[ By Dawne Belloise ]
“I’m here to ski,” long-timer Jack Nixon emphasizes and adds humbly, “I’m not an exceptional person, I’m just me. Skiing is just something I do. I also eat Grape-Nuts every morning,” he laughs, explaining, “Both are what I like to do. As far as being 87, all I have to do for that is wake up every morning,” says the skiing octogenarian. He also smiles and adds a disclaimer, “I’m of an age where not everything I remember actually happened.”
He was born in the middle of the Great Depression to a family hit hard financially when the firm his chemist father worked for ceased to exist. Jack was the youngest of four children. To secure work during the Depression, the family frequently moved. As the Depression was ending in 1939, the family relocated from Wyoming to Boulder, Colorado, where Jack started kindergarten. “My father worked at petroleum refineries,” he tells, which then led them to Denver when Jack was a third grader.
The family remained in Denver and Jack enrolled at the University of Denver (DU) after high school. “I sort of wandered through school. I wasn’t a good student,” he confesses. “When I was in high school, the Korean War was going on and it was common to think that as soon as one graduated from high school one would be drafted.” He graduated from DU with a degree in Business Administration in 1958. “It took me six years since I worked full-time and by the time I graduated I was the father of two girls.”
Jack had married while he was still in college. He laughs that he used all that education to go to work in a ski shop for seven years, the original Christy Sports in Denver. “I really liked skiing. We’d go mostly to Loveland, Vail and Breckenridge.” Jack began skiing at 10 years old when he got a ski set-up for Christmas. “I’d go up to Berthoud Pass with other families who skied,” he recalls.
After his stint at Christy’s, Jack moved the family to Leadville where he went to work for a CPA firm. He worked in Vail and Breckenridge, so he hit the slopes during lunch and between clients. “I was much more interested in skiing than working for an accounting firm,” he admits. “One of the great things about living in Leadville was that we met another family who had three kids. One of them was David McGuire (a current long-time CB ski instructor) who was in the same first grade as one of my daughters.”
Jack accepted a position in Albuquerque at a job corps center for women. “It was a wonderful experience for me,” he says. “I grew up in a very white world and when I went to work at the job corps center it was a place that was certainly not white. It opened my eyes to a lot of life I didn’t know existed. The late 1960s was a time of much social unrest in the country because of the Vietnam War. I fell in with activists. I was developing a social consciousness because of where I worked.” He describes a scene he witnessed on the University of New Mexico campus when students took over a building in protest, just after the Kent State shootings. “People on one side, troops with bayonets on their rifles on the other side. Luckily no one got shot but one student was bayoneted and incidentally, he was black.“ Jack says he doesn’t believe it was incidental at all.
Throughout the years, Jack’s family had stayed in touch with their friends in Leadville, Dave McGuire’s family. When both families’ marriages fell apart, Jack and Dave’s mom Gwen continued writing to each other, “Because we had similar conditions, broken marriages with kids.” As the two dealt with their changed lives through correspondence, Jack took a two-week vacation and drove his 1960 VW delivery van to visit Gwen in Washington state, where they decided to be a couple and family, “Our kids knew each other.” They combined households in 1970 on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington, where Jack’s daughters would stay for the summers, making it a family of five.
“It was tough, neither of us had any money,” Jack says, but he found county government work in Seattle in a federally funded program assisting disadvantaged people into county government jobs. It was a two-hour ferry ride and an 80-mile drive, so Jack rented a place in Seattle, returning home for weekends. Later, they moved to Belleview where it was an easier commute.
Jack discovered Crested Butte as a kid with his parents in 1947. “There were still mines and a railroad,” and he recalls seeing those trains running. “At that time, my father worked for a company that hauled petroleum products around the state. He would drive around the state visiting their clients and my parents made a vacation out of it. As best I remember, we ate lunch, I think it was at the Forest Queen.”
In 1973, Jack and Gwen decided a change was in order, so he quit his job, bought a family friendly VW bus, and headed out to Colorado to find work. “I was driving around Colorado during the fuel shortage, going to places and asking if they had any jobs.” In Aspen, the position of city finance director had just opened and Jack got the job.
