Loveland Ski Area matriarch Virginia Upham dies at 91
She liked champagne with cranberry juice and the camaraderie of skiing.
As the owner of one of few remaining family-owned and -operated ski areas, she will be remembered in Colorado as caring about each employee and instilling a feeling of family at Loveland Ski Area.
Virginia Frances Lee Upham died Monday, July 13, at age 91.
AN AVID AVIATOR
Virginia was born in 1924, in Phoenix, Arizona, and was one of four children.
While attending Phoenix College, she took flying lessons and applied to join the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II.
The service had filled its quota, but Virginia continued taking lessons and received her pilot’s license in 1944. She instructed Air Force pilots at Williams Air Force Base for the rest of the war.
After the war, she became a flight attendant for American Airlines, based in New York City and later Los Angeles. She met Chester (Chet) R. Upham Jr., on a flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, and, after a short courtship, they were married on Dec. 16, 1946. She introduced Chet to flying.
“She was this tiny little lady, cute as a button,” said Rosie Tronnier, who has taught skiing at Loveland for the last 51 years. When Virginia talked about flying, “she had this biggest grin on her face and this twinkle in her eyes, and she would say, ‘You know, I taught Chet how to fly.’”
About 30 years later, Virginia received her helicopter pilot rating and became the 233rd member of Whirly-Girls International, an organization dedicated to advancing women in helicopter aviation with just 1,680 registered members representing 42 countries in 2011.
Virginia and Chet briefly lived in California, where he introduced her to skiing. The newlywed Uphams took a 1947 trip to a ski area near Los Angeles served by rope tows, and the story was retold in a 2014 Loveland history book released after the ski area’s 75th anniversary.
Chet offered a few pointers then went off to ski with a friend, leaving Virginia on her own. Using the rope tow and 6-foot-long wooden skis, Virginia took a couple of falls and soon discovered she couldn’t walk.
She made it down the mountain with the help of a fellow skier and waited for Chet. Never one to complain or make a fuss, she visited the doctor the next day and learned she broke her leg just above the boot.
Virginia tried skiing again on a trip in the early 1950s to Aspen, where she took lessons from an Austrian instructor. Despite the language barrier, she learned to ski and the sport became an integral part of her life. She enjoyed skiing with her family until she was 80 years old.
In 1947, Virginia and Chet moved to his hometown of Mineral Wells, Texas, to help manage his father’s Upham Gas Co.
The two pilots didn’t have a car but owned a plane. She attended Texas Christian University and commuted from Mineral Wells to Fort Worth by Ercoupe (a small, two-seat airplane), landing at the university airport’s grass runway.
In 1956, the Uphams sold the company and formed Upham Oil & Gas Co., an exploration and production company in the North Central Texas area.
That same year, Virginia and Chet became owners in Loveland Ski Area, spurred by friends Pete Seibert, Robert Murri and other co-owners who were influential in establishing Rocky Mountain ski areas. The ski area then installed its first, and Colorado’s third, chairlift.
Chet was always hands-on, especially with the mechanical aspects, said Rob Goodell, director of business operations at Loveland. He combined his engineering degree and his oil and gas experience to bring man-made snow to the Rocky Mountains in the early 1960s, buying air from the construction of the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel.
Virginia was involved with choosing colors and designs in all the indoor spaces, Goodell said. She always wanted to know about the food and beverage menus and the latest trends in the retail and rental operations, which are much larger at Loveland than at ski areas of similar size.
She liked to stop at the ski area’s bars for her signature poinsettia drink and to chat with employees and visiting skiers.
“Their touch is in everything around quite honestly,” Goodell said. “Very rarely were they up here without each other.”
The family lived in Texas and traveled to Loveland often by private plane, train and car with their four children. They rented a house in Georgetown and spent every Christmas and Easter at the ski area.
The Uphams bought out Loveland’s remaining partners in 1972 and kept the ski area afloat in years with little snow and industry shifts.
“There were some times that if it weren’t for their continued support of the area, it may not have made it,” Goodell said.
In a statement, Colorado Ski Country USA called the ski area a true Colorado gem thanks to the Uphams. Other than Loveland, according to the organization, only a handful of privately-owned ski areas now exist in the state, including Aspen, Wolf Creek, Ski Granby Ranch and Silverton.
Goodell recalled a story the family told later about receiving a significant offer to buy the ski area.
“Chet told Virginia, ‘It would be like selling one of our children,’” Goodell said, “and they just they didn’t do it.”
Chet’s vision for the ski area’s guest experience and customer service was shaped by a 1956 family trip to Disneyland.
“They wanted everyone up here to call them Chet and Virginia,” Goodell said. “They wanted to just visit, whether you were just someone loading chairs or a brand-new ski patroller or washing dishes.”
Goodell sits on the ski area’s board with company president Paul McGettes, director of on-mountain operations Bob Magrino, and Chet and Virginia’s three living children. Though they live in Texas, they are actively involved and visit at least quarterly, Goodell said, often bringing third- and fourth-generation Uphams.
In 2014, Loveland built a warming hut and named Ginny Lee Cabin for Virginia.
He said her death, preceded by Chet’s in 2008, likely renewed the family’s passion to carry on her legacy.
Sue Booker, who started at Loveland in 1984 and now manages the sport shop and rental shop, said the Upham’s biggest desire was to have a family-friendly, affordable ski area.
“They’ve accomplished that,” Booker said. “That’s a wonderful legacy they’ve left to generations of skiers.”
She described Virginia as a quiet, elegant, determined lady. She was a steel magnolia, Booker said, who “you knew was in the background probably directing more than she ever let on.”
Booker said she admired Virginia’s graciousness with everyone she met. “When you had a conversation with her, you had her full attention.”
Goodell said Loveland has some tenured employees who have worked at the ski area more than 40 years.
“It’s because of the unique environment and the culture that Mr. and Mrs. Upham established here that has kept everybody around for decades,” he said.
One of those longtime Loveland folks, Bud Moralt, met the Uphams in Aspen and joined Loveland in 1956 as ski school supervisor and later director. He said the couple always asked about different things they could do to improve the ski area.
“Loveland was home,” said Moralt, whose wife, Jeannine, taught at Loveland for more than 50 years, “and I guess we can be thankful to the Uphams that they made it such a wonderful experience.”
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