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Karl Lindholm: Living in John Bower's House

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Posted on July 6, 2017 |
By Karl Lindholm



Karl Lindholm col John Bower.jpg

John Bower, generally acknowledged as the greatest American Nordic skier, died on June 6 at age 76. He attended Middlebury College from 1959-63 and coached skiing at Middlebury from 1967-75. When Middlebury decided to honor its athletes with a Hall of Fame, Bower was inducted in the very first class of five alumni in 2013. We reprise today a column about John from 2002 that celebrates his remarkable career in skiing and my serendipitous connection to him. KL

* * * * *

I live in John Bower’s house.

Actually, I live in the house John Bower built in Cornwall in 1971 when he was the ski coach at Middlebury College. I’m thrilled by this association as it connects me to my first hometown, Lewiston, Maine, and my adoptive hometown, Middlebury, through the College here, which we both attended, then made our place of work.

John, however, split for the West, in 1975, and has lived there, more or less, ever since. Me, I get more Yankee-encrusted every day. I believe John Bower’s house will be my last.

I don’t know John Bower personally, and I don’t ski. Well, I skied at one time. Literally, one time. I took a lesson from Gail Jette once at the Snow Bowl and skied the whole afternoon on the Lang Trail. I didn’t kill myself, and wondered why anyone would ever want to do it again.

On the other hand, John Bower was a truly great skier, an NCAA Champion (twice), an Olympian (twice), a world-class competitor throughout the 1960s.

In 1968, at age 27, in his last event before retirement, John Bower won the prestigious King’s Cup at Holmenkollen, Norway. This achievement, along with Bill Koch’s silver medal in the ’76 Olympics, are “the two most impressive results in U.S. Nordic ski history,” according to Middlebury Ski Coach, Terry Aldrich.

“That Holmenkollen win was very significant,” Aldrich says. “No American ever did it before him and no one has done it since. It’s still the premier Nordic combined; it gets the best Nordic combined skiers in the world. (The Nordic combined “combines” ski jumping and cross-country racing.)

That win climaxed an extraordinary 1968 season in which Bower won the national Nordic combined championship (his fourth), was the highest American finisher in that event in the Grenoble Olympics (a “disappointing” 13th), then swept through the Scandinavian festivals, finishing second in Sweden, sixth in Finland, and winning in Norway, defeating the Olympic champion.

To win the Holmenkollen, he shocked the Scandinavians with a first in the 15 kilometer race and then came in fourth in the 70 meter jump, with a long jump of 266 feet, before 100,000 spectators. In the 70 years of competition through 1968, Bower was only the ninth non-Norwegian to win.

Holmenkollen also earned him a “shower of national publicity and honors,” according to the Middlebury Newsletter, including an invitation from President Lyndon Johnson to the White House to visit with the King of Norway who had presented Bower his Cup earlier in the year at Holmenkollen.

Bower started skiing at two, won his first Blue Ribbon for jumping at the Auburn Winter Carnival at nine, and skied the head wall at Tuckerman’s Ravine (Mt. Washington) at age ten. In high school, he won all four events, Alpine as well as Nordic, one year in the Eastern Scholastic Championship. I knew John Bower as a famous high school athlete at Edward Little High in Auburn, Maine, just across the river from Lewiston, where I lived.

I used to go watch the ski jumping at Pettingill Park, smack in the middle of Auburn. Built in a natural amphitheater, it featured a ski jump with an 80-foot tower — right next to the best baseball field in the state (lots of seats — and lights!) in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Bower spent plenty of time there: he was also a good baseball player and played that game at Middlebury too.

At Middlebury, from 1959 to 1963, he was “an amazing skier,” according to Howard Kelton, who recently retired as Manager of the Snow Bowl, “the best four event skier we ever had.” Bower was the perennial “skimeister” at Carnivals, the award given to the top finisher in all four events. “He was a good Alpine skier too,” confirms Kelton.

After serving his time in the Army, completing an Infantry Officers Basic Course at Fort Benning, he returned to Middlebury to coach in 1967 and spent eight years on the Athletic Department staff, seven as the head ski coach.

In 1975, he left Middlebury to become the Nordic Director of the U.S. Ski Team, a position he held for three more Olympic appearances, in 1976 (the year of Bill Koch’s triumph), 1980, and 1992. He also was responsible for the design and construction of the ski jumps used in this year’s Olympics. What a career!

As great a skier as he was, his Middlebury friends affirm that he’s a better person. “Nobody has ever said a bad word about John,” says Terry Aldrich. “He was a teacher on and off the hill.” Howard Kelton agrees. “His record was so impressive that he was like a god to his skiers,” Howard recalls, “yet he cared about them as individuals. He’s as fair a person as you’ll ever see in your life. He never wanted to be in the limelight.”

Two years ago, John and his wife, Bonnie (who was the women’s ski coach at Middlebury when John coached the men) sold their home in Park City, Utah, left the ski world, bought a large motor home, and hit the road. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, their lifestyle has allowed them extended stays in the Canadian Rockies and Sedona, Arizona. They have spent weeks doing volunteer work in St. Louis and at a boys’ camp in Maine, practicing their strong religious values.

My hope is that their travels bring them back to Vermont someday soon. I’d like them to park that big rig outside the house they built in Vermont, and come inside for a visit with a guy from Lewiston and his family.

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