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Willoughby: Lowell Thomas advocated skiing and received Medal of Freedom

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Guidelines to bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom offer broad qualifications to lead presidents through their choices. Only three radio broadcasters have received the honor. President Donald Trump honored Rush Limbaugh, the father of hate radio. George W. Bush awarded Paul Harvey, well-remembered by his tagline, “and now you know the rest of the story.” And Gerald Ford conferred the award on Lowell Thomas (1892-1981).

Although he worked as a broadcast personality and wrote 50 books, Thomas might not endure as a household name these days. But many recognize his connection to skiing and Aspen.

Thomas, a world traveler, began his career during World War I with exclusive film and interviews of T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. He gave lectures, and his book about Lawrence sold 500,000 copies.

His broadcasts, begun during in the golden age of radio in the 1930s, charmed listeners with stories of exotic places. He also talked about a new sport that had caught on: skiing. The sport attracted the attention of Hollywood stars, he reported, who visited the first major ski resort, Sun Valley. Listeners found Lowell’s skill as a pilot as exotic as skiing, more so when he flew and landed planes on skis, rather than wheels.

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Thomas’s radio career coincided with the development of national broadcasting. His 46 years on radio included stints on CBS and NBC. He could draw from a large audience during the 1930s, when 28 million Americans listened to radio. Adding to his market, his 15-minute broadcast preceded “Amos and Andy,” America’s most popular show. His cheerful delivery started with “Good evening everybody.” He avoided potentially offensive stories and those that might put his audience in a negative mood. Along with many modern newscasters, Eric Sevareid revered Thomas and said, “As a journalist he was a story teller, a kind of wandering minstrel in prose.”

My family revered Thomas as a champion of skiing. John Herron, my uncle, knew him as a University of Denver classmate. Longtime Aspen High School secretary Maude Twining, one of Herron’s close friends, attended high school with Thomas in Victor. Victor had adjoined Cripple Creek, at the time a prospering gold-mining town.

Highland Bavarian Partners Billy Fiske, Ted Ryan and Tom Flynn had selected Ashcroft as the site to build a ski area. Financing loomed as their last hurdle. The Depression almost snuffed that dream for skiing, an unknown industry. However, the Roosevelt administration, through the Forest Service, promoted skiing as a potential job generator, and provided funding for loans. The partners lobbied the Colorado legislature to step up as the entity through which a loan could be made. The Depression project loan would match state and federal money.

Herron, as president of the Aspen Chamber of Commerce, and Tom Flynn asked Thomas to speak at their presentation to the legislature. Thomas’s stature as a nationally known broadcaster would help their cause. Even more valuable, Thomas could explain firsthand, through his travels and experience, why skiing would take off as an industry. With this authority, Thomas recommended Colorado as a great place for skiing to take hold in America.

The legislature approved the loan. But America entered World War II, and that project ended.

In 1942, during the war, Thomas traveled to Aspen to ski. He pronounced his runs down Little Annie Basin and Roch Run the best he had skied.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, Thomas broadcast a few shows from Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. He extolled skiing — and Aspen — to his large audience. This free advertising boosted Aspen’s position on skiing’s national and world stage. I wonder whether Ford considered those broadcasts, which benefited our economy, when he awarded Thomas the Medal of Freedom.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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