Ski pioneer Edna Dercum dies
September 17, 2008
Edna Dercum, an indomitable Summit County ski pioneer who along with her husband, Max, founded Arapahoe Basin and Keystone resorts, has died.
She was 94.
Sunny, bright and quick with a humorous tale about the early days, Dercum gained renown as a ski champion and instructor, innkeeper, business operator and even one-time county clerk.
“She and Max helped shape our history,” said local historian Mary Ellen Gilliland. “She was just a dear, dear person.”
Max, her husband of 71 years, found her on Monday morning, slumped over at the kitchen table where she enjoyed looking out the window each day at her beloved mountains.
“It’s a sad day to hear that a Summit County pioneer has passed,” said county manager Gary Martinez. “Edna and Max are literally a part of every facet of Summit County, and we are all reminded of their importance as we watch their images pass us on the side of the Summit Stage.”
Born Edna Strand on Aug. 2, 1914, to Norwegian immigrants, she grew up in Clarissa, Minn., and studied at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. When her father passed away, she finished her education in Pennsylvania, living with a sister there.
Later as a student at Penn State, she became the first woman to join forestry professor Max Dercum’s fledgling ski club. As she took up his love of skiing, a romance blossomed between the two, and they married in 1937.
Dercum organized the first Penn State ski championship in 1940 and took the state downhill and slalom titles in 1941.
Her husband’s dream of developing a ski mountain in the West brought them to Colorado, and in 1942, they made Summit County their permanent home.
Arriving in Old Dillon, they discovered that occasional gunshots still rang out on the main street. With their baby son, Rolf, they later set up house in the Alhambra Cabin on Montezuma Road.
A daughter, Sunni, soon joined the family and, needing larger quarters they moved to what is today Ski Tip Lodge, buying the 80-acre property for $3,000.
Max had joined a group of five partners to develop Arapahoe Basin, which opened in November of 1946 during the post-war ski boom. (A lift ticket then cost $1.25.)
Ski Tip quickly changed from the Dercum family residence to a ski lodge, which drew guests from all over the nation who wanted to try the cutting-edge sport of alpine skiing.
Dercum raised the couple’s two children, managed Ski Tip Lodge and taught skiing at Arapahoe Basin.
“Arapahoe Basin wouldn’t be what it is today without the Dercums,” said ski-area chief Alan Henceroth. “What those guys did 62 years ago ” the vision, the foresight, the creativity, the guts, the spirit ” it’s just incredible what they did.”
When her father-in-law, “Opa,” who had campaigned for and won election as Summit County clerk and recorder, passed away suddenly, she succeeded him in office.
As county clerk, Dercum learned from bankers how to borrow money to fund the couple’s dreams, including eventually financing the startup of Keystone, she recounted.
When her term as clerk ended, Dercum launched a ski club for Summit County youngsters that introduced many local children to the sport. A certified ski instructor for 18 years, she loved teaching kids to race. Her children, Rolf and Sunni, grew up ski racing.
Dercum worked alongside her husband in the late 1960s when he designed and developed Keystone Ski Area, which opened in November of 1970.
“I did not do much, but every once in a while, I cracked the whip,” Dercum said with a laugh during a 2003 ceremony when Keystone officials renamed the primary ski mountain after the pair.
The Dercums were known to help out a friend in need, and when Kikken Miller moved to Summit County from Norway, Edna Dercum took her under her wing.
“It feels like I’ve lost my American mom,” Miller said. “She was such an inspiration for us ski bums who came out for a year and then decided to spend our whole lives here.”
Miller quickly became part of the Dercum family, and over 40 years, she traveled with them, lived with them and even worked for them.
“The first year I was here, I skied in her old boots and skis,” Miller said. “Hiking around and skiing on Keystone or A-Basin, I will always think of her.”
At the time of life when many skiers hang up their boards, her enthusiasm for ski racing peaked. She had always competed, first in Pennsylvania, then at old Climax’s Chalk Mountain on Fremont Pass, and later at Arapahoe Basin and throughout the Colorado mountains.
As her competition schedule intensified, she began to decorate her home with ski medals and trophies. At age 65, Dercum was the oldest woman competitor in the world and had been National Seniors giant-slalom champ since 1955. She also competed in Europe, winning medals in Italy and Switzerland, and she continued skiing well into her 80s.
“Every year, when the first snow (fell), Edna would say: ‘Isn’t this great?'” Miller said. “She loved every season. She loved the leaves when they fell and the first blossoms in the spring … She transferred that love for the outdoors to all of us.”
The Dercums together earned induction into the Colorado and national ski halls of fame, and she remained active and connected to her family and community until her death.
She is survived by her husband, Max; son, Rolf, and his wife, Judy; daughter, Sunni, and her husband, Alf Tieze; five grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews.
Memorial service details will be forthcoming.
Daily News reporter Ashley Dickson and local historian Mary Ellen Gilliland contributed to this report.