Tom Emrich: Ski Teacher – Cinematographer / Photographer – Musician

by Bob Soden

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I’d like to say a few words about one of the very special men that helped make Jay Peak the success it was back in the 1960s (and also managed to change a few lives along the way)…

I remember, as though it were yesterday, tak­ing a Natur Teknik ski week, in December 1961 (51 years ago) at Jay Peak, Vermont. I was thirteen. My whole family – me and my Mum and Dad and my three sisters – were all taking ski lessons at the Walter Foeger Ski School, and we were all distributed about the various instructors’ classes, according to our level of ski ability. I got lucky – I got Tom Emrich!

Right away Tom organized our class and got down to business. As I recall, he covered everything – from putting on one’s ski poles, making a step and kick turn, right up to the downhill turns – logically and in detail – with enthusiasm and a sense of humor. We were always laughing in his class. Somebody would make a little mistake, in a turn or in side-slip or skating, and Tom would make a clever comment – but with that mirthful face of his – everyone would soon be laughing good-naturedly.

So the classes passed quickly, and we learned. Step-by-step Tom laid out the program. I was in a seven-day class, as were, I presume, the rest of the class. After we’d had passed “Ground School,” at the foot of the “Open Slope,” and taken a break or two in the “Warming Shelter,” sampling the hot chocolate and ox-tail soup, Tom lined us up like ducklings, and marched us over (on skis, of course) to the PomaLift – with Duane Lucier doing the honors. Some of us, on our first attempt using the lift, got quite a lift – and left the ground. Or we sat down, landing on our “tuches”, sometimes not so softly – depending on our weight, how we grasped the pole, or whether we thought it was a seat, not something that just pulled you up the hill.

I remember the trepidation I felt on that first trip up the Poma to the “First Level.” There were three levels, each with an increasing steepness (actually the perfect ski school hill) as you mounted the hill, and I remember seeing skiers coming down from the “Third Level,” thinking they looked like flies on a wall – and wondering why they didn’t fall off.

Our early classes on the first level were about Traverse, Kick-Turn on a Slope and about Side-Sliding. I thought Side-Sliding was great, and Tom put us through our paces there. Straight Side-Sliding with and without poles. Then forward and backward Diagonal Side-Sliding. Then Garland Side-Sliding. These variations-on-a-theme were spread out through the week, but always stressed the supreme importance of Side-Sliding (Tom and the great French racer / ski-theorist Emile Allais would have agreed on this).

As the days progressed, we were introduced, in sequence, to the mysteries and wonders of Preparation to the Turn-to-the-Mountain, then Turn-to-the-Mountain, then Preparation to the Turn-Downhill (DH), and finally – with a flourish, Ta-Da! – to the (parallel) Turn-Downhill (the Holy Grail of skiing! – if you exclude Wedeln, that is). I couldn’t believe it, in six days I had gone from a no-class schuss-boomer, with skis three feet apart, who could stop, maybe, at the end of a desperate headlong straight dash – into someone who could make controlled parallel turns down the Open Slope – from the Third Level, no less! All due to Tom’s fabulous teaching style.

I remember an exciting little episode during that week’s class. Walter Foeger was skiing by our class when I had just “mastered” the Turn DH. He was skiing with a newspaper reporter (the NY Times?). He watched as I made some linked parallel turns (near the second level), and then motioned me over. I looked at Tom, who nodded, and then I traversed over to Walter. He asked, “How long have you been skiing?” I replied (discounting my three untutored stints barreling down some Laurentian slope), “Six Days!” Walter beamed his great big smile and turned to the reporter, saying, “Ya, Natur Teknik is working good, is not this so?”

I hadn’t realized what a toll the six days (four-hours-a-day) of concentrated exertion had taken on my system, but that Saturday evening, after telling my family back home in Montgomery Center and of my success on the slopes, I collapsed into bed. I never made it up to Jay on Sunday – and missed my “graduation” with the class. I think it was George Stepanek (later a Jay Peak Ski School Director), who, after I’d recovered my strength by Monday, took me on as a charity-case ski student, and put the final polish on what I’d learned with Tom. George may have also introduced me to the mysteries of “Wedeln.”

(I skied every weekend that winter – every chance I could. I even “skied” on the bus going to school in Montreal. Making parallel turns at the back of the bus as we’d round a corner – “Look Ma, no hands!” – in “comma position-,” “reverse shoulder”-style. Three years after learning to ski parallel in your class, I took the “Instructor’s Course” at Jay – in December, 1963. I passed (junior grade)! Hallelujah! I taught at Jay for the next five years, the last two of which were full-time.)

I remember, besides teaching skiing, Tom also took the (ski school) class photos at the end of each week, That must of entailed some logistics – and crowd handling and psychology. After taking these shots all day, he had to repair to his darkroom (’til the wee hours?) and develop and print and frame all these photos for the next day. Classes were eight to ten students, on average, plus instructor. We often, at Christmas time had twenty to forty classes operating. That’s 200-400 hundred prints, framed and hand-delivered each week. I don’t know how he did it – week in and week out. Also Walter would often ask him to take promotional shots of the mountain, and its warming shelters and lifts, etc. And Tom shot many a classic postcard around Jay Peak!

Then I found out, that in addition to teaching skiing and photography, Tom also found time – and energy – to play music in a band – playing various instruments at various venues around the area, such as at the Carinthia Lodge, the Alpin Hof and the Jay Barn Village. A few years later he filmed a feature length movie, in 16mm color, called “Return to Jay.” The cinematography is wonderful. Great shots of various players at Jay, like Steve Scott timing NASTAR races, Wolfie Schadinger (Jay Ski School Director and skier extraordinaire) skiing beneath the tram, and early woods skiers such as Manfred, instructors all, enjoying the prodigious powder. He included the (Jay) Easter Parade, with all the spring antics, of grown-ups and tots alike, on skis. That film alone was an entirely separate career skill. Then Tom went on to found Jay Foto of Newport, photographing nearly every graduating student and newly-wed in Orleans County, for many, many years.

Tom Emrich was, and is, a multi-talented person, and his charm and gifts enriched many a life at Jay Peak and in the surrounding area. Mine was certainly enriched. Years later, when I’d grown up and had a family, all my four kids learned to ski – three of them becoming ski instructors – two of them teaching at Lake Louise and Whistler Mountains in Canada. And my enjoyment of skiing led to my writing about ski history, which has been a pleasure – and an education. All thanks to my luck in drawing Tom Emrich’s ski class back in 1961!

Here’s to you, Tom!

Bob Soden – June 1, 2012 – Calgary, AB