National Brotherhood of Skiers marks “50 years of Soul on Snow” in Vail

VAIL — Maynard Welch didn’t know much about skiing when he was stationed at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, in the 1960s. Segregated Louisiana, where he was born in 1935, was a world away from the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. But he learned enough about the sport that he decided to take it up when he got out of the Army.

“It’s so free, out in the open air, and everybody around you is so happy and joyful,” said Welch, who was proudly wearing a hat identifying him as a Korean War veteran on Monday during a gathering of the National Brotherhood of Skiers on Vail Mountain. “Everybody is a friend. We’re living like people ought to live, happy and enjoying one another.”

That sense of friendship is what brings a lot of people to the NBS, an organization of predominantly Black ski clubs that has been holding annual “Summits” since its inception in 1973. The week-long Vail Summit, which began on Feb. 4, celebrates “50 Years of Soul on Snow.” It includes races, concerts, parties and other events, all with the goals of encouraging camaraderie and of raising money to support its mission “to identify, develop and support athletes of color who will win” at the Olympics and in other winter sports competitions.

Welch has attended every one since the first in Aspen.

“We started off with 500 in Aspen,” said Welch, now 87. “The next year we had 3,000. We’ve been up as high as 9,000. We have done a lot of great things for Blacks.”

The event in Vail drew more than 2,000 skiers and snowboarders including co-founder Arthur Clay, who has lived in Chicago since age 2. Born in Mississippi, he likes to say the arc of his life has taken him “from the cotton fields to the snow fields.” He turns 86 next month and no longer skis because he says he can’t risk falling at his age.

He wasn’t about to miss an NBS Summit, though.

“I would hope to be around when I’m 95,” said Clay, wearing a bowler hat and a tuxedo T-shirt. “My wife tells me the Lord will take me out of here when he gets ready, but until he gets ready, I have control over the things I’m going to do. Although skiing now is a thing of the past for me, I’m going to keep coming. Every time they have a Summit, you’ll see me.”

Clay says skiing changed his life.

‘My main goal was to have a good time around all these cute young ladies, and that is what I did,” Clay said. “I’m from Chicago. It’s cold, and you look for something to do.”

That’s not all he was looking for. The real story is that some young ladies he knew wanted to go skiing at Indianhead, a small area in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They needed a ride and Clay had a new car, so he was only too happy to help them out.

“I thought they had a liking for me,” Clay said. “Well, they took me up there, and they were beginners also. They were doing this thing called the Stem Christie (a ski technique for beginners). I said, ‘Well, if a lady can do it, I can do it.’ We decided to take a run before our lesson.”

Clay fell getting off the lift. He fell again while attempting to make his way down the trail, toppling into some bushes.

“This guy named Elgin Lee, I never will forget him, he came up to me and said, ‘Let me help you,’” Clay said “He helped me get up and talked me into letting him take me to the bottom of the green trail. What I learned by the time he got me to the bottom of the trail, I could ski all over Indianhead. I mean, I couldn’t ski, but I could do a snowplow and get around.”

Clay co-founded the NBS with Ben Finley of Los Angeles after they were introduced by a mutual friend in 1972. Clay was a member of the Sno-Gophers Ski Club of Chicago and Finley was president of the Four Seasons West Ski Club. The first Summit brought together 13 Black ski clubs from around the country.

“Fifty years ago, you had individual people skiing at individual mountains all across the country,” said Henri Rivers, the current NBS president. “This organization has brought together so many people of color, it has exposed so many people of color to the outdoors, to the sport of skiing and riding, I would say Ben and Art are responsible for 100,000 people of color coming into the snow sport industry.

“They facilitated that without even knowing it. That’s the best part about it. They were doing this to promote camaraderie among people of color in the sport. They were doing it to promote safety in the sport, because we couldn’t always trust that going to a mountain by yourself was a smart idea. I think going in groups sort of alleviated that issue.”

Naomi Bryson also has been to every NBS Summit. Like Clay, she had romantic ideas when she went skiing for the first time.

“I met this guy in Detroit, and he invited me to come to his ski club,” said Bryson, 80. “I said, ‘Oh, I don’t ski, and I don’t know anybody who skis.’ He was really a cute guy. They were signing up for the first Summit in 1973 and I signed up, too. I said, ‘I want to get to know him.’ Well, I married him. You know how they say men chase women? Well, women chase men, too.”

This week marked her first Summit without him. He passed away last year.

“Maybe he’s in heaven looking down on us now,” she said.

Darryl Adams was working for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C. in 2016 when he met a friend who introduced him to a group of skiers at a party. They were getting ready to attend the Summit that year at Heavenly Mountain Resort in Lake Tahoe, Calif. The group encouraged him to join them and he decided take them up on it.

“They said, ‘Have you ever skied before?’ I said no,” Adams said. “They’re like, ‘And you’re still coming?’ I’m like, ‘They give lessons on the mountain, don’t they? Yeah, I’m coming.’ I get out there, we were there seven days. I skied six out of the seven days and I loved it. I’ve been going back ever since.”

Adams, who retired from the military and lives in Tampa, Fla., enjoys meeting up with friends he’s made through NBS and sharing their affinity for skiing.

“You meet people, and that networking thing — not on the business aspect, because I’m retired — is just absolutely unbelievable,” Adams said. “To talk about skiing and ski with some people you see once a year, that brotherhood is the essential part of the name of the NBS. It’s a brotherhood.”

As for NBS’s other mission, supporting athletes of color, it currently sponsors two dozen aspiring snow sports athletes including 12-year-old competitive moguls skier Ava “Happy Knees” Keenan, and Tallulah Proulx, a 14-year-old alpine racer who got her start in a small mountain in Iowa and trains now at the Rowmark Ski Academy in Park City, Utah.

“The support of NBS, not only is it financial support, it’s also like a community with a common goal and common passions to diversify the sport and just have fun on the slopes,” Proulx said. “I also want to be a role model for other young Black people who want to pursue snow sports.

“You don’t see a lot of representation of Black people in this sport at the advanced levels like Olympics and World Cup,” she added. “I want to pursue that to spread the dream.”

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