A Teacher For All Seasons
North Conway resident John McDonald has worked hard all of his life. McDonald has either gone skiing or golfing nearly every day since he was 18.
These are not contradictory sentences. Throughout his life, McDonald, 74, has been in the enviable position of earning his living at places of recreation: he retired as the North Conway Country Club's pro in 1991 after 45 years of imparting the finer points of golf and he'll be out on the slopes at Cranmore again this season passing on his love of the sport that he's been teaching since 1942. He and his wife, Pat, married for 49 years, have raised three children and have five grandchildren.
Recently recognized by the Eastern Division of the Professional Ski Instructors Association (PSIA) for his "long membership and support," McDonald, born in Amesbury, Mass., and raised by his mother and grandmother, began his winter career as a raw recruit teaching the famed 10th Mountain Division troops how to ski.
As a youngster, McDonald earned extra money for the family by working as a caddy at the local golf club, also shining shoes and helping out in the pro shop. That's how he got started in his summer career. In the winters, he joined the town's youngsters sliding down what was called Locke's Hill on a pair of wooden skis an uncle had given him.
"The hill was an apple orchard owned by Mr. Locke, a local banker," recalls McDonald. "It was equipped with a rope tow and even lights for night skiing, but I can't remember ever paying anything for it." He and his "cronies" spent innumerable hours racing each other down the gentle slope.
School vacations found McDonald in Mt. Washington's famed Tuckerman Ravine, the place to ski in the late '30s and early '40s. Catching a ride north any way he could, McDonald did dishes and helped out at the Appalachian Mountain Club under the guidance of the famed outdoorsman, the "Mayor of Porky Gulch," Joe Dodge. He also worked at the innovative Carroll Reed Ski Shops (begun in Jackson as Saks in December 1935, and continued as Carroll Reed's in February 1936, they were the first of their kind in eastern snow country) and managed to fit in ski lessons at the Ravine's branch of the Hannes Schneider Ski School.
It was those ski lessons that served him well when he arrived at the 10th Mountain Division's Camp Hale in Leadville, Colo. According to Pat McDonald, her husband's letters of recommendation to get into the renowned ski troops when the 18-year-old enlisted in 1942 were written by none other than the acknowledged "father of modern skiing," Hannes Schneider, and the AMC's Joe Dodge. "He wanted to get into the ski troops very badly," she says, "and everyone had to send along three letters of recommendation just to be considered."
McDonald explains that since some of the troops accepted were climbers and outdoorsmen, not skiers, a select few of the troops' skiers were chosen to serve as instructors.
“Walter Prager, a Dartmouth coach and former Swiss four-event competitor at a time when skiers competed in cross-country, ski jumping, the slalom and the downhill, was the supervisor and made the selection," says McDonald. McDonald got right to work leading the fledgling troops all over the mountain peaks of Colorado.
"It was all new to me, but I had had lessons from the Hannes Schneider Ski School and Hannes always had good instructors," notes McDonald. "We copied from Schneider and taught the Arlberg technique. I liked teaching."
At age 18, he had discovered one half of his life's career path. Of course, he had to get through the rest of World War II before he could pursue it, but being in the ski troops allowed McDonald to meet many other ski enthusiasts, including one J. Arthur Doucette. Now deceased, Doucette was one of the first ski instructors in America and had left his job as director of the Jackson Ski School at what is now Black Mountain to serve in the war.
"He asked me if I'd like-to work for him teaching skiing when I got out of the service," says McDonald. "I didn't think all that much of it at the time -- we were in Alaska, then I was sent off to train to join MacArthur's troops for the liberation of the Philippines."
McDonald was discharged in January 1946 and taught skiing for the remainder of the season at Locke's Hill.
"After the war, I had no real trade of any kind to go into, but I was offered a job being a golf pro in the summer," says McDonald. "It was then that I decided I'd better get in touch with Arthur so I had something to do in the winter."
Doucette said, "Yes, come on up," and the rest is history. Though McDonald only taught the season of 1946 to '47 in Jackson, he has been teaching every winter since, including from '49 to 1955 at the now defunct Thorn Mountain ski area in Jackson and since the '56 to '57 ski season at Cranmore.
A ski historian McDonald's teaching career has literally spanned the full development of the ski industry — every aspect of it has been constantly changing over the years that he's been teaching.
The evolution of lifts amazes him, as he relates how a place like Cranmore with its unique Skimobile, a surface lift first opened in 1939, that operated until 1989, was considered "deluxe, even though you had to take off your skis, stand in line and ride up one at a time."
"A T-bar was a luxury," he says, as he remembers the progression from the old rope tows, through double, triple, and quad chairs all the way to the high speed lifts accommodating six or more now in operation at ski resorts across the country.
When he started, he and his wife recall, skis cost something like $19.95. "1 remember thinking, 'Who's going to buy a Ski for $200?'" he says. "But they did."
Of course, he finds the new shaped skis "unbelievable how they bring you right around," noting that he thought they'd never be able to improve on the turns skiers could make with the old Head metal skis which were first introduced in 1950.
The biggest change he sees in the industry, however, is the addition of snowmaking. "We'd have poverty parties in the late '40s and early '50s when there was no snow — it's what put Thorn Mountain out of business," he says. "Now if there's no snow, if it's cold enough, you can always get the guns out and put snow on the slopes. It makes for a pretty dependable season."
McDonald loves his job and is looking forward to another season of imparting his extensive knowledge to the current crop of ski enthusiasts. This past weekend, the start of Cranmore's 61st season, McDonald taught an international group of skiers hailing from South America, Puerto Rico, Wales, and England.
Although he considers that in the "old days" skiers were more relaxed and happier to advance at a slower pace, he still enjoys working with everyone he meets.
"I love to teach," he says. "Just being outside in the winter in the scenic beauty is wonderful and it makes me feel so good to be able to help people enjoy the sport more by teaching them to do things a little better and to be safer while they do it."