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Tom Corcoran passes: Olympian, Waterville Valley founder

Passing Date: 
Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Tom Corcoran, who made his Waterville Valley resort in New Hampshire fertile ground in the 1970s for the future of World Cup alpine racing in America, freestyle competition, and Nastar, died June 27 in Charleston, SC, at age 85. The cause of death was cancer, complicated by pneumonia.

Corcoran’s passing came only four months after the tragic sudden death of his wife, Daphne. The couple had lived on South Carolina’s Seabrook Island since 1998.
Thomas Armstrong Corcoran was a unique, influential figure in American skiing in multiple ways. The range of his accomplishments is unlikely ever to be replicated -- as a racer, resort builder, association director, and writer. 

As a competitor between 1954 and 1960, Corcoran won four U.S. national titles, twice won Aspen’s Roch Cup, plus Sun Valley’s Harriman Cup, the Parsenn Gold Cup, Silver Belt, the Kandahar of the Andes, and the Quebec Kandahar.  At Squaw Valley in 1960 he missed by six-tenths of a second becoming the first American male racer to win an Olympic medal, placing fourth in the giant slalom. It stood as the best U.S. men's Olympic Games GS performance for 42 years, until Bode Miller medaled in 2002.

DESTINED TO COMPETE
Born in Japan, Corcoran first skied in New Jersey. When his parents divorced, his mother moved with young Tom to St. Jovite in Quebec’s Laurentians. There he honed his early skills on Grey Rocks hill, alongside future World Champion double-gold-medalist Lucile Wheeler and future Canadian Olympian Pete Kirby.
Corcoran attended Emerson School and Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Following graduation he entered Dartmouth College, which at the time furnished most of the U.S. Ski Team’s alpine racers.

“I was on the Dartmouth team for three years,” Corcoran recalled in the late 1990s, “along with Brooks Dodge, Bill Beck, Ralph Miller, Dave Lawrence, Colin Stewart, Chick Igaya, Egil Stigum and Bill Tibbits. Walt Prager, a great guy, was the coach and a great assist to my racing development. I spent one summer in Portillo, Chile, racing and training under Emile Allais, who was the other great influence on my racing career.”

Following graduation from Dartmouth in 1954, Corcoran served for two years as a Lieutenant j.g. in  the Navy, which generously allowed him to race and train in South America, and to compete in the 1956 Olympic Winter Games in Italy.

Aiming to combine his knowledge of skiing with business skills, he attended Harvard Business School, graduating in 1959. At Harvard, Corcoran wrote a paper about how a ski resort plant should integrate mountain and town. In effect, it was his vision for Waterville.  

Harvard B-School helped him land a job in 1962 at the Aspen Skiing Company. He worked as a special assistant to the legendary Darcy Brown,  who assigned him to do feasibility studies of skiing at Buttermilk Mountain and Snowmass, plan Aspen’s first comprehensive marketing program, and reorganize the ski school into a profit center.

Among his accomplishments at Aspen, he helped to coordinate a 1964 ski vacation at Aspen for Bobby Kennedy, Ethel and their children, and recently widowed Jacqueline and her two children. Corcoran’s interest in politics may have been genetic. His uncle was Tommy 'the Cork' Corcoran, who once served in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's brain trust. Tom worked on Robert F. Kennedy 1964 New York Senatorial Campaign. The Kennedys skied frequently at Waterville Valley. Bobby's Run was named in honor of the Senator immediately after he was assassinated in 1968.

INVESTOR, WRITER
A friend and admirer of tapered metal pole inventor Ed Scott, Corcoran in 1962 became a 20-percent owner of Scott USA, an investment that he held until the company was sold in 1969.
Certified in 1964 as an instructor, Corcoran also exploited his talent and skill as a writer. He was a keen analyst and original thinker. From 1963 to 1970, he served as SKI Magazine’s Racing Editor, and wrote an opinion column In the Starting Gate. Among the topics in the often controversial column, he scrutinized innovations in alpine racing technique, critiqued the U.S. Ski Association’s spending, tangled with Bob Beattie, urged racers to stay in college, and disapproved the Ski Hall of Fame’s election procedures.

BUILDING WATERVILLE
In 1965 Corcoran left the Aspen Skiing Company to complete his search for a New England ski area that he could expand or build. Since the 1930s a small rope-tow area had operated on Snow’s Mountain, near the Waterville Inn, at the end of the road from Campton, NH. Corcoran turned his full attention to the much bigger Mount Tecumseh. The terrain, on national forest land, had already been deemed desirable by trail designer Sel Hannah. Corcoran quickly obtained a Forest Service operating permit and found a combination of low-cost government loans and investors. He began trail clearing and the erection of four double chairlifts in the spring of 1966. Simultaneously, he formed the Waterville Company to acquire most of the privately owned land needed to build a village accommodating vacationing skiers. It would be a town at the end of the road.

The ski area opened in December 1966.

Like Pete Seibert and Bob Parker at Vail, Corcoran understood that a new resort could gain immediate national and international attention -- millions of dollars worth of ‘free’ publicity -- by hosting major events. He he turned to his contacts with influential journalists to make it happen. He was an enthusiastic supporter of my work as Editor-in-chief of SKI Magazine in creating Nastar, the National Standard Ski Race. To convert an idea on paper into a physical reality, we needed the terrain and organization to evaluate the handicap system. Corcoran made Waterville available for the first Pacesetter Trials in December 1968. His insights into racing and understanding of timing and performance contributed valuably to Nastar’s launching. The eight areas, including Waterville, engaged in Nastar’s first season expanded to 35 in the winter of 1969-70, and eventually surged to more than a hundred participating areas. 
 
