From The Ground Up: Woods Valley

Westernville, N.Y. is more than 250 miles from Northfield, Vt., but it is intimately connected to a time unlike any other in Norwich University’s history, when the skiing program competed at the highest level of intercollegiate completion, and all students had to do to ski was walk across the street.  

The locus of that connection is Woods Valley Ski Area, founded by the late J. David Woods ’61, known affectionately as “Woodsie” by his Norwich classmates.  

Since Woods’ death in 1988, the ski hill has been owned and operated by another Norwich alumnus, Joe Olney ’76. Olney has been a fixture at the ski hill since the day it opened in 1964.  

Joe Olney '76 (pictured here and above on ski lift) takes an early spring run.

 “My family’s home was within walking distance of the lifts, so I skied there just about every day throughout elementary and high school,” says Olney.  

On a gray Saturday morning in early February, the hill is a kaleidoscope of colors, as dozens of skiers and boarders take to the slopes.  

“If you live in Upstate New York you can’t hibernate in the winter, you have got to get out and do something,” says Olney from a picnic table inside the bustling ski lodge. “Go snowshoeing, go ice fishing, go bird watching. Of course, we’d prefer that you ski.”  

Dave Woods  

Raised in Rome, N.Y., Dave Woods attended Rome Free Academy and then Norwich, graduating with a degree in history. Upon commissioning with the U.S. Army, he served two years in Korea, for which he received the Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service.  

When his Army stint was over, he returned home, married his high school sweetheart, and scraped together enough money to purchase a 60-acre slope in Westernville, N.Y. from a local farmer. He was familiar with the land, having passed it many times while on his way to a ski facility in Turin.  

“He had a clear vision of what he wanted,” says Bob Bidwell ’60, a founding and still-active member of the ski patrol at Woods Valley. “He didn’t want to do anything else.”  

Dave Woods '61 and Pat Cunningham '61 on the ski team at Norwich.

According to Bidwell, Woods possessed a tireless work ethic and was extremely resourceful.  

“If he couldn’t afford a new piece of grooming equipment, such as a snow packer, he’d figure out a way to make one himself,”   Bidwell says.  

Joe Alari ’50, another founding member of the Woods Valley Ski Patrol, says that Woods basically built the ski hill from the ground up—clearing trees, building roads, even bringing in helicopters to get the lift towers up.  

“He would do things that were impossible,” says Alari. “He worked it all himself, and he wasn’t even a civil engineer!”   

But he was doggedly persistent, a quality which, when combined with a generous dose of sweat equity, eventually made the business sustainable.  

“It was pretty rough the first few years, but as time went on, [Woods Valley] became one of the best family-run ski areas in Central New York,” says Fred Liddle ’61, a classmate of Woods’ who helped him teach ski-racing to kids in the mid-70s.  

Woods Valley was much more than a business to Woods, however. It was a labor of love.  

“Many times, at the crack of dawn, you would find Dave turning the area over to our band of junior ski racers, so they could run the big hill before the regular customers arrived,” says Liddle, who competed with Woods on the Norwich ski team from 1957 to 1961. “Ours were the first tracks down, because Dave got there at 4:00 a.m. to groom the slopes to perfection for us.”  

   

Norwich Team, circa 1957  

When Dave Woods arrived in Northfield in 1957, the Norwich University ski team was widely regarded as one of the premier ski-racing programs in the country. Coached by Robert “Rainbow” Wright, mountaineer and veteran of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, racers like Gary Vaughn ’58, Dean Campbell ’57, and Leonard “Duffy” Ayers ’60 competed—and won—against such New England skiing powerhouses as Middlebury, Dartmouth, Maine and UVM, as well as the Rocky Mountain state universities of Colorado, Denver and Utah.  

The old ski hill on Paine Mountain circa 1960.

 That Norwich was home to the largest on-campus ski facility in the country helped attract students who were interested in skiing competitively, and introduced hundreds more to the sport who had never seen snow before.  

“The opportunity to ski on campus wasn’t the only reason I chose Norwich,” says Bob Bell ’84, former ski patrol at Norwich as well as Sugarbush in Warren, Vt., “but it was certainly a factor.”  

