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For the week of February 13 - 19, 2002


A skier younger than springtime, forever

Jimmy Griffith was Ketchum’s first Olympic skier

"We raced for the enjoyment of racing, and for fun. It doesn’t seem like it’s that way anymore." 

Brooks Dodge, Jimmy Griffith’s Olympic teammate

Express Staff Writer

In the summer of 1950, fresh from conquering South America on their skis, boyish small-town 21-year-olds Jimmy Griffith and Brooks Dodge were ushered to the best seats on Broadway in New York City to watch the best musical of the era, "South Pacific."

Jimmy Griffith, in a pre-race pose before the 1950 Harriman Cup on Baldy. Courtesy photo

They felt like the toasts of the town, swooning to their own "Bali Ha’i." No one knew them—they were just alpine skiers at the dawn of the 1950s when entire neighborhoods had just one television. But they had their own special hopes and special dreams.

Younger than springtime, they were cockeyed optimists who knew from their upbringing in the mountains that you had to be carefully taught. Two of America’s best skiers, Griffith and Dodge were poised to be members of the 1952 Olympic team.

Griffith never made it to Oslo, Norway for the VI Winter Olympics in 1952, although he was potentially one of the greatest ski racers ever to be developed in this country. Certainly he was one of the America’s top Olympic hopes 50 years ago.

Fate doesn’t discriminate.

It didn’t matter that he was the grandson of one of Ketchum’s founding fathers, miner Albert Griffith. It didn’t matter that he was modest and sincere and hard working and just about the most All-American of young men. In today’s market for athletes, he would have been money.

The grove of trees at Utah’s Alta ski area wasn’t forgiving.

On Dec. 2, 1951, Griffith was training for the Olympics and skiing down Alta. He was planning to join his teammates in New York City a couple of days after Christmas and they would then travel to Europe for more pre-Olympic training.

Then, he hit breakable crust near a cat track and skidded into the trees. Jimmy collided with a tree and suffered a compound fracture of his right leg. Others heard his cries for help, found him and evacuated him.

Three days later, Jimmy’s condition worsened at Salt Lake City’s St. Mark’s Hospital. "All of a sudden, he was in a coma," said his older sister, Mary Jane Conger of Ketchum.

Sun Valley’s general manager W.P. "Pappy" Rogers received a telephone call and acted at once, aware of the seriousness of the situation. Ketchum was still a small town and the Griffiths were important people.

Conger said last week, "Pappy, that wonderful man, lined up a driver for my parents. They drove through the evening to Salt Lake City, so my mother was with him when Jimmy passed away the next morning.

"They treated him for a blood clot, but he died of an undiagnosed fatty embolism."

Jimmy Griffith, first native-born Sun Valley ski racer to earn a berth on a U.S. Olympic ski team, was 22 when he died. Funeral services were on a Sunday afternoon at Sun Valley Opera House. Serving as pallbearers were fellow members of the 1952 Olympic ski team.

He was laid to rest in Ketchum Cemetery, where grave sites and head stones are now completely buried under four feet of the deepest snow.

There he remains younger than springtime, forever.

A strong, powerful and self-taught skier who also commanded respect because of his modesty and sportsmanship, Griffith was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame at Ishpeming, Mich. in 1972.

He never had a formal ski lesson in his short life.

Still, to this day, however, there is no memorial to Griffith at the Sun Valley resort, where he learned to ski and became America’s top downhiller, and no picture of Jimmy hanging in the hallway at Sun Valley Lodge.

"Everybody who knew Jimmy was very fond of him," said his Olympic teammate, Brooks Dodge. "When we went to the Olympics in Oslo that year, 1952, everybody on the team missed him, in their own way."


The Griffiths in Ketchum

In 1879 Albert Griffith was a mining superintendent in Philipsburg, Mont. east of Hamilton. Exploring, he traveled south to Idaho that fall and found a solitary prospector named David Ketchum building a cabin on the side of a hill in Trail Creek.

