families here.
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Now, in their 70s and 80s, those who remain still tell stories about Jack and that golden decade in Winter Park – stories they’ve told so many times that everyone in the room can recite the ending; stories that are, in so many ways, timeless.
His first season
Born in July 1935, Jack van Horn graduated from South High in Denver. He entered the Navy Reserves and then came to Winter Park to ski in 1955.
Jack spent his first season on the mountain working as a ski patroller.
“He enjoyed getting on the loud speaker in the top terminal of the Hughes T-Bar and pretending he was a radio announcer,” recalls friend Glenda Flanagan. “He would poke fun at folks getting off the T-Bar, especially ski instructors, on his ‘Broad Scattering Network.’ This was typical of his great sense of humor.”
Wearing ski boots, Jack stood 5 feet, 2 inches tall, but what he lacked in stature he made up for in personality. He was a comedian, an acrobat, a prankster and an eternal ladies’ man.
He skied on 210 cm skis in those days, and his outfit consisted of wool knickers and a French beret, causing fellow ski patroller Butch DePaemelaere (Butch’s Breezeway) to dub him “Little Pierre.”
Some years later when the mountain expanded, Jack’s favorite tree run was widened and named “Little Pierre” in his honor.
Carl Woodruff, who knew Jack from high school, was stationed at Buckley Field Air Force Base in Longmont that year. Carl had Mondays and Tuesdays off, he recalls: “I would beat it up to Winter Park Sunday evening in time to have a few beers at Adolph’s with some of the skiers. The next day, I’d catch some time with Jack on the hill where he’d give me a few pointers. He was one of the reasons (I came to) Winter Park, and he won’t be forgotten.”
An epic season
In 1956, Jack became a ski instructor for George Engel’s Ski School. During that ski season, Jack roomed with another ski instructor, Philip Miller, at Timmerhaus. It would be an epic season in Winter Park, by most accounts. A troupe of beautiful young ski bunnies showed up in town that winter, forever changing the lives of the close-knit group of bachelor ski instructors at George Engel’s Ski School.
Linda Miller (who later married Philip) recalls that winter because it was the year she came to Winter Park, working as a chambermaid at Beaver’s.
“The best story I remember about Jack,” Linda said, “was about the time he came home after partying and got his little car stuck on the train tracks that crossed the road up to Timmerhaus.”
Glenda Flanagan (who later married Maury) recalls that story too. It’s one of those stories that has perhaps been told enough times, by so many people, that it seems that Jack often got his car stuck on the tracks.
“Sometimes, after partying at Adolph’s, Jack would get his little MG stuck on the railroad tracks en route home and would run to get Phil out of bed to come and help him push the car off the tracks before the next train came along.”
Linda added: “They made it just in time.”
Noel Wilson (who later married Bill) also remembers Jack’s “fancy little car.” Following Jack down Berthoud Pass there was one curve where he “would open the door and seem to leap out over the highway as he rounded the corner … I picture that every time I drive around that corner. I’ve many times told my kids about it.”
Teaching the young
Noel also came to Winter Park that 1956/57 season, picking up work at Miller’s Inn. She met Bill Wilson on a blind date that first New Year’s Eve she was in town. Her roommates went with Maury and Butch and the whole lot of them ended up hiding under a table together at the El Monte in Granby late that evening as a bar fight ensued.
The following season, Noel suggested to George Engel that she’d like to teach children’s ski lessons. George, thinking there would be no demand for such a thing, offered Noel secretarial work in the office, adding that she could pick up children’s ski lessons whenever somebody wanted one.
Several weeks later, Noel recalls, George pulled her aside and asked why none of the office work was getting done. Little did he realize, Noel was taking out groups of 20-30 kids almost every day.
Glenda eventually took over the ski school program. Her husband Maury went on to run the ski school and rental shop at SolVista (then Silver Creek). Bill would go on to become the ski school director for Winter Park Ski Area in 1982.
Doing the limbo
In the years to come, Joyce Engel played hostess to all the ski school instructors, patrollers and U.S. Forest Service rangers, throwing parties in her apartment. But even among all those personalities, Jack stood out.
Jack taught the Engel girls, Janet and Wendy, how to use a trampoline. (Having traveled with a circus for several summers, he was rather acrobatic.)
Wendy, who was very young at the time, recalls Jack doing the limbo … and always winning due to being short and supernaturally flexible.