“After work, we’d often go to the Hotel Jerome for drinks to watch Hunter S. Thompson at the bar. He could roll his cigarette holder from one side of his mouth to the other, so it was very entertaining just to watch him.” For the year they were in Aspen, the family all skied, “I’d ski from my office, just walked out and up to a lift.”
Because Jack was hired by the city manager with the council’s approval, when that manager was physically thrown out of the city hall after a dispute with the council, Jack realized his days were probably numbered there even though he had done nothing wrong. He graciously trained his replacement and stayed to finish the budget, then resigned. “Someone told the Aspen Times that I had resigned so the Times ran the headline, ‘NIXON RESIGNS,’ just before the other Nixon actually resigned,” he laughs. When his Washington employers heard about Jack’s Aspen resignation, they asked him to return, so the family moved back.
In the 1980s, Jack went to work at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Barrow, Alaska, working an office job for the University of Alaska. “They supported science that was taking place in the field in the arctic – ice, wildlife and the Inupiat Peoples studies,” he explains and continues, “It was really connected to the cold war with Russia. Both the U.S. and Russia wanted a presence in the arctic and those labs were a way of supporting that. Some of the research stations were built on floating ice islands. It’s literally the northern top of the world.” He arrived in the darkening month of October. “It was fascinating. I jogged in the dark. On days off, I’d wander out on the tundra, just to go look at things.”
His one year there was hard on the family though as it wasn’t a place they were allowed to even visit. Afterwards, Jack worked in Juneau for the state of Alaska’s budget office, where Gwen was allowed to visit. He was there for a year before returning to San Juan Island, working part-time for a community-owned medical clinic.
“Gwen was working full-time. The kids were still in school. We had a series of very strange junk boats. We had chickens, ducks and a garden, and the island had crabs, salmon and lots of wild rabbits that were edible. And we had an old horse,” Jack tells of their free range lifestyle. “Once all the kids had flown the coop, we moved off San Juan Island to Anacortes, Washington, in the ‘90s. At that time, neither of us were considered employable because we were in our fifties, we could no longer get the kind of jobs we once had,” but they had enough resources to live and ski. When they saw a help wanted ad for ski school at Big Sky they went for it, and ended up enjoying it for a decade, returning to their Anacortes home for summers.
Back in the days when Crested Butte had free skiing, Jack and Gwen would visit Dave. “Big Sky would close before CB so we would come here to ski,” Jack recalls, “CB was one of the places I had skied when working at Christy’s in the mid 1960s, when ski areas were being built. Crested Butte had that little three person gondola.”
In 1999, realizing CB had more to offer in lifestyle with a full-time community, they built a home in Meridian Lake so they could spend the entire winter here. They’d return to their Washington home for summers, coming back to CB for some of the fun summer events. “We liked the Fourth of July, the water fight and seeing people we knew. Our dogs liked it here and we loved the community. We have way more friends and acquaintances here than we have in Anacortes.”
The couple has also been embedded in community organizations, “As members and supporters of the ski club, before Vail, and we contribute to HCCA, Living Journeys, PAWS and many different local organizations because they are important to us.” On November 14, 2017, Jack’s wife Gwen passed away unexpectedly from cancer. The family was devastated, it happened so quickly there was no time to process the loss. “It was tough on all of us. We had no idea that was coming. The diagnosis came at the end of September. The season before, Gwen had skied her age, as many days as she was old,” which was almost 80. “We were married for 47 years. Gwen was a very important part of my life.”
Just two years ago, Jack was hit by another skier. The collision broke multiple ribs, and then he was diagnosed with COVID, which sent him to St. Mary’s for 10 days. “I survived,” he muses, and when he returned, the community stepped up, dropping off food to help him recover, and recover he has. Until the lifts grind to a halt at the end of this season, you can find Jack still shushing down the slopes, after 77 years of skiing. He returns to Washington for most of the summer, but every winter Jack plans on riding these lifts and spending his time in the community he loves.