Skiing at Vail was Ford’s escape
VAIL – President Ford liked to ski hard and fast, said Pepi Gramshammer, one of Ford’s frequent ski partners.”I would say, ‘Don’t worry about the White House,'” said Gramshammer, owner of the Gasthof Gramshammer hotel and a former ski racer. “‘You’re skiing now. This is your place.'”Ford, who died Tuesday, first visited Vail in 1968 as a congressman, and continued to ski here during and after his presidency.”He loved to make turns,” Gramshammer said.Even though Ford stopped skiing because of knee problems in 1984, he continued to play golf in the valley, starting the Jerry Ford Invitational golf tournament.The media sometimes painted Ford as a klutz. But Ford, a former All-American football player for the University of Michigan, debunked that notion as soon as he got on Vail Mountain, said Larry Buendorf, one of Ford’s Secret Service agents.”The press always wanted to make him nonathletic,” Buendorf said. “They got dragged up the mountain. While they were eating snow, we were skiing. The message got out fairly clearly that he could ski.”Buendorf was in charge of the Secret Service detail that shadowed Ford on the mountain. The agents would come to Vail about 10 days ahead of the president and check out the areas where he was going to ski, Buendorf said. The whole entourage – including a few ski patrollers – took up around six chairs on the lift, he said.”We’d set up a little cocoon for him,” Buendorf said.He preferred groomersBy all accounts, Ford was a good, intermediate skier.”He didn’t like the bumps,” Buendorf said. “He didn’t like the steep and deep. We stayed away from those.”He liked groomers – in part because of his bad knees from his football days – and his favorite trail was Bwana and other intermediate trails on the eastern side of the mountain, Buendorf said.Ford’s children would head for more extreme terrain, Buendorf said. First lady Betty Ford stayed off the slopes.
The slopes didn’t close for the president, but one of Ford’s perks was no lift lines at Vail – he was whisked through the maze to the chairlift, Buendorf said. And Ski Patrol would direct Ford to less crowded areas, Buendorf said.They would get up on the hill by 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m., ski for three or four hours, and then come back down to the Mill Creek Circle home where the Fords stayed in their early years in Vail.”He enjoyed being outdoors,” Buendorf said. “He enjoyed the challenge. He enjoyed the camaraderie he had with the friends he skied with. He enjoyed most of the things people enjoy when they ski the mountain.”When people recognized him on slopes he graciously spoke to them, Buendorf said.”That’s what made him so well liked in Vail,” he said. “He took time to greet people. He just took time for others. That was his style.”While in Vail – when he wasn’t skiing or spending time with his family – Ford would spend hours doing his presidential duties, Buendorf said.Buendorf was also on Secret Service duty with the president in Sacramento, Calif., in 1975, when Manson Family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to assassinate Ford. Buendorf wrestled the gun away from Fromme.Buendorf recalled walking across a park with the president near the state Capitol and seeing Fromme standing there. Her hand came up with a gun in it, he said. He grabbed the gun out of her hand as she was trying to put a round in the chamber, he said.”It’s what you call being in the right place and looking at the right place at the right time,” he said.Bogner and RossignolsBill “Sarge” Brown, Vail Mountain manager for almost 30 years, was a staple member of Ford’s skiing entourage. Brown said Ford told him that skiing in Vail gave him “time to think” and let him escape from Washington.But Brown tried to avoid the topic of politics while skiing with Ford.”I knew he didn’t want to talk about all the world events because I knew he was on vacation and wanted to forget it all,” he said.Ford wore Bogner suits and skied Rossignols, Brown said.
“Everybody wanted him to ski on their skis,” he said.Longtime Vail resident and current mayor Rod Slifer, who skied with President Ford a few times, said Ford was a very good athlete.”He didn’t have that reputation,” Slifer said. “They kind of tried to make him a stumble-bum. He was an All-American football player. He was a good golfer. He just loved being outside and loved skiing in the winter.”A long tee shotEven after bad knees forced him to stop skiing in 1984, Ford continued to play golf here – at Vail, Beaver Creek and Eagle-Vail, Buendorf said.When Buendorf rejoined Ford’s security detail from 1983 to 1993, Ford would play golf every day during the summer.”If he hit the ball, it would go a long way,” Buendorf said. “He was a powerful man.”Ford began the Jerry Ford Invitational golf tournament at Vail in 1977, with the help of locals Slifer, John Purcell and John Donovan.Ford’s pull brought luminaries such as Bob Hope, Telly Savales and Clint Eastwood.”In those days, when he asked someone to come to the tournament, they came,” Slifer said.Gramshammer recalled playing golf about three years ago at Arrowhead with Ford, and the president knocked a tee shot 6 inches from the pin.”He was a good golfer,” Gramshammer said. “He liked to play with me because he shot better than me.”Dave Gorsuch, longtime Vail resident and owner of Gorsuch Ltd., met Ford in the late ’60s when Ford was a congressman from Michigan.”He was just another guy I was helping with his bindings,” Gorsuch said.
An employee had to point out to Gorsuch that the nice man he was helping was actually a congressman.Gorsuch said he would often adjust Ford’s bindings or outfit him or his children with equipment at the shop. Gorsuch even skied with Ford a few times, and Gorsuch and his wife attended a dinner party with Ford for his 80th birthday.”We just had casual conversation,” Gorsuch said. “He was interested in what we were doing, in all aspects of how the community was developing. … He was a fellow who shook your hand and meant it and looked you right in the eye. He was a regular, good guy.”Fame for VailFord was not afraid to ski fast or near the trees, Gramshammer said. Gramshammer said he warned the president not to ski too closely to the trees because he could catch an edge and hurt himself badly.Gramshammer recalled a nasty fall by Ford – complete with somersaults – that didn’t faze the president.”He got up and brushed himself off,” he said. “I said, ‘Are you OK?’ and he said, ‘I took a bad fall, but I’m OK.’ He was a football player, and that made all the difference.”Gramshammer and his wife, Sheika, had an intimate dinner with Ford and his wife, Betty, for Ford’s 93rd birthday earlier this year, Gramshammer said.”We talked about football,” Gramshammer said. “He liked Michigan.”Even at the age of 93, Ford still had the amiable personality that made him so popular, Gramshammer said.”That’s what made him a great politician,” Gramshammer said. “Everybody liked him. He was never mad at anybody.”Gramshammer, who built his hotel in 1964 when there were mostly meadows around it, said Ford did a lot to put Vail on the map in its early years. People identified Vail with Ford, Gramshammer said.”It actually made Vail very famous,” Gramshammer said. “When you said, ‘I’m from Vail,’ people would say, “Oh, that’s where President Ford was.'”Gramshammer lauded Ford’s contributions to Vail, from his help with creating the Ford Amphitheater to his help with Vail landing the 1989 and 1999 World Alpine Skiiing Championships.”He was perfect,” Gramshammer said. “I wish I could tell him that.”
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