A skier younger
than springtime, forever
Jimmy Griffith was
Ketchum’s first Olympic skier
raced for the enjoyment of racing, and for fun. It doesn’t seem like it’s
that way anymore."
Dodge, Jimmy Griffith’s Olympic teammate
Express Staff Writer
summer of 1950, fresh from conquering South America on their skis, boyish
small-town 21-year-olds Jimmy Griffith and Brooks Dodge were ushered to
the best seats on Broadway in New York City to watch the best musical of
the era, "South Pacific."
Griffith, in a pre-race pose before the 1950 Harriman Cup on Baldy. Courtesy
like the toasts of the town, swooning to their own "Bali Ha’i."
No one knew them—they were just alpine skiers at the dawn of the 1950s
when entire neighborhoods had just one television. But they had their own
special hopes and special dreams.
than springtime, they were cockeyed optimists who knew from their
upbringing in the mountains that you had to be carefully taught. Two of
America’s best skiers, Griffith and Dodge were poised to be members of
the 1952 Olympic team.
never made it to Oslo, Norway for the VI Winter Olympics in 1952, although
he was potentially one of the greatest ski racers ever to be developed in
this country. Certainly he was one of the America’s top Olympic hopes 50
matter that he was the grandson of one of Ketchum’s founding fathers,
miner Albert Griffith. It didn’t matter that he was modest and sincere
and hard working and just about the most All-American of young men. In
today’s market for athletes, he would have been money.
of trees at Utah’s Alta ski area wasn’t forgiving.
On Dec. 2,
1951, Griffith was training for the Olympics and skiing down Alta. He was
planning to join his teammates in New York City a couple of days after
Christmas and they would then travel to Europe for more pre-Olympic
hit breakable crust near a cat track and skidded into the trees. Jimmy
collided with a tree and suffered a compound fracture of his right leg.
Others heard his cries for help, found him and evacuated him.
later, Jimmy’s condition worsened at Salt Lake City’s St. Mark’s
Hospital. "All of a sudden, he was in a coma," said his older
sister, Mary Jane Conger of Ketchum.
general manager W.P. "Pappy" Rogers received a telephone call
and acted at once, aware of the seriousness of the situation. Ketchum was
still a small town and the Griffiths were important people.
last week, "Pappy, that wonderful man, lined up a driver for my
parents. They drove through the evening to Salt Lake City, so my mother
was with him when Jimmy passed away the next morning.
treated him for a blood clot, but he died of an undiagnosed fatty
Griffith, first native-born Sun Valley ski racer to earn a berth on a U.S.
Olympic ski team, was 22 when he died. Funeral services were on a Sunday
afternoon at Sun Valley Opera House. Serving as pallbearers were fellow
members of the 1952 Olympic ski team.
He was laid
to rest in Ketchum Cemetery, where grave sites and head stones are now
completely buried under four feet of the deepest snow.
remains younger than springtime, forever.
powerful and self-taught skier who also commanded respect because of his
modesty and sportsmanship, Griffith was inducted into the National Ski
Hall of Fame at Ishpeming, Mich. in 1972.
had a formal ski lesson in his short life.
this day, however, there is no memorial to Griffith at the Sun Valley
resort, where he learned to ski and became America’s top downhiller, and
no picture of Jimmy hanging in the hallway at Sun Valley Lodge.
who knew Jimmy was very fond of him," said his Olympic teammate,
Brooks Dodge. "When we went to the Olympics in Oslo that year, 1952,
everybody on the team missed him, in their own way."
The Griffiths in
Albert Griffith was a mining superintendent in Philipsburg, Mont. east of
Hamilton. Exploring, he traveled south to Idaho that fall and found a
solitary prospector named David Ketchum building a cabin on the side of a
hill in Trail Creek.
snow melted in the spring of 1880, Griffith joined Isaac Lewis and others
and became the founding fathers of the mining boomtown known as Ketchum.
U.S. Olympic men’s ski team poses outside Sun Valley Lodge. Front,
from left, Dick Buek of Soda Springs, Ca.; Bill Beck of Kingston, R.I.
(5th in downhill at Oslo); Jack Reddish of Salt Lake City; Brooks Dodge of
Hanover, N.H. (6th GS and 8th SL at Oslo); and Jimmy Griffith of Ketchum.