When the snow melted in the spring of 1880, Griffith joined Isaac Lewis and others and became the founding fathers of the mining boomtown known as Ketchum.

The 1952 U.S. Olympic men’s ski team poses outside Sun Valley Lodge. Front, from left, Dick Buek of Soda Springs, Ca.; Bill Beck of Kingston, R.I. (5th in downhill at Oslo); Jack Reddish of Salt Lake City; Brooks Dodge of Hanover, N.H. (6th GS and 8th SL at Oslo); and Jimmy Griffith of Ketchum. Back, from left, Alan Fischer of Portland, Ore.; Jim Murphy of Salt Lake City; Verne Goodwin of Pittsfield, Mass.; Jack Nagel of Skykomish, Wash.; and Darrell Robison of Salt Lake City. Not shown are George Macomber of Massachusetts and Dave Lawrence of New Hampshire. The Oslo Games were most notable for Andrea Mead’s golds in SL and GS. Buek, known as "The Mad Dog of Donner Summit," also died young, in a 1957 plane crash at the age of 27. His parents managed the Soda Springs ski area where there is a run, "Mad Dog," named after Dick. Photo, courtesy of Mary Jane Conger

Griffith’s son, Albert R. Griffith, was born in 1887. He was 38 when Albert R. and his brother Oscar opened up the Griffith Grocery in the brick building at Main and Second Street that had served as the Ketchum Post Office from 1911-25.

The general store offered tourist supplies, fresh meats and fishing tackle. At least that’s what the faded Griffith Brothers lettering says on the still-standing Second Street building, one of Ketchum’s surviving treasures.

Mary Jane Griffith, first of two children of Albert R. and Helen C. Griffith, was born the first year the store opened, 1925. The family lived on the second floor of the store the first year, then moved two blocks up Second Street to the Shaw house, which now houses Mailboxes Etc.

Two blocks was too far away in those early days, when snow plowing was a manual exercise. So Mary Jane’s father built a house that still exists at Second and Leadville, across from Esther Fairman’s house, on the same block as Williams’ Market.

On Valentine’s Day 1929, Jimmy Griffith was born.

It was a hard, good life.

"There were only 250 people in town," recalled Mary Jane. "Living here was very carefree for children. I was an outdoor person, played in the snow, just loved it. When Sun Valley came and brought the plow in, I used to meet all the trains at the station."

The Griffith brothers ran the general store for 12 years, before they sold it to the Glenns of Hailey. Albert R. worked for Sun Valley during the war and then, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, he retired. He died in 1965 at the age of 78. His wife lived until 1986, when she was 87.

Mary Jane enjoys telling the story of when Union Pacific chairman and Sun Valley founder Averell Harriman went to her father and asked him if the people in Ketchum would consider changing the town’s name to Sun Valley. Albert R. Griffith politely declined, saying they liked Ketchum.

The first to ski was Mary Jane, an athletic girl who benefited from ski lessons. She graduated from Hailey High School and went off to the University of Colorado in 1942, where she raced for the Buffaloes. About the time his sister left home, Jimmy started taking up skiing seriously.

Barely 13, he started chasing around the slopes with the Sun Valley Ski Patrol, a hard-riding group of men who inspired him and offered casual instruction. Jimmy had to learn to ski well to keep up. As he began to develop, he caught the eyes of veterans of the Sun Valley Ski School.

But he never had a formal lesson.

Deep and thoughtful, he watched and learned and put what he saw into action. Physically, he began to grow. He worked hard as a caddy and mowing grass on the Sun Valley Golf Course in the summer with friends like Kenny Zimmerman. He climbed Baldy to ski in the winter.

"We did all the normal things kids do," said Zimmerman. "He was a very pleasant person, much like his sister."

Jimmy, 6-0 and 175 pounds, played football and basketball at Hailey High School. An excellent student, he graduated from high school a year early, as a junior in 1945, and went off to join his older sister at the University of Colorado.

