The passing of one of America’s great ladies, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who I was proud to count as a friend, reminded me of the special (no pun intended) connection between her and the state of Maine.

For it was she who not only created, guided, and devoted her life to the Special Olympics, as a tribute to her special sister, Rosemary, but she provided the inspiration to a then-young ski area owner in Rangeley to host their inaugural Winter Games in 1973.

The story of how this happened is special to me, and the impact of that event and that week on the young man’s life from that point on are incalculable.

You see, I’m that now not-so-young man, who, in 1972, bought Saddleback Mountain after having spent four years in the ski business in Vermont, preceded by a decade of learning about ski area operation from the legendary Amos Winter and a group of dedicated directors and investors who were emboldened to name me as Amos’ successor as general manager at Sugarloaf at age 28 in 1965.

Now to the story of how the first-ever Winter Special Olympics found its way to Maine. And it’s one of those stories that confirm the role of coincidence in all of our lives.

In late summer of 1972, Sargent Shriver was campaigning aggressively for the Democratic presidential nomination, and needed to be flown around New England and New York, so his people called Gov. Tom Salmon of Vermont to get his help. The governor, in turn, asked his good friend, Walt Elliott, a devout Democrat and owner of Glen Ellen Ski Area and a Cessna 310 twin-engine aircraft, if he would fly Shriver around for a week.

As it turned out, Shriver’s people insisted there be two pilots, and since I’m one and Walt was not only a great friend (who died tragically a short time later in a glider accident) but served with me as my vice-president of the Vermont Ski Area Association, he called and asked if I’d sit in the right seat for a few days … even if it meant being sequestered in a plane with two Democrats.

I told him I’d always wanted to meet Shriver, as I had followed his career with the Peace Corps, so I willingly agreed. It was a great time, and Sarge and I became friends.

Fast forward to winter 1973. Shriver had lost in the primary, I’d left Mount Snow to buy Saddleback and Eunice had decided there should be a winter counterpart to her summer Games.

She called Mickey Boutilier, the man in charge of the Special Olympics in Maine, and asked if it was possible to find a ski area in Maine to stage the first Winter Games. She thought of Maine for a couple of reasons: First, Mickey had a reputation as an extraordinary organizer and as someone who, once taking on a task, would bring it to a successful conclusion. Second, she intuited, and rightly so, Maine was best place to guarantee natural snow in the east (this was before snowmaking had been installed a most ski areas).

Mickey contacted Maine’s pre-eminent ski area at the time, Sugarloaf, and for reasons never completely clear to me, it declined the chance.

Then, Eunice was apparently talking with her husband, bemoaning the fact that it looked like a Winter Special Olympics wasn’t going to happen in 1973, and Sarge said, “I know a guy, John Christie, who, I think, bought a ski area up there somewhere. Maybe Mickey would know.”

Mickey did. He called me, and in one short phone conversation, the wheels began to turn — or rather, the skis began to slide — to bring the Winter Special Olympics to Saddleback Mountain.

I had 20 unfinished condominiums under construction, and during one memorable week in February 1973, dozens of competitors, officials and volunteers slept on mattresses on the floors of those units. They not only enjoyed and distinguished themselves on the slopes of Saddleback, but inspired all of us at the mountain with their sheer delight in participating in the games.

Among the dignitaries I invited to join us that week was a young, first-term Congressman, Bill Cohen, who was elected in great part by his willingness to campaign on foot over Maine’s huge Second District. Billy and I were more than friends, we were fraternity brothers at Bowdoin. (I didn’t completely ruin him, apparently, as Cohen went on to distinguish himself as a U.S. Senator and then Secretary of Defense.)

Bill, his wife, and two young sons enjoyed the week as much as my family and I did, and it was great fun reconnecting with him for the first time in fourteen years. Joining us, as well, were Gov. Ken Curtis, his wife, Polly, and their two delightful daughters.

Thus a bond was forged between Saddleback, the state of Maine and the Winter Special Olympics, by a series of coincidental contacts, friendships and interests. It was especially meaningful to me, as it gave birth to a close personal connection with Mickey Boutilier, and it also drew some attention to the fledgling ski area I was attempting to develop and promote.

Now the rest of the story.

Enter Warren Cook, who arrived at Sugarloaf in 1986 to assume leadership of what was, at that time, a ski area going through dramatic fiscal problems resulting from unsustainable expansion. With dogged determination and skills which, to this day, I hold in awe, Warren almost single-handedly righted the ship and began the course toward which Sugarloaf has become one of the country’s best four-season resorts.

Among the things he did was assure the Winter Special Olympics would have a permanent home, as it had bounced from area-to-area after my departure from Saddleback. An agreement was reached that the games would be at Sugarloaf into perpetuity. Additionally, Warren had the foresight to appoint a full-time local coordinator, Steve Pierce, who has assured that every competition meets all of its expectations, and the competitors — who are what the Games are all about — have the time of their lives for a few days on a mountain in Maine.

And to close the circle of this rambling stroll down memory lane, Warren Cook is now in charge at Saddleback. What perfect symmetry, that the man made it work for these many years is now running the place that gave birth to the games in the first place. He, along with owners Bill and Irene Berry, are turning Saddleback into the destination that many of us have only been able to dream about.

God bless Eunice Kennedy Shriver for having the vision to conceive the Special Olympics. I thank her for bringing them to Maine, and for stirring the memory of an old ski area operator to relive the past.

Her passing leaves a great void, but her legacy is immense, and she is loved for it. 

John Christie is a member of Maine’s Skiing Hall of Fame, president of the Maine Ski Museum and the author of “The Story of Sugarloaf.”

Skiers and snowboarders pose for photos, relax and enjoy the view and take in the spetactular view at the top of Saddleback as others head toward the trails in this file photo from this past winter.

A skiier heads down America at the top of Saddleback Mountain during this past winter.

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