Bob Parker, 10th Mountain vet, Vail pioneer

Passing Date: 
Thursday, June 29, 2017

Robert Ward Parker, a veteran of the10th Mountain Division who returned to Colorado to become an integral figure in the post-World War II ski industry, died June 29 in Grand Junction, Colo. He was 94.

Much of his life was involved with skiing, from his childhood in New York and Wisconsin to training for mountain warfare in the Alps. Later, after work as a mountain guide and a ski journalist, he joined Pete Seibert, another 10th Mountain Division veteran, to help build the Vail ski area in Colorado.

Parker was born on July 9, 1922, in Evanston, Illinois, to Lester W. and Katherine Howard Parker. Because of his father’s work as a teacher, the family moved about often. Parker first skied in 1933, as an 11-year-old in Rochester, New York. Three years later, the family moved to Wisconsin, and in 193, he rode a ski lift for the first time, at Rib Mountain.

In 1940-41, he attended St. Lawrence College (now University), racing for Coach Otto Schniebs, and aspired to join the National Ski Patrol. Instead, following America's entry into World War II, after his freshman year he enlisted in the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington. The regiment became part of the 10th Mountain Division, the U.S. Army’s effort to prepare for winter battles in the Alps or other mountainous terrain.

In late 1944, the 10th Mountain Division was sent to Europe to help dislodge stubbornly resistant German forces from Italy’s Apennine Mountains. After bloody battles there, the 10th pursued German forces across the Po River and into the foothills of the Alps.

In Italy, Parker served as a radio operator in a regimental intelligence and reconnaissance platoon. He was later cited by the Army for “cooly” operating his radio even when it was necessary to expose himself to enemy fire.

Near the town of Castelfranco, he was in a vehicle that drew fire from a house. A citation issued by the U.S. Army several months later recounted that he leaped from the vehicle armed only with a carbine and approached the window from which the shots had originated.

“He leaned into the window and, seeing one of the hostile soldiers trying to escape, he fired one shot, severely wounding the enemy,” the citation said. “Immediately he sighted more enemy in another room and, by quick thinking, he was successful in the elimination of these soldiers also.” He received a bronze star with oak cluster for his efforts.

After the war Parker enrolled at the University of Washington, earning a bachelor’s degree in English in 1949. He became president of the university ski club, guided climbers on Mount Rainier, and met his future wife Barbara Guy. He also spent a season as a ski patroller in Aspen.

In 1950, the couple moved to Europe, where Parker worked for the U.S. Army as an educator while also earning a certificate in French from the University of Grenoble. He also was awarded a diploma in mountain guiding by the French National Alpine School. The couple remained to ski, climb, travel, and bicycle extensively in the Alps (they later divorced).

In 1952, he began writing about skiing as the European correspondent for National Skiing Newspaper which later became Skiing Magazine. In 1955, after moving to Denver, which was becoming the center for North American skiing, he served five years as editor of Skiing. He stayed until 1962 when, after an argument with the publisher, Merrill Hastings, he took a job at Vail, the ski area then being readied for opening.

At Vail, Parker left his most indelible mark. The ski area was conceived in 1957 by Pete Seibert, another 10th Mountain Division veteran, and his fellow Aspen patroller, Earl Eaton. Parker joined Vail Associates as an unpaid consultant in 1960 and developed strategies for snagging national attention on a shoestring budget. Some of them involved ski racing.

Even before operations began in 1962, the U.S. Olympic Ski Team agreed to train there. Later, he persuaded Pepi Gramshammer, a professional ski racer from Austria, to become a public face for Vail. Parker led the effort to bring international ski racing to Vail a venue, so that by 1967 the resort was positioned well to become an early venue for World Cup races.

In 1963, when snow failed to arrive early, he recruited Utes from Southwestern Colorado to perform a rain dance, which the Utes agreed could be called a snow dance on this one occasion. The snow didn’t arrive immediately, but it did come before the all-important Christmas crowd.

Parker coined the phrase “Ski Country USA” for Vail, but agreed to let it become the moniker for Colorado’s first ski resort marketing organization.

During Parker’s time at Vail, the ski industry rode the bulging baby boomer demographic and broadly rising prosperity to transition from a novelty sport enjoyed by economic and athletic elites to a mass-participation sport. Vail, with its moderate slopes and easily accessibility, reflected that transition. One day during Vail’s first season, the resort had only 12 paying customers. By the time Parker officially retired in 1987, Vail Mountain had more than 1.5 million skiers per season, tops in North America.

