Summit Older Timer: Gene Dayton
Gene Dayton was born March 30, 1943, to Chuck and Marie Dayton in DeKalb, Ill. – one of four boys. Both his parents were teachers in the small farming town, now a university town with Northern Illinois University teachers’ college. When Dayton was 12, his parents bought some property near the Canadian border in the Boundary Water’s Canoe Area near Eli, Minn. “Life really began for me once they bought that property,” said Dayton Friday morning at the Frisco Nordic Center. “My folks gave us a lot of freedom up there, and we spent all our summers guiding canoe trips.”Dayton admits not being very adept at team sports, but his father operated the local swimming pool and he began to swim early in life. He also developed a love for Nordic skiing. “There were a lot of Finns (Finnish people) in northern Illinois, and when it snowed, they would get their long, handcrafted skis out and ski in the streets and the cornfields,” he said.After graduating from Dekalb Township High School in 1961, he was awarded a four-year swimming scholarship at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he majored in biology.
After getting his degree, his interest in biology waned and he dreamed of operating an outdoor adventure program for disabled and disadvantaged kids. He shifted majors and studied a master’s level curriculum in recreation administration. His professor, William Tait, who earned the first Ph.D. in recreation from New York University, was a native of Colorado with roots in Denver and Steamboat, and he suggested Dayton do his master’s thesis on “The Potential for Growth in Winter Sports in Summit County.”His college sweetheart, Nancy, whom he met in a ballroom dance class at FSU, joined him in Colorado, and in 1967 they got married. She had a master’s degree in art, and taught at Colorado Mountain College, along with being a substitute teacher at the high school, a waitress at the Holiday Inn and eventually having their three children – Ami, Matthew, and Joshua.Dayton meanwhile was pursuing his dream of providing opportunities for the disabled and disadvantaged and started what is now the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC), which then was called Breckenridge Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering School. He said Breckenridge Ski Corp. provided a small warming hut at the base of Peak 9, and they built an adjacent igloo that slept eleven for the three-day programs for disabled children and adults.He said the town of Breckenridge eventually leased him 38 acres of land (for $1 a year) to conduct his programs, where in time, the Griffith Lodge was built.
On October 6, 1984, Dayton’s life turned upside down when Nancy went into a coma and three weeks later died of congenital heart failure.With a tear in his eye, Dayton said the community in Breckenridge came through in a big way back then and held a fundraiser to help with child-care costs. “In all honesty, the town helped raise my children,” he said.Like Simon and Garfunkel’s popular hit “A Bridge Over Troubled Water” begins, “When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes…” an angel appeared on the horizon in the form of Therese Dwyer – a Virginia girl, number eight in a family of 11 children.Silverthorne pastor David Huntwork advised him to pray for specifics when looking for a wife, and as Dayton was zipping up his jacket one night at the 10th anniversary of Ski For Light (a program founded for blind skiers by the late Olav Pedersen – one of Dayton’s mentor’s) he caught a glimpse of the angel God had for him.Although 18 years his junior, Therese was a strong woman and the perfect lady to help raise Dayton’s three children. “Her mom was German and jerked the slack out of eleven kids,” he said. “Therese was there for the children right from the beginning. If it wasn’t for her, Matt never would have made the Olympics (Matt competed in the 2002 Salt Lake Games in the Nordic Combined). She showed him he could do whatever he set out to do.”
Dayton married Therese in 1987. All three of the children are now out of the nest. Ami is married and teaching art and outdoor education at Headwaters in Bozeman, Mont. Matt is married and coaches the Rocky Mountain Division Summit Nordic Team, and Josh is on an academic and ski scholarship at Western State College in Gunnison.Gene and Therese operate both the Frisco and Breckenridge Nordic centers and have recently completed the Worldloppet Gold Master’s cross country ski marathon series – participating in Nordic ski races in 10 different countries (most recently a 63K classic race in Estonia).Says Gene of his well-checkered life: “If it appears as though I have accomplished anything, it is because I have had the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants who gave me the vision and the opportunity.”- Brad Odekirk
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