Joyce said she still uses the Cutco knives that Jack sold her one summer.
“It was a whole set that I couldn’t afford and didn’t need,” she said. The only other set he sold was to his own mother.
Jean and Dwight Miller, who owned Miller’s Inn and Lodge and Idlewild Ski Area, remember Jack well.
“He would come over at least once a week for a free meal,” Jean said.
Jack starred in a promotional film for Idlewild, as the comical guest who was late for dinner one minute and then, the next, renting skis far too short and being dragged up the T-bar lift.
He would come to the inn to promote the ski school and teach the Millers’ guests a few ski techniques, Jean said. Jack took his talks to all three lodges, working a free meal wherever he went.
Al Stadelman was another fixture at the Engels’ Ski Shop in those days. He grew up on the ranch where the Fraser Sports Complex is located now and had never skied a day in his life when George hired him to help in the ski shop in 1952.
“All I knew about skis is that they were turned up at one end,” Al said.
Al set to work adjusting skis his first year. The next year he took over the repair shop and often had help from a few of his brothers. He work for the Engels for more than 30 seasons.
He may have invented the first telescoping ski pole. The kids in those days wanted their poles long, up to their ears. George didn’t want to buy a whole bunch of different sized poles and so Al fitted together several pieces of aluminum tubing with an adjustable fixture so the poles could be lengthened or shortened for individual preference.
“Jack grabbed a pair of those poles and extended them as far as they’d go and skied down Larry Sale (which was called Bridge Trail then), making wide sweeping turns with those long poles just hanging behind him,” Al recalls.
Smart and cute
Jack met his wife Helga in late 1957. Helga recalls: “I went up to Berthoud one day to try and get a job … I went to ski the little hill by the lodge and Jack was sitting atop the lower tower fixing something. The snow was awful, all windblown and crusty and Jack thought that he should come down from his tower and give me some advice. They stopped the lift, Jack got down, strapped on his skis and got on the T-Bar with me when they started it up again. He said, ‘The snow is tricky,’ and he made it seem almost impossible to ski. I let him ramble, but I did think he was cute. At the top, I said thanks and skied off. He went after me but didn’t catch me until we were down. He had no further advice for me.”
Jack helped Helga get a job waitressing and a place to stay at Berthoud Lodge.
“One evening, on a stormy night, a car went into the ditch just below the pass. Jack and someone else went to help. The people, TV producers from New York, stayed at the lodge. In the evening we had a drink (hot buttered rum) with them in the bar. The man was very knowledgeable about stars and planets and so was Jack, and I was impressed how smart Jack really was. Being cute and smart too was his ace in the deck.”
A winning combination
Later that season, when Winter Park Ski Area opened (which was always later than Berthoud Ski Area) Jack took Helga to meet George Engel, “but not without incident,” Helga said.
“We were waiting outside for George to come out,” she recalls. Several instructors, including Maury Flanagan and Bill Wilson, started throwing snowballs at Helga.
“I threw snowballs back and out came George and my snowball hit him right in the head. I was so embarrassed and apologized profoundly, over and over again. But George took it in good humor and blamed it on the guys. He offered me a job and the combination of a beautiful ski area, nice people and Jack thrown in made me stay.”
Helga became the first female ski instructor George hired.
Jack and Helga married the following year and soon built Jack’s Lodge and Restaurant, which was located in Hideaway Park behind what is Cooper Creek Square today. They ran the lodge for almost a decade before moving to Aspen where Jack took a position as a ski instructor in the winter and contractor in the summer.
In 1987, they moved to Reno and opened Posh Journeys, a specialty tour company. They spent the last 20 years traveling around the globe.
A fateful accident
Jack suffered traumatic injuries following a bicycling accident in 2009. (He still biked 20 miles every day then.) The bleeding in his liver, which was caused by the accident, could not be stopped. Knots formed and, in January 2011, became cancerous. He died in Reno, Nev., on March 3, 2011.
In an email following her husband’s death, Helga said to Noel: “I remember when you dated Bill and I dated Jack, and they brought us home to the apartment at Timmerhaus, and we would go to the window to see if they were going home or to Adolph’s. Of course it was Adolph’s most of the time. And we would stew and get frustrated. If they could only take us home just one more time, they could go to Adolph’s all they want.”
Jack is survived by his wife Helga, son Nick and daughter Roz.