"My mom felt a lot more comfortable knowing we were both at Colorado," said Mary Jane.

Having competed for the Buffaloes and become one of their best female ski racers, Mary Jane was somewhat surprised at her brother’s rapid progress as a skier. "I was four years older, and just wasn’t aware he was taking it up seriously," she said.

Colorado news articles bragged that Mary Jane and Jimmy were two of the best skiers the university had ever produced. And Jimmy was declared to be one of the best athletes to ever attend the Boulder school, rising to become captain and co-coach of the ski team by his graduation.

He might have been proudest of the fact that he officially joined the Sun Valley Ski Patrol in 1947.


National downhill king

Almost always the high-point man for Colorado during the three years he competed for coach Steve Bradley at Boulder, Jimmy Griffith had a rapid climb on the international stage.

Jimmy Griffith. Courtesy photo

In 1948 he placed seventh in the national amateur combined ranks. The next year, 1949, he was third in the national Open downhill, third in the national slalom and third in the Harriman Cup DH down the Olympic course behind the great Toni Matt.

One year later he beat Matt.

Always one to learn by observing and then doing, Griffith attributed his improvement as a racer to the techniques he picked up while watching the great "French flier" Emile Allais performing at Sun Valley in 1949.

It led to his greatest year, 1950—a year when Jimmy overcame a couple of hard-luck disappointments and pulled off his greatest victories.

Not only did Griffith make the FIS World Championship team that competed in Aspen, Colo., he won the national downhill championship in Sun Valley and traveled to South America with New England’s Brooks Dodge in the summer of 1950.

He was the first University of Colorado student to ski for America in world competition. But the FIS race at Aspen wasn’t a happy one. Griffith, headed for a bronze medal, spilled 50 feet above the finish line and clawed and crawled to 18th place.

The fact that Jimmy was that close to a bronze medal was significant.

Brooks Dodge from Pinkham Notch, N.H., an international team racer in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1956, said, "In those days it wasn’t the medals we were after, not like today.

"The Austrians, Swiss and French were so dominant. And there were over 100 racers in these big races. What we were shooting for was to place in the top 10. That was our goal, and there was an awful lot of pressure to place in the top 10."

In the 1950 Harriman Cup Jimmy missed his line at the top of Exhibition. But he never let disappointment upset him. Griffith rose to the occasion on March 25, 1950 when the national downhill was held on Baldy.

From Baldy’s summit, the course screamed down Ridge through Rock Garden and around the big turn into Canyon. They said Griffith won the race with the time he picked up on the Roundhouse corner into Canyon. The racers cut off from Canyon into the lower part of Exhibition to the finish.

Griffith’s time was two minutes and 15 seconds, best of 66 men, a fifth-of-a-second faster than Open combined champ Ernie McCullough of the Sun Valley Ski Club and several places ahead of Matt and 1950 amateur combined king Jack Reddish.

"I was happy I grew up in those days," said Dodge. "None of the courses were prepared like they are today. We had to boot-pack the slalom courses and prepare the downhills. We raced for the enjoyment of racing, and for fun. It doesn’t seem like it’s that way anymore."


There is nothin’ like a dame

Jimmy’s successes led to a great trip to South America with Dodge, also a member of the 1950 FIS team.

"Jimmy and I were chosen, one from the West and one from the East, to go down to the Argentine National Championships and the Chilean National Championships," said two-time Olympian Dodge, 72, who now lives with his wife Ann in Jackson, N.H.

Dodge and Griffith both came from small, mountain town backgrounds. They got along very well.

Dodge lived in Pinkham Notch, 11 miles from the nearest town. His father, the famous Joseph Brooks Dodge, was well known in New England for being the hut manager of the Appalachian Mountain Trail.

"Jimmy and I had the same values and same interests in life. We were both very serious about what we were doing. And I’d have to say we were both young and naïve," Dodge said.

