As we enter the winter season, skiers anxiously await the opening of their favorite ski resort. And at 72, Charles Smith still skis and loves teaching others to ski. As one of the pioneering members of Denver’s Slippers-N-Sliders Ski Club and the Ski for Kids Program, which has introduced more than 1,500 urban youth to the sport, Smith has been an advocate for bringing more African-Americans to Colorado’s slopes. On Oct. 1, he was recognized by the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Ski Museum, and became the first African-American inducted in their Hall of Fame as a Sport Builder.
Smith first got on skis more than 50 years ago. “The first time I was on skis was 1964-65,” he says. It was kind of a goof off day. I went with some friends that I worked with. We went to Loveland Basin. There must have been two carloads of us. We all put on a pair of blue jeans. Everybody told us we should stay dry and be warm. We sprayed waterproofing spray on our clothes. We didn’t have regular ski clothing. And headed out like we knew what we were doing. We jumped on the rope tow I think. We had our own equipment we had rented from Gart Bros.”
Skiing was very different back then. There was no I-70 or Eisenhower-Johnson tunnels. There were a handful of ski areas. Vail was in its infancy. Loveland Basin was the most accessible, and Smith recalls that the lift ticket was about $4. “We didn’t take lessons,” he says. “Two or three of the guys had been on skis before. They were the ones that kind of led us around. And they did a pretty good job of telling us what to expect. We ended up at the top of the mountain at the end of the day, and that is when the real fun started, getting down.”
Yet the Lubbock, Texas native was hooked. The modern technology of quick release bindings didn’t exist, and on this first outing Smith twisted his knee. He visited Dr. Ted Hunt, a Denver orthopedic surgeon who told him he had a sprain and to stay off of it and he would be fine. Two week later he was back on the hill, a place where he found a home for the rest of his life.
On that day, Smith didn’t see any other African-Americans skiing. His late brother Odell Smith became his #1 skiing partner. He skied for six years before he was introduced to the Slippers-N-Sliders Ski Club when he and his brother were in a restaurant on Colfax and Colorado Boulevard. Dr. William Bowers, a Denver podiatrist, approached them about the club. Smith was surprised to find that there were a good number of African- American skiers, among them Val Tanaka, Floyd Cole, and Bryce Parks, who also had significant roles in growing the club and its reach.
In his new home of Colorado, Smith married and started a family of skiers. He and his wife are still active in Slippers-N-Sliders, where he has served as the president for eight non-consecutive years, and as served on the board of the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS) for five years as a regional vice president. Thousands of Black skiers from all over the country have made their way west to the mountains for the NBS Ski Summits, which will be in Keystone this year from Feb. 25 to March 4. Twenty-five summit events have been in Colorado in the 40plus-year history of the NBS. Locally, 1,500 youth have been introduced to the sport through the Ski For Kids Program, and Smith says it’s hard to determine how many have stayed with the sport. But it is because of his impact in bringing minorities to the sport on all different levels that Smith was inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.
“Without Charles’ efforts and passion for the sport, without his work along with the Slippers-N-Sliders Club and the National Brotherhood of Skiers, it’s hard to say how large a percentage of the annual skiers and snowboarders in Colorado would come from the minority community,” said John Dakin, vice president communications for the museum. “It was in recognition of a lifelong dedication to the sport, dedication to African-American athletes, or to the ski and snowboard industry throughout the state of Colorado, bringing National Brotherhood Summits and many summits here – all of it really dovetails into a very deserving candidate for induction into the Hall of Fame.”
Grady Towns, who nominated Smith, noted his accomplishments in his letter. In 2013 he attended an award ceremony at the Ski Museum in Vail where Smith accepted a ‘Top of the Hill Award’ on behalf of the Slippers-N-Sliders. “So it was there that I said, ‘Oh well, here is an avenue that maybe is a way I can get Charles selected to the Hall of Fame.’ And I proceeded from there.” Towns first nominated Smith in 2014, after which he was one of 14 finalists and could be put forward in 2015 and 2016.
“I am just particularly pleased and thankful to the Hall of Fame and the museum for inducting Charles into the Hall of Fame. It is just heart-warming to see that. I can’t think of anyone who is more deserving of that honor,” Towns said. Smith is both honored and humbled for the selection, but is quick to give others credit who have also buoyed Slippers-N-Sliders and the activities of Black skiers.
“There are some people that don’t participate anymore that need to be recognized. They’ve done some initial things, but they quit early. I stayed. I think especially the ones that are still living. I think they need some credit – Val Tanaka, Rodney Williams. Some credit goes to the Black ski instructors; we have about 16 or 17. There’s been a lot done that nobody knows about. We’ve got people there that have been up 30 years or more. Fred Norman, he’s my age, and he has been up at Keystone 30 some years. Rodney Williams and Mac Holland have been there 30 years. And we are all certified. Four of us are fully certified Level III.”
Smith’s level of commitment to introducing African-Americans to the sport is longstanding and brought new experiences and challenges to the community. “I wiped noses, helped kids get dressed, made sure the kids had shoes on the right foot and a little bit of everything,” Smith said. “We got snowed in one time and I remember spent the night in the parking lot in Dillon, and you won’t believe the reception we got. It was unbelievable the people that took care of us,” said Smith who has also been an advocate for Black ski racers at established programs like Burke Mountain Academy and Crested Butte Academy.
This year the Ski for Kids Program, which Smith directed for 25 years will introduce another 40 urban youth to skiing. The same number of youth participants that are members of Slipper-N-Sliders will take to the slopes in Jan. 7. Curtis Whitman the club’s current president is looking for more participants, and says the cost of $550 per student is reasonable, for five weeks of ski trips and lessons. Whitman is grateful for Smith’s continuing contributions to Slippers-N-Sliders. “He has been instrumental in keeping the club alive. He and his wife both are active participants. He’s also a ski instructor at Loveland. He has done a lot for the club, and because he is an expert skier, will take different groups up to ski. He videotapes everybody and does a lot of things for the club and to help promote it.”
Preparation informs our success which elevates our joy and enjoyment. Smith has reached a pinnacle of recognition, and now he’s ready to hit the slopes again and enjoy his lifelong passions.
Congratulations Mr. Smith!
Editor’s note: For more information about Slippers-N-Sliders Ski Club, NBS Ski Summit or the National Brotherhood of Skiers, visit www.slippers-n-sliders.org/; www.summitcove.com/land/nbs/ and www.nbs.org/