The Daytons make Nordic skiing a family affair for Summit County
Attempting a family portrait of the Daytons is a task that requires balance, timing and luck.
When it comes to the Breckenridge and Frisco Nordic centers — operated by Gene and Therese Dayton — every family member has a job. When any of the Daytons walk through the doorway of either lodge, they are immediately on duty, ready to pick up the telephone, answer a question or grab a pair of skis as needed. From grandfather to grandson, it’s second nature. And they love it.
“I heard a statistic once — if you like going to your job two days a week, you have a great job,” said Therese Dayton with a smile. “I don’t think there’s been two days I didn’t want to go to work in 30 years.”
On a particularly busy Saturday at the Breckenridge Nordic Center, Therese works behind the food counter, while eldest son Matthew stands at the front desk. Matthew’s father, Gene, chats with guests in the large sitting area, while youngest son Joshua gets his camera ready for the portrait.
“Excuse me, sir,” a guest says as Gene walks past. “Do you work here?”
“Yes, I do,” he replies with a smile.
The guest puts in a request for a pair of rental skis, never realizing that the man he’s speaking to started the Nordic center back in 1979. Gene doesn’t mind. He’s at ease chatting with friends of 25 years or with complete strangers, his blue eyes twinkling as he offers a wide smile.
Like the eye of a hurricane, everyone comes together in one moment — Gene and Therese sitting between their sons Matthew and Joshua in front of the large stone fireplace at the center of the new lodge.
A few clicks and they’re off again, always something to do. Those visiting on a weekend might catch a glimpse of the third generation, Matthew’s children, lending a hand as well. The centers represent a strong family business that started nearly 50 years ago when Gene decided to make Summit County his home.
FROM SWIMMING TO SKIING
Gene was born in the small town of DeKalb in northern Illinois, the second of four brothers. His parents were both teachers and athletes — his mother taught physical education and ballet at the university level and his father was an athletics director and taught English — which they passed on to Gene and his brothers. His youthful athletic pursuits included skating and, especially, swimming.
Skiing wasn’t really part of the family repertoire until eldest son Chuck introduced it to them during a visit home from his freshman year at Dartmouth College in 1957.
“I was fascinated by it,” Gene recalled.
Swimming, however, was the sport that stuck, and Gene attended Florida State University on a swimming scholarship. There, his fascination with snowsports, particularly skiing, seeped into his studies, and he later completed an economic study on Alpine skiing in Summit County for his master’s thesis.
Gene got his first glimpse of Summit County when he drove through the area on a road trip with several buddies while returning from California in 1961. They had surfboards strapped to the top of their car. His first experience on Alpine skis took him down the slopes at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
That first taste wasn’t enough, and he returned on another road trip in 1965. By 1967, he’d bought some land “for a song” in Silverthorne and officially became a Summit resident. One year later he relocated to Breckenridge, and he’s been there ever since.
He remembers back to when Breckenridge Main Street was just a dirt road — “the neighbor’s dog used to sleep right where the stoplight was in the summertime, there was very little traffic” — and lift tickets at Breckenridge cost $4.75.
LOVE OF THE OUTDOORS
Right from the beginning, Gene started leading cross-country skiing tours, as well as maintaining his own very active lifestyle.
“He’s always been into the fleeing sports, running, biking,” said Therese, unlike his brothers, who preferred contact sports such as wrestling, football and rugby.
Therese also recalled one summer when Gene, then in Breckenridge, had to go to a meeting at Copper. Instead of getting in the car, he packed a backpack with his professional clothes and ran over the mountain, occasionally post-holing through the snowpack, to his meeting on the other side.
Though now at age 71 Gene has slowed down a bit, he’s still incredibly active. He swims almost every day and can still be seen out on the cross-country trails from time to time.
It was that love of the outdoors that drove Gene to advocate for Nordic skiing in Summit County. He wanted not only to share those experiences with locals and tourists, but also to provide the opportunity to people with disabilities.
So Gene paired up with two Summit legends — ski pioneer Olav Pedersen, who paved the way for blind skiers in the U.S. and founded the Ski for Light program, and Aris Sophocles, a well-known local doctor — to provide services for people with disabilities wanting to get out on the snow.
From this partnership came the nonprofit Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, now entering its 38th year.
BRINGING A VISION TO LIFE
In 1974, the town of Breckenridge granted the BOEC use of the F&D placer at the base of Peak 9. An old mining cabin also was donated, and though it no longer serves as the main building, it still resides on BOEC land.