They were very successful in South America, winning nearly everything they entered. If the Argentines and Chileans thought they were being smart inviting two fresh-faced Americans to their "Kandahar of the Andes" races, instead of the powerful Europeans, they were sadly mistaken.

"We did pretty well," said Dodge, who had first met Griffith in 1949 in western qualifying when both were trying out for the 1950 FIS team.

Griffith returned from the summer trip with the title "Combined Ski Champion of South America."

"We won 18 of the 20 races we were in. Jimmy won all the downhills and I won most of the giant slaloms and slaloms. He was by far and away the better downhiller.

"You know, in Argentina it seemed like all the pretty senoritas would try to get us to drink and have a good time. But we decided to be patriotic Americans and do our job and make the best out of it.

"By the afternoon of our last race in Chile, those senoritas wouldn’t have anything to do with us—but we were so naïve we didn’t understand until afterwards that maybe they were trying to get us to drink so we wouldn’t do so well in the races."

There was one reward that was pure music to the Americans’ ears.

Dodge said, "An American lady won both Jimmy and I in a Calcutta pool after the last race. She asked us, what would you be interested in doing? We said, any chance you could get us tickets for "South Pacific"?

"That Broadway show, with Mary Martin and Enzio Pinza, was the most popular of the time. She gave us the name of a person to see in the ticket office and when we flew to New York we went down to the theater.

"We thought our seats would be way up in the balcony. Imagine our surprise when the usher marched us down the aisle to the orchestra, right in the middle. It was just great."


The Colorado graduate

Social chairman for his Phi Gamma Delta fraternity in 1949 and the "King of the Campus," in one of the winter carnivals, Jimmy graduated pre-med from the University of Colorado in March 1951.

He entered the U.S. Air Force in April at Boise and was stationed at Perrin Air Force Base in Texas, assigned to the medical group.

By the fall, he jumped through all the hoops necessary to secure a leave from the service. On Nov. 12, 1951, Griffith was named by the U.S. Olympic Committee to the U.S. Men’s Downhill and Slalom team—Ketchum’s first Olympian.

Only three weeks later he was gone.

Making the unbearable tragedy somewhat easier for Jimmy’s mother was the fact that Mary Jane was living at home, while her first husband Dave Marin was serving in Korea.

And Mary Jane had delivered her first child, James David Marin, in April 1951, nine months before Jimmy’s death.

"I ended up staying all winter and skiing," said Mary Jane. "And my mom had a grandchild."

Mary Jane Conger suspects that, had he lived, Jimmy would have finished his military obligation and found a way to return to Sun Valley and eventually go into medical practice with his mentor, Dr. John Moritz.

The 1952 trip to Oslo might have been his first and last Olympics. It’s anybody’s guess whether he would have cracked the top three Olympic downhillers at Oslo—Italy’s Zeno Colo, Austria’s Othmar Schneider and Austria’s Christian Pravda.

"Jimmy had wanted to be a doctor from the time he was five years old. My mother was very interested in medicine, and he was very close to my mother," said Conger. "Dr. Moritz encouraged him. He wanted to come back and work with Dr. Moritz.

"Both Jimmy and my mother were very private people. He was very quiet. An Eagle Scout. And a straight-A student. But Jimmy worked very hard at his skiing and really liked it."

She added, "It’s funny, Jimmy’s good friend was Dick Buek, who was anything but quiet and sedate. They were very different, but they were very playful together."

Ironically, 1952 Olympian Buek of Soda Springs, Ca., known as "The Mad Dog of Donner Summit," also died young, in a 1957 plane crash at the age of 27. He was well known for tucking Baldy and flying his airplane upside down underneath the chair lift to celebrate his achievement.

That wasn’t Jimmy Griffith’s style. He was all about character, not show. Said his friend Brooks Dodge, "We considered ourselves lucky to be doing what we were doing."


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.