In the event you travel to Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula to visit the dramatic ski-jump-shaped building that houses the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame, you might be excused for not recognizing the names of many of the Honored Members inside. Among the pictures and biographies of famous gold medalists like Phil Mahre and Stein Eriksen, and of "sports builders" like Howard Head, who invented the first successful metal ski, are dozens of functionaries and promoters. Worthy as they may be, they found their way into the Hall by a process about as sophisticated as a high-school election. Football, baseball, golf and tennis greats are elected by knowledgeable sportswriters. Ski Hall of Fame nominees are judged by 173 voters, themselves mostly Honored Members, few of whom have a job devoted to chronicling the sport. The process pretty much ensures that new inductees are a lot like the ones who already got in.
Fame is not one of the criteria for entry into this Pantheon. A candidate can be nominated by anyone with a reasonable command of English, two photos and postage to mail a submission to Ski Hall of Fame Selection Committee chairman Allen Adler (3060 Duck Pond Road, Barton, VT 05822). Some people even orchestrate their own nomination campaigns, and no one is directly responsible for the factual veracity of achievements claimed by the candidates.
A secret Selection Committee chooses who goes on the ballot. This year, for example, the Committee selected a junior cross-country coach and an obscure jumping official, while ignoring Mitch Cubberly, the American who made the world's first step-in binding, and Ned Gillette, the conqueror of the highest mountain ever skied from its summit. Gillette's nomination was endorsed by skiing giants Jimmie Heuga, Billy Kidd and Bill Koch, while the voters were not told of a single sponsor or endorser of the jumping judge. No wonder the Selection Committee members don't want anyone to know who they are. In a co-ed sport, in which women have won four times more Olympic and World Championship medals than men, 48 women and 260 men have been elected to the Ski Hall of Fame over a span of 43 years. In 1969, 20 skiers, including five Canadians, were voted in. Now the number of people elected is limited annually to no more than six, each of whom must garner at least 60 percent of the votes. On two occasions, only one person has been elected: myself in 1995, and America's first skiing Olympic gold medalist, Gretchen Fraser, in 1960.
Olympic and World Championship medalists once gained automatic entry. Few stars, however, bothered to travel to Ishpeming to accept the honor.
Understandably resentful officials responded by decreeing that even medalists, after they retire from competition, must be nominated the same way as everyone else. The consequence has been unsurprising. Tommy Moe, AJ Kitt and Diane Roffe-Steinrotter, for example, have not been proposed for the Hall of Fame. Why would anyone expect the top athletes to participate in the admission process if they formerly couldn't muster enough enthusiasm to show up for their induction?
Then there are unpopular but worthy skiers who don't make it. "The pro-cess does not especially favor loners or gnarly, self-centered individualists without a large circle of friends," wrote Morten Lund, editor of the Skiing History Association's Heritage Magazine. "Yet these are the kind of characters who have often shaped the sport."
When I was elected to the Hall of Fame, I had the ill grace to make a speech deploring the exclusion of far greater achievers than myself. Among the visionaries not in the Hall of Fame, I noted, are Bob Lange, who gave the world the plastic ski boot; Alex Cushing of Squaw Valley, who in 1960 almost single-handedly brought America its first alpine Winter Olympics; and Fritz Benedict, who had the vision to create Colorado's 10th Mountain Division hut and trail network.
Because the system has failed to ensurre that skiing's equivalent of Lou Gehrig and Abner Doubleday gain entry into the Hall, a process has just been added. Steered by Allen Adler, a seven-person Old Timers' Committee will annually choose three additional luminaries, born at least 60 years ago, who have fallen between the cracks. Election will be by 25 noted skiers, all Hall-of-Famers. As with any committee endeavor, this year's first effort was a mixed success. Ed Scott, 86, the curmudgeonly loner who invented the world's first successful, light, balanced aluminum ski pole, was elected. So was Emile Allais, the great French world champion who, as a coach and instructor, profoundly affected racing and teaching in North America after World War II. The third choice was Fritz Mittelstadt.
Fritz who? A biography issued by the Hall of Fame Selection Committee states that Mittelstadt, a Midwest native, was a U.S. Ski Association competition judge and nordic official. So he fits like a comfortable old shoe into the Skiing Hall, generously constructed by mostly Upper Peninsula citizens. Meanwhile, we'll have to wait at least another year for the induction, for example, of the designer of the first chairlift, and the American inventors of snowmaking and the plastic ski boot. At the rate of three per year, many, if not already dead, will be underground before they make it.
Thirty years ago in SKI's pages, Olympic racer Tom Corcoran wrote about "Our Sorry Hall of Fame." Clearly, reform has not been swift in coming. What to do? The most obvious beneficial change would be to make the Ski Hall of Fame like other sports halls, concentrating the voting among writers who know a famous skiing achievement when they see one. As for the scores of promoters and volunteers, especially in nordic competition where the U.S. has won only two Olympic medals in 75 years, Ishpeming could place them in a Hall of Special Recognition. That way, the public could focus on champions and on producers of ideas and accomplishments that truly shaped the sport.
Don't look for much change, though. Who, like Adler, would donate the time or the financial support needed to make Skiing's Hall of Fame as valid as those of America's major sports? Volunteerism rules. And so, like one of those old mid-mountain T-bars, the Ski Hall of Fame creakily conveys candidates upwards, disgorging them, if they don't fall off, at the top, which, it turns out, is not the summit.
U.S. Ski Hall of Famer John Fry, former editor-in-chief of SKI, and founder and former editor-in-chief of Snow Country magazine, has covered skiing for five decades. "In My View" will be a regular column in SKI.