Originally, Gene’s idea was for the program to cater to at-risk kids. But with knowledge of the need in the disabled community, that mission expanded.
“One of the most successful programs we had was taking a group of kids at risk, teaching them how to ski and then teaching them how to teach, and then teaching them how to teach blind people,” Gene recalled. “To me that was one of the best programs.”
Now the BOEC’s programs go year-round, with summertime components as well. Locals and others from all around the country come to take part. Every December, the BOEC hosts The Hartford Ski Spectacular, an event that draws nearly 2,000 people with disabilities, including wounded veterans, to the Breckenridge ski slopes.
Gene considers the BOEC to be one of his greatest successes.
“It was a lifetime dream that is being realized and it’s growing and it shows tremendous promise in terms of solving problems for people who really need help,” he said. He’s enjoyed watching the organization’s success over the years.
BAD FORTUNE AND GOOD
With the BOEC founded and the Nordic centers going strong, things were swimming along for the Daytons.
In 1984, Gene experienced both joy and tragedy. That August, his third child, Josh, was born. That October, however, his wife, Nancy, passed away.
“The whole town of Breckenridge got behind our family,” he recalled. “It was overwhelming support for us.” But it was still a difficult time.
“Faith has always been a big part of our family,” Josh said.
It was faith Gene turned to, and he spoke to his pastor and prayed for “someone special” to enter his life.
Four months later, Therese arrived at the BOEC from Virginia, her home state, where she was certified in therapeutics. From their first meeting, the two just clicked.
“That was an amazing time,” Gene said.
“He had prayed about what he wanted in a wife. He didn’t want just a mother for the kids, he didn’t want just somebody, he wanted someone who would share in business, who would share in sport and who would love the kids,” Therese said. “The kids were very easy to love.”
The three children — Ami, Matthew and Josh — grew up with cross-country skiing, spending their time out on the snow and in the centers, learning the family business.
“My dad instilled a deep love for the mountains in us at an early age, and a deep love for the woods and cross-country skiing,” said Josh.
All three competed in athletics during high school. Ami excelled in track and gymnastics, while Josh and Matthew distinguished themselves on the ski team. Josh competed in Nordic skiing for Western State Colorado University for three years. Matthew had Olympic dreams.
“I started ski jumping at the ripe old age of 19,” he said with a laugh during an earlier interview. “It’s fairly uncommon to start that old. Most kids are starting 7, 8, 9 years old.”
Matthew persisted and made the U.S. team for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, where they finished fourth.
“There were so many people from this community that came and watched,” he said. “I still have people that come up to me and tell me that they were there watching, which is really neat.”
Gene remembers it all with pride.
“Therese and I got Olympic fever ourselves,” he recalled.
Matthew now lives in Summit County with his wife, Janelle, and their three young children — Lucas, 9, Eden, 7, and Anders, 3.
WORKING AS A FAMILY
For nearly as long as the Nordic centers have been open, they’ve had several generations of Daytons working in them.
Josh has memories of answering the phone, which, after hours, would transfer to their home number. Among his favorite memories, however, is being out on the Nordic trails.
“I would ski up to people that looked like they were struggling and offer them a free lesson,” he said.
Now, Matthew’s children are learning the same ropes. Lucas will stand behind the counter and help serve hot chocolate, for instance, or help put away equipment. And they’ve all been on skis from the earliest possible moment.
“It’s wonderful to see it passed on, to see the joy on their faces,” said Gene, of watching his grandchildren enjoy the sport and life at the Nordic centers.
It’s more than just Daytons, however. There are employees who have worked at the center for decades, Therese said. “Anybody that works with us is our friends and family.”
By growing up in the centers and bringing the work home with them, the Daytons blur the line between work life and home life, but they like it best that way.
“If we talk about something that’s business related, it’s not really talking about work, because it really isn’t work for us, because we do love what we do,” Therese said.
There’s no plan to retire any time soon — “Gene and I do not have retirement in our vocabulary,” she said — and there’s certainly no plan to ever move away from Summit.
“There isn’t any country, any state, any county, any town and any street we’d rather live on, than the street that we live on — French Street,” said Therese. “We don’t know what else we’d rather be doing.”
“In the entire world, there’s not a better place for us,” he said. “In Breckenridge, French Street overlooking the mountain is absolutely home.”
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