Corcoran knew European journalist Serge Lang, founder of the World Cup of Alpine Skiing. The first two World Cup Finals had been held in the U.S., and Corcoran succeeded in influencing Lang’s World Cup Committee to designate Waterville as host of the third in 1969. The races and trophy ceremony – Karl Schranz and Gertrud Gabl were the overall season winners – brought national and international publicity for Corcoran’s fledgling resort. Waterville went on to host 10 more World Cup meets, the most by any North American resort in the 20th Century, including the 1991 Finals, the last World Cup races in the northeast until Killington last year. 

Just as Corcoran had made Waterville a laboratory for the first Nastar races, he made his White Mountains resort the initial venue for competitive freestyle, working with Skiing Magazine Editor Doug Pfeiffer, the early pioneer of stunt skiing. Both men had grown up skiing in the Laurentians. In March 1971, they launched the first National Championship of Exhibition Skiing at Waterville. Sponsor Chevrolet offered prizes of a $6,000 Corvette car, $2,000 in purse money and $2,000 in expenses. Jean-Claude Killy served as one of the judges. Suzy Chaffee, the only woman entrant, cut stylish figures on four-foot double-ended skis. The historic event generated reams of publicity for Waterville.

Corcoran also seized the opportunity to capitalize on the sudden revival and mass popularity of recreational cross-country ski touring in the early 1970s. By dint of clever planning, he arranged to link the town square to Forest Service land on the other side of the road, allowing guests direct access to the trails. Permitted, the Waterville Touring (now “Adventure”) Center eventually grew from 30 to over 70 kilometers of groomed cross-country trails, hosting major events including The Great American Ski Chase and the U.S. National Cross Country Championships.

WATERVILLE OWNERSHIP CHANGE
The resort’s terrain and lift expansions, snowmaking, terrain park, and lodging burdened it with debt, however. Additionally hurt by the Tax Reform Act of 1986, Waterville’s pre-sales of lodging units plummeted. When the national real estate crash came in 1991, Waterville’s two main lending banks failed, and the FDIC effectively forced the company into bankruptcy.
Preston Leete Smith-led S-K-I Ltd., owner of Killington and Mt. Snow, purchased Waterville for $10 million. Ownership briefly fell into the hands of Les Otten’s American Skiing Company, then George Gillett’s Booth Creek Ski Holdings. The ski operation is now owned by an investment group led by New Hampshire’s gubernatorial Sununu family with whom Corcoran had a long-time relationship. As Chairman of the Waterville Company until his death, he remained involved in owning land around the village, and in real estate sales. 

MULTIPLE TASKS, AWARDS 
Corcoran volunteered a record 20 years as a director of the National Ski Areas Association, serving on the Marketing, Public Lands, and Competition Committees. He was NSAA’s chairman in 1983-85.

He also served for a short time as Chairman of the American Ski Federation, a coalition of associations which in 1978 brought about the first concerted lobbying effort by the ski industry in Washington. There was concern at the time about Congress initiating legislation that could limit the use of public land for skiing. 
 
As a reminder of the perils of his chosen line of work, Corcoran for many years hung on his office wall a framed reproduction of words once published in Fortune Magazine: The ski business is an odd little segment of industry that is better left to people who understand it, who deeply care about it, and who are willing to have a less than predictable bottom line than most big corporations will tolerate.

Corcoran served as President of the Eastern Ski Areas Association. He received the Sherman Adams Award in 1988 for outstanding contributions to eastern skiing, and he was the first recipient of the “Spirit of Skiing” Award from the New England Ski Museum in 2006. In 1978 he was elected to the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame as both an athlete and sport builder. The U.S. Ski Team, USSA and U.S. Ski Education Foundation benefited from Corcoran’s profound and long experience as a racer, analyst and executive, serving as a director for 18 years. He received the USSA’s highest honor, the Julius Blegen award in 1991. He was elected to the Rolex International Ski Racing Hall of Fame in 1995.

He served as an elected Selectman on the three-person board governing the Town of Waterville for 35 years, or 12 terms, a New Hampshire record. 

FROM SNOW TO WATER
Retired from active ski area management, Corcoran and his wife Daphne, both golfers and sailors, moved to Seabrook Island on the South Carolina coast. If they weren’t on the links, they were on their 55-foot cutter-rigged sloop Snow Dance. Starting in 1999, they crossed the Atlantic into the Mediterranean Sea where they sailed over four summers, from Gibraltar to the Turkish coast. After re-crossing the Atlantic and selling Snow Dance, they bought a used 45-foot fast trawler, in which they completed an 8,000-mile odyssey, navigating the inland waterway from Florida, up the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal into the St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain, and back to Florida.
   
Corcoran left behind four children by his first marriage to Birdie Waterston, two stepchildren from his marriage to the late Daphne Andresen, and jointly five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

A memorial service and celebration of Corcoran’s life is scheduled for Saturday, August 12, from 1 to 4pm at Waterville Valley.

Thomas Corcoran’s family welcomes donations in his memory to the International Skiing History Association, the Marolt Athlete Endowment of the US Ski and Snowboard Association, or to Waterville Valley Adaptive Sports. – JOHN FRY

 

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