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Rice made impact on local skiing

By Phil Johnson
Monday, December 3, 2012
Photo of

In photo: Bill Rice, left, and Phil Johnson.

This hasn't happened since Richard Nixon was president, since Nelson Rockefeller was our governor or since the movie just shot locally was "The Way We Were" featuring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand.

Someone other than Bill Rice is writing the Daily Gazette ski column.

Since 1972, every Friday in the cold months, Bill has kept area readers abreast of the ski scene, near and far. He's written about skiing locally at Maple Ski Ridge with legendary teacher Freddie Anderson. He's written about skiing in Oslo, Norway, with its local legend Stein Eriksen. And he's written about skiing at just about everyplace in between. Until now, that is. Cranky knees, a balky back and a whole lot of fun waiting to be had with grandchildren combined to persuade Bill to call it quits after 40 years of writing this column.

To write about anything for that long is remarkable. To write about skiing for that long in one public-ation is unprecedented.

And, as you would imagine after all those years, it hasn't gone unnoticed; or unappreciated.

"He's been a fantastic advocate for skiing," said Jim Blaise, who bought Royal Mountain ski area in Caroga Lake the same year Bill began writing his column.

"I'm just a small local area," said Blaise. "Bill could talk to anyone, anywhere. But he always made time and space for me."

Anderson, 91, has been teaching skiing locally since 1950. She knows what Bill has meant for skiing in the neighborhood.

"Absolutely no one has been as active in talking about skiing over the years. He was constantly in touch," she said.

"We will certainly miss him."

Add 30 years to his writing career and you'll appreciate just how long Bill has been a part of the area ski scene.

He started skiing in the 1930s when his dad would take him and his four sisters to the Glenville Hills, where they would climb, pack the slopes as they did, then ski down. The first "real" ski hill was Wolf Hollow, west of Scotia, "where there was night skiing with lights provided by guys who worked for GE." Back then, Bill paid 50 cents to be a junior member of the Schen-ectady Winter Sports Club.

A big trip at the time was to North Creek, where he skied the Barton Mines Road and the Ski Bowl, improving his ski technique by watching locals like Pat Cunningham handle terrain like the classic Hudson Trail that was a trans-itional moment when a newcomer went from "a person who skis" to "a skier."

Potsdam, where Bill went to college, didn't have a ski team, but he regularly observed racers from nearby St. Lawrence University, where Amsterdam's Fred Merchant and others competed under the guidance of noted ski coach Otto Schniebs. After college, Bill taught for a short time in Elizabethtown, where nearby Whiteface was an easy drive.

Being a skier at that time turned out to have certain special rewards. After being drafted into the Army, Bill spent one winter in the special services as a member of the ski pat-rol at Berchtesgaden, Germany. Leave time offered a chance to get to the Austrian Arlberg around St. Anton, where he would develop a lifelong appreciation for skiing in the Alps.

Back in the U.S., Bill began a career teaching music at Lansingburgh High School, and he continued his ski patrol activity as head of the

patrol at Willard Mountain for 10 years He also worked on his ski passion: racing. During the late 1960s, he was a top competitor in the area ski racing circuit, winning the Dick Walsh Memorial Trophy as the top racer in the Capital District Ski Council in 1966 and 1967.

It was then he began writing about skiing, taking his Ski Tales column to the Gazette in 1972. After he retired from teaching, he worked full time for the newspaper, focusing on travel and music. After he retired from the paper in 2005, he continued to write the ski column as a free-lancer.

Throughout, his special interest has been ski racing. There were international stars like Franz Klammer and Karl Schranz who Bill met and wrote about. And for years, he was a fixture at the World Cup downhill event at Beaver Creek, Colo. But what really captured his attention were the local races and local racers, especially the high schools.

"In 40 years, I don't think he missed a high school race at my hill," said Blaise.

"Its not even close," noted Niskay-una High School's longtime Alpine coach, John Sharkey. "Bill has been the go-to guy for coverage in our area. The kids noticed when Bill was there."

"It was more than just the compet-ition." said Rice. "When I attended Scotia High School, only a few of us skied. Now, many more have the opportunity to ski and race. And what I like particularly is that when the races are over, all of the competitors go off and enjoy themselves skiing. That kind of camaraderie doesn't exist in other sports.

"During the season, you see every skier become better. And because of the experience, every competitor develops a life-long skill."

Bill has been married to Ellen for 48 years. There were both teaching at Lansingburgh when they met, and Bill persuaded her to become a skier by making sure she didn't look down -- or backward -- when going up the lift. Daughter Erin is an accomplished skier, while son Will is a snowboard regular. Both learned growing up, trailing their dad to races and events.

Sometimes, it's difficult to grasp the passage of 40 years.

If you are a skier and need a reminder of what has happened since Bill began writing for the Gazette, consider this:

Snowmaking . . . just beginning in 1972. It has been the savior of Eastern skiing.

High-speed ski lifts. . . . Think about how important that is on the next frigid day.

Shaped skis. . . . made learning easier and experienced skiers better.

Snowboards . . . Bill was there when Jake Burton was first exper-imenting at Snow Valley in Vermont.

Grooming . . . In 1972?

Plastic boots and release bindings . . . Warmer, comfortable and safer. Not many ankle casts sitting in the lodge these days.

Helmets . . . even racers didn't wear them in the 70s.

Clothing . . . lighter, better looking, and waterproof, too.

Over the past 40 years, Bill has watched it all while reporting on it in The Gazette.

"Looking back, I'm happy to have been involved in a lifelong sport and to be able to pass along its joys to family members and others." said Bill earlier this week.

Thanks, Bill!

Next week, we'll take a look at what's new in the area this winter.

Phil Johnson , who lives in Clifton Park, was the sports information director at Union College in the 1970s and is a veteran free-lancer and ski writer who formerly wrote a ski column for the Amsterdam Recorder. He is a member and past president of the North American Snowsports Journalists Association and the Eastern Ski Writers Association.

 
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