Back, from left, Alan Fischer of Portland, Ore.; Jim Murphy of Salt Lake
City; Verne Goodwin of Pittsfield, Mass.; Jack Nagel of Skykomish, Wash.;
and Darrell Robison of Salt Lake City. Not shown are George Macomber of
Massachusetts and Dave Lawrence of New Hampshire. The Oslo Games were most
notable for Andrea Mead’s golds in SL and GS. Buek, known as "The
Mad Dog of Donner Summit," also died young, in a 1957 plane crash at
the age of 27. His parents managed the Soda Springs ski area where there
is a run, "Mad Dog," named after Dick. Photo, courtesy of
Mary Jane Conger
son, Albert R. Griffith, was born in 1887. He was 38 when Albert R. and
his brother Oscar opened up the Griffith Grocery in the brick building at
Main and Second Street that had served as the Ketchum Post Office from
store offered tourist supplies, fresh meats and fishing tackle. At least
that’s what the faded Griffith Brothers lettering says on the
still-standing Second Street building, one of Ketchum’s surviving
Griffith, first of two children of Albert R. and Helen C. Griffith, was
born the first year the store opened, 1925. The family lived on the second
floor of the store the first year, then moved two blocks up Second Street
to the Shaw house, which now houses Mailboxes Etc.
was too far away in those early days, when snow plowing was a manual
exercise. So Mary Jane’s father built a house that still exists at
Second and Leadville, across from Esther Fairman’s house, on the same
block as Williams’ Market.
Valentine’s Day 1929, Jimmy Griffith was born.
It was a
hard, good life.
were only 250 people in town," recalled Mary Jane. "Living here
was very carefree for children. I was an outdoor person, played in the
snow, just loved it. When Sun Valley came and brought the plow in, I used
to meet all the trains at the station."
Griffith brothers ran the general store for 12 years, before they sold it
to the Glenns of Hailey. Albert R. worked for Sun Valley during the war
and then, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, he retired. He died in 1965
at the age of 78. His wife lived until 1986, when she was 87.
enjoys telling the story of when Union Pacific chairman and Sun Valley
founder Averell Harriman went to her father and asked him if the people in
Ketchum would consider changing the town’s name to Sun Valley. Albert R.
Griffith politely declined, saying they liked Ketchum.
to ski was Mary Jane, an athletic girl who benefited from ski lessons. She
graduated from Hailey High School and went off to the University of
Colorado in 1942, where she raced for the Buffaloes. About the time his
sister left home, Jimmy started taking up skiing seriously.
he started chasing around the slopes with the Sun Valley Ski Patrol, a
hard-riding group of men who inspired him and offered casual instruction.
Jimmy had to learn to ski well to keep up. As he began to develop, he
caught the eyes of veterans of the Sun Valley Ski School.
never had a formal lesson.
thoughtful, he watched and learned and put what he saw into action.
Physically, he began to grow. He worked hard as a caddy and mowing grass
on the Sun Valley Golf Course in the summer with friends like Kenny
Zimmerman. He climbed Baldy to ski in the winter.
did all the normal things kids do," said Zimmerman. "He was a
very pleasant person, much like his sister."
and 175 pounds, played football and basketball at Hailey High School. An
excellent student, he graduated from high school a year early, as a junior
in 1945, and went off to join his older sister at the University of
mom felt a lot more comfortable knowing we were both at Colorado,"
said Mary Jane.
competed for the Buffaloes and become one of their best female ski racers,
Mary Jane was somewhat surprised at her brother’s rapid progress as a
skier. "I was four years older, and just wasn’t aware he was taking
it up seriously," she said.
news articles bragged that Mary Jane and Jimmy were two of the best skiers
the university had ever produced. And Jimmy was declared to be one of the
best athletes to ever attend the Boulder school, rising to become captain
and co-coach of the ski team by his graduation.
have been proudest of the fact that he officially joined the Sun Valley
Ski Patrol in 1947.
always the high-point man for Colorado during the three years he competed
for coach Steve Bradley at Boulder, Jimmy Griffith had a rapid climb on
the international stage.
Griffith. Courtesy photo
In 1948 he
placed seventh in the national amateur combined ranks. The next year,
1949, he was third in the national Open downhill, third in the national
slalom and third in the Harriman Cup DH down the Olympic course behind the
great Toni Matt.
later he beat Matt.
to learn by observing and then doing, Griffith attributed his improvement
as a racer to the techniques he picked up while watching the great
"French flier" Emile Allais performing at Sun Valley in 1949.
It led to
his greatest year, 1950—a year when Jimmy overcame a couple of hard-luck
disappointments and pulled off his greatest victories.
did Griffith make the FIS World Championship team that competed in Aspen,
Colo., he won the national downhill championship in Sun Valley and
traveled to South America with New England’s Brooks Dodge in the summer
He was the
first University of Colorado student to ski for America in world
competition. But the FIS race at Aspen wasn’t a happy one. Griffith,
headed for a bronze medal, spilled 50 feet above the finish line and
clawed and crawled to 18th place.
that Jimmy was that close to a bronze medal was significant.
Dodge from Pinkham Notch, N.H., an international team racer in 1950, 1952,
1954 and 1956, said, "In those days it wasn’t the medals we were
after, not like today.
Austrians, Swiss and French were so dominant. And there were over 100
racers in these big races. What we were shooting for was to place in the
top 10. That was our goal, and there was an awful lot of pressure to place
in the top 10."