One key reason for Vail’s success, says Bill O’Connell, who worked as a marketer under Parker, was the opportunity for affordable, long-distance airplane travel. “I don’t know if he was the first to figure it out, but he was the first to stand up and do something about it,” says O’Connell. Under Parker, Vail, with two airlines and American Express, created a pioneering joint marketing program.

In the early 1970s, Parker launched a marketing campaign in Mexico, which resulted in a strong relationship between Vail and Mexico’s wealthy elites that continues to this day.

“This sounds pretty cocky, but it seems to me that everything we wanted to do, we did. And everything we did, worked,” says O’Connell, who no longer works for Vail.

Harry Frampton, who arrived in Vail in 1981 to lead the ski company for four years, says that Parker impressed upon him the importance of delivering a quality product. “He believed strongly that if the product was terrific, the profits would follow,” says Frampton. “He was the conscience of the company.”

A tragic blemish in Vail’s success was a gondola accident in 1976 that claimed four lives. By then a senior vice president of operations for Vail Associates, Parker played a key role in hearings that absolved Vail of negligence.

During Parker’s early years at Vail, the nation’s attitudes and laws governing environment protections shifted dramatically. Somewhat apart from his work at the ski company, Parker was engaged in several efforts to preserve public lands near Vail with wilderness attributes.

The first case, in the mid-1960s, was whether Interstate 70 would follow the existing U.S. Route 6 skirting the south end of the Gore Range, or whether a shorter, more direct route would plunge through the Gore Range Primitive Area, as state transportation officials, backed by truckers and chamber groups, advocated. With Parker’s influence, the ski company backed environmentalists, who prevailed.

In 1969, he became the lead plaintiff in a famous lawsuit, Parker vs. United States, helping to protect newly-established Wilderness Areas by precluding a Gore Range timber sale planned by the U.S. Forest Service.

Environmental issues created greater challenges for the ski company when it set out to create its second ski area, Beaver Creek. The ski company envisioned it as a prime venue for the 1976 Winter Olympics, which Denver had secured. Colorado voters in 1972 pulled the plug on state funding for the Olympics, which were moved to Innsbruck. Beaver Creek planning continued, but faced much greater scrutiny than had Vail less than 15 years earlier. The ski area opened in late 1980, setting the standard for state regulatory review of ski areas. It was, however, the last major ski area built in the United States for several decades.

Terry Minger, an early town manager in Vail, calls Parker a marketing genius of the early ski industry, perhaps the best. But Parker was also something more, a visionary, big-picture thinker among Vail’s founders, he says.

“Parker was about the world and that little place in the Gore Range fit in the world and what it had to offer the world beyond an expensive hamburger and an incredible ski experience.”

Parker was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1980 and the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1985.

After leaving the ski company, Parker moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he intensified his study of Southwestern archaeology. His research resulted in at least one non-peer-reviewed paper.

He also continued to write poetry. Three of his poems were published in the New Yorker in 1951 and 1952. He also self-published a book of poetry in 2006. That year he also published his 10th Mountain Division memoir “What Did You Do During the War, Dad?”, which received an ISHA Ullr Award.

Parker is survived by his son, Guy Parker, daughter-in-law Lori Parker, grand-daughters Chandler and Arden, and also by daughter Katherine Parker and a son-in-law, Mark Mikow.  --Allen Best


How Much Joy?

By Bob Parker

The welling green, the leap of a hungry bass.

A silent wood. Black shadows on white snow.

The thrust of skis along a silent track

The “plop” of snow falling from off a bough.

Is there a limit to such joy?


Does the branch bending with the wind

Deny a blissful moment to the climbing boy?

Does the crunch of steel on snow lessen

The thrill of skis arcing beneath a skier’s

Practiced knees?


Remembered joy. A child’s smile.

The smell of salty winds from off the sea.

A lover’s face in her erotic throes.


An arctic pressure on one’s skin

As the ice-boat rises, hovers, then clicks down

On the frigid surface of a storm-swept lake.


A frightening glimpse of space between

Ones boots, yet, rope-lengths of rock below.

The last few meters of snow and ice

And the mountain’s peak is finally there.


Perhaps, through mists of hours, such pleasures

May still be conjured up, for moment’s joy.

But yet the query hangs there. What joyous visions

Are forgot, with the immutable tread of thoughtless time.

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