“I grew up listening to Dave tell Norwich ski team stories,” says Olney. “He encouraged me to apply, and even accompanied me and my parents to my interview. As soon as I saw the double chair lift across the street, I was hooked.”  

Professor Chan Stowell, a former Norwich ski team coach who directed operations at the NU Ski Hill for several years, notes the various learning opportunities the facility afforded students.  

“We were able to develop an instructional program whereby students could earn physical education credits,” Stowell recalls. “Even more important, the hill was instrumental for training our ROTC Mountain Cold Weather cadets.”  

The NU Ski Hill also served as a wonderful recreational skiing facility for area families.  

“I learned to ski there as a child,” says Lauren Wobby ’84, chief financial officer at Norwich who often stayed in Northfield while visiting her grandfather, Ed Sargent ’26, then treasurer of Norwich. “Later, when I came back to Norwich as an employee, I would ski on my lunch hour.”  

   

Family-Friendly Atmosphere  

When Woods founded Woods Valley in 1964, he sought to create the same kind of atmosphere he’d enjoyed at the NU ski hill as a cadet, says his widow.  

“Dave wanted to gear it to people so they could learn how to ski in a relaxed, family atmosphere,” says Joan Woods.  

Joe Olney's daughter, Sheila, on the slopes at Woods Valley.

One reason for the family-friendly atmosphere at Woods Valley was the fact that multiple generations of the Woods and Olney families worked there.  

“My parents ran the snack bar and our kids ran the ticket booth,” recalls Joan.  

“Starting in seventh grade, I swept the lodge in exchange for a season’s pass,” says Olney, “and my parents ran a retail ski shop there.”  

About 300 yards from the main lodge, Dave and Joan built a picturesque Swiss-style chalet. It was there that they raised their four children, Timothy, Meagan, Kara and John, all of them downhill skiers.  

“It was a great place to raise our kids,” says Joan.  

It was also their life. “With your home adjacent to the trails, there is never any ‘down time,’” says Olney. “You are at work all the time.”  

Although all four of Dave and Joan’s children worked at the ski area from a young age, as they grew older they were not interested carrying on the family business. So in 1988, shortly after he was diagnosed with colon cancer, Woods sold the business to the Olney family.  

“The ski area was his sole source of income, and it’s a very capital-intensive business,” says Woods’ son, Timothy. “He decided he didn’t want to saddle us with all that.”  

Olney, who had worked at Woods Valley during the summers throughout high school and college, was honored to be able to continue operating the ski area in the same tradition as his mentor would have wanted. Twenty-two years later, Woods Valley is still a thriving family business.  

“Growing up in a small community, we understand the importance of quality of life issues,” says Olney.  “Areas like Woods Valley that can provide skiing and boarding in a family atmosphere are an important part of the community, and the snow sports industry.”         —  Gary Frank  

  

NORWICH ALUMNI IN THE SKIING INDUSTRY  

Dave Woods is but one example of the many Norwich alumni who have combined their passion for skiing with their career choice. Others include:  

Paul Meier ’01 talks with U.S. Alpine Ski Team members Daron Rahives and Bode Miller.

 Vic Constant ’43: coach of the USMA ski team: credited with developing skiing into a major activity at West Point. 

Merrill “Mezzie” Barber ’44: world-class ski jumper; designed and built the first ski jump at Norwich; helped develop the Sugar Bush Ski Area in East Jamaica, Vt., in operation through the 1950s.  

Gary Vaughn ’58: one of NU’s great ski racers; an alternate on the U.S. Alpine Ski Team for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley.   

Hank Lunde ’65: industry pioneer in snowmaking and steep-mountain grooming; president of Killington, SKI, Ltd. and Stowe.  

Pat Cunningham ’65: owned and operated retail ski shops at Sugarbush in Warren, Vt. for many years.  

Brad Moore ’65: director of marketing and operations at Smugglers Notch for 17 years. Also worked at Bolton Valley.  

Chandler Weller ’65: director of marketing at Sugarbush for 16 years.  

Paul Meier ’01: head trainer for the U.S. Men’s Alpine Ski Team.   

In addition, Norwich alumni, faculty, and staff too numerous to mention are past or present ski instructors or members of ski patrols at ski areas throughout the Northeast.  

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