In the 1950
Harriman Cup Jimmy missed his line at the top of Exhibition. But he never
let disappointment upset him. Griffith rose to the occasion on March 25,
1950 when the national downhill was held on Baldy.
summit, the course screamed down Ridge through Rock Garden and around the
big turn into Canyon. They said Griffith won the race with the time he
picked up on the Roundhouse corner into Canyon. The racers cut off from
Canyon into the lower part of Exhibition to the finish.
time was two minutes and 15 seconds, best of 66 men, a fifth-of-a-second
faster than Open combined champ Ernie McCullough of the Sun Valley Ski
Club and several places ahead of Matt and 1950 amateur combined king Jack
happy I grew up in those days," said Dodge. "None of the courses
were prepared like they are today. We had to boot-pack the slalom courses
and prepare the downhills. We raced for the enjoyment of racing, and for
fun. It doesn’t seem like it’s that way anymore."
There is nothin’
like a dame
successes led to a great trip to South America with Dodge, also a member
of the 1950 FIS team.
and I were chosen, one from the West and one from the East, to go down to
the Argentine National Championships and the Chilean National
Championships," said two-time Olympian Dodge, 72, who now lives with
his wife Ann in Jackson, N.H.
Griffith both came from small, mountain town backgrounds. They got along
in Pinkham Notch, 11 miles from the nearest town. His father, the famous
Joseph Brooks Dodge, was well known in New England for being the hut
manager of the Appalachian Mountain Trail.
and I had the same values and same interests in life. We were both very
serious about what we were doing. And I’d have to say we were both young
and naïve," Dodge said.
very successful in South America, winning nearly everything they entered.
If the Argentines and Chileans thought they were being smart inviting two
fresh-faced Americans to their "Kandahar of the Andes" races,
instead of the powerful Europeans, they were sadly mistaken.
did pretty well," said Dodge, who had first met Griffith in 1949 in
western qualifying when both were trying out for the 1950 FIS team.
returned from the summer trip with the title "Combined Ski Champion
of South America."
won 18 of the 20 races we were in. Jimmy won all the downhills and I won
most of the giant slaloms and slaloms. He was by far and away the better
know, in Argentina it seemed like all the pretty senoritas would try to
get us to drink and have a good time. But we decided to be patriotic
Americans and do our job and make the best out of it.
the afternoon of our last race in Chile, those senoritas wouldn’t have
anything to do with us—but we were so naïve we didn’t understand
until afterwards that maybe they were trying to get us to drink so we
wouldn’t do so well in the races."
one reward that was pure music to the Americans’ ears.
"An American lady won both Jimmy and I in a Calcutta pool after the
last race. She asked us, what would you be interested in doing? We said,
any chance you could get us tickets for "South Pacific"?
Broadway show, with Mary Martin and Enzio Pinza, was the most popular of
the time. She gave us the name of a person to see in the ticket office and
when we flew to New York we went down to the theater.
thought our seats would be way up in the balcony. Imagine our surprise
when the usher marched us down the aisle to the orchestra, right in the
middle. It was just great."
chairman for his Phi Gamma Delta fraternity in 1949 and the "King of
the Campus," in one of the winter carnivals, Jimmy graduated pre-med
from the University of Colorado in March 1951.
the U.S. Air Force in April at Boise and was stationed at Perrin Air Force
Base in Texas, assigned to the medical group.
fall, he jumped through all the hoops necessary to secure a leave from the
service. On Nov. 12, 1951, Griffith was named by the U.S. Olympic
Committee to the U.S. Men’s Downhill and Slalom team—Ketchum’s first
weeks later he was gone.
unbearable tragedy somewhat easier for Jimmy’s mother was the fact that
Mary Jane was living at home, while her first husband Dave Marin was
serving in Korea.
Jane had delivered her first child, James David Marin, in April 1951, nine
months before Jimmy’s death.
ended up staying all winter and skiing," said Mary Jane. "And my
mom had a grandchild."
Conger suspects that, had he lived, Jimmy would have finished his military
obligation and found a way to return to Sun Valley and eventually go into
medical practice with his mentor, Dr. John Moritz.
trip to Oslo might have been his first and last Olympics. It’s anybody’s
guess whether he would have cracked the top three Olympic downhillers at
Oslo—Italy’s Zeno Colo, Austria’s Othmar Schneider and Austria’s
had wanted to be a doctor from the time he was five years old. My mother
was very interested in medicine, and he was very close to my mother,"
said Conger. "Dr. Moritz encouraged him. He wanted to come back and
work with Dr. Moritz.
Jimmy and my mother were very private people. He was very quiet. An Eagle
Scout. And a straight-A student. But Jimmy worked very hard at his skiing
and really liked it."
"It’s funny, Jimmy’s good friend was Dick Buek, who was anything
but quiet and sedate. They were very different, but they were very playful
1952 Olympian Buek of Soda Springs, Ca., known as "The Mad Dog of
Donner Summit," also died young, in a 1957 plane crash at the age of
27. He was well known for tucking Baldy and flying his airplane upside
down underneath the chair lift to celebrate his achievement.
Jimmy Griffith’s style. He was all about character, not show. Said his
friend Brooks Dodge, "We considered ourselves lucky to be doing what
we were doing."