Vail ski pioneer Sarge Brown dies
eagle county correspondent
VAIL ” William R. “Sarge” Brown, the longtime Vail Mountain manager who brought meticulous standards to the slopes, died Sunday.
He was 85.
Brown passed away at his home in Grand Junction, Vail Resorts officials said.
“Those who knew Sarge and worked with him will always be inspired by his manner of leading by example, his incredibly high expectations for Vail and the people who worked on the mountain, and his love of this place,” Vail Mountain chief operating officer Chris Jarnot said in an e-mail to employees. “We’ll miss his gruff manner and the twinkle in his eye.”
Brown was mountain manager at Vail from 1970 through 1989, helping develop the resort into one of the world’s best ski areas. His advancements in snowmaking, grooming and trail-cutting were considered cutting edge.
A highly decorated veteran of two wars, Brown achieved the rank of senior sergeant major, the highest noncommissioned rank in the Army ” one of only five in the Army at the time.
The retired sergeant major brought military standards to Vail Mountain.
“He was a perfectionist, and he cared so much about the mountain,” said Harry Frampton, who was president of Vail Associates from 1982 to 1986. “He set the tone of a commitment to excellence and just having everything perfect.”
Brown encountered an informally organized mountain crew when he arrived in 1966, wrote Bob Parker, another longtime mountain executive, in nominating Brown for the National Ski Hall of Fame. He quickly whipped them into shape.
“His contribution, from the very first day as trail crew supervisor, was to establish paramilitary standards of scheduling and planning, punctuality, equipment care and personal appearance,” Parker wrote.
In an interview with the Vail Daily in June, Brown recalled telling employees that he didn’t care if they liked him.
“I’m not running a popularity contest,” he remembered telling workers. “You are going to follow my example and do what I do, and we’re going to have the best ski area in the world. If you can’t do that, there’s the door.”
Longtime Vail resident and former mayor Rod Slifer said Brown gave Vail Mountain a “real shot in the arm” when he arrived here.
“He was kind of bigger than life,” Slifer said. “He was a big, blustery guy, and you never said ‘no’ to him. … He really kind of got things going on the mountain.”
Brown installed Vail’s first snowmaking equipment, at Golden Peak, in 1970. He cut wide, smooth trails that gave skiers luxurious boulevards. He started overnight grooming at Vail, which has become the industry standard.
Not happy with the technology of the time, Brown pushed for improvements in snowcats, aiding in the design of tracks, tillers and blades.
In a culminating note of his career, Brown helped Vail and Beaver Creek secure ” and then stage ” the World Alpine Skiing Championships in 1989.
Brown’s standards remained steadfast despite a revolving door of top executives and owners. Frampton recalled meeting Brown at a birthday party when he was president of Vail Associates.
“He said: ‘Listen, Frampton. I was here before you got here, and I’ll probably be here after you leave. Don’t worry. We’re going to take care of this mountain in spite of what you do,'” Frampton said.
Brown was born on Oct. 5, 1922, in Cascade, Idaho. He skied to and from school each day, and played every sport he could. He was named an All-American in six-man football as a high school senior, and later starred on the football and ski teams at the University of Idaho.
In 1942, Brown joined the Army. He served with a “para-ski” unit at Fort Douglas, Utah, and was later transferred to Camp Hale near Leadville to serve with the famed 10th Mountain Division.
He saw combat in World War II in Italy, earning a Purple Heart. Though he could have been discharged, he chose to re-enlist, later volunteering to enter combat in the Korean War, where he was wounded in 1951.
In 1958, he was became director of the Mountain and Winter Warfare Training Program for Dartmouth College’s ROTC program.
By the time he retired from the Army in 1966, he had earned five Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and three Bronze Stars.
As a young man, Brown was a stellar ski racer, winning several scholastic and military races. He also helped organize the first Junior National Ski Championships in Idaho in 1948.
After his Army retirement, Brown hooked up with his old 10th Mountain buddies Parker and Peter Seibert, the founder of Vail, and took a job with Vail’s trail crew.
Brown was inducted into Vail’s Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 1982 and the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in 1990. In June, he was honored by Colorado Ski Country USA with a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the state’s ski industry.
Earlier this year, George Gillett, who owned Vail from 1985 to 1992, recalled Brown for more than his hard-nosed drive.
“He had the most wonderfully beautiful soft side to him,” Gillett said then. “He was a real man, and, to me, a real man isn’t just a tough guy, but it’s also a person who is warm and sensitive and loving and giving, and it’s a side of Sarge that a lot of people didn’t see. … He taught us a lot about people and a lot about life.”
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