Gene Gillis, one of the founding fathers of skiing on Mount Bachelor and a member of the 1948 U.S. Winter Olympic ski team, died on Dec. 9. The 80-year-old ski pioneer was a resident of Dillon, Colo.
Born April 17, 1925, in Bend, Gillis was devoted to sports and recreation throughout his life.
Gillis strapped on his first pair of skis at age 3, according to the book ”Mount Bachelor, Bill Healy's Dream” by Peggy Chessman Lucas. His father, Jere Gillis, was a member and president of Central Oregon's first ski club, the Skyliners, during the early 1930s.
According to Bend High School classmate Denny Sullivan of Bend, ”Gene Gillis was the best football, basketball, track and field, tennis, golf, diver and skier at the school his senior year,” in addition to serving as the high school's student body president.
Gillis went on to play football at the University of Oregon and earned a varsity letter in 1945 before joining the Marines.
Following World War II, Gillis was named to the 1948 U.S. Olympic ski team.
That same year, he married Canadian Olympic team member Rhona Wurtele.
The couple had four children together - Christopher, Nancy, Margie and Jere - before separating in 1960.
Gillis was injured during a training run, which prevented him from competing at the 1948 Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland. But he recovered and raced for a time in Europe.
Gillis devoted much of his early career in Bend to training skiers and developing what would become a ski resort at Mount Bachelor.
From 1954 to 1958, Gillis coached junior skiers in Bend and took his team to Hoodoo Bowl (now Hoodoo Ski Area) for training.
In her account of Mount Bachelor's early days as a ski destination, Lucas writes that Gillis was instrumental in selecting and promoting the mountain (then known as Bachelor Butte) for development as a ski resort. Once the resort opened in 1958, Gillis served as its first ski school instructor. He also operated summer training camps.
According to the Summit Daily News of Frisco, Colo., Gillis went on to help develop other ski areas such as Stratton Mountain Resort in Vermont and Keystone Resort in Colorado, and continued to coach and operate ski training programs.
”Gene was always mixed up with recreation. He was a great athlete and encouraged young people in every direction in sports,” said his former wife, Rhona Wurtele Gillis, from Montreal on Thursday.
She said Gillis also created ski schools in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Whitefish, Mont.
”We were crazy about skiing,” said Wurtele Gillis, ”but Gene sort of lived it. He was a natural coach and teacher.”
Gretchen (Goodrich) Williver of Bend was on the junior ski team that formed in 1954 under Gillis and traveled to Hoodoo to train and race.
”I remember him as being so very positive and encouraging,” said Williver, who at the time was a junior at Bend High School.
According to the Summit Daily News, Gillis was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease later in his life.
In addition to his wife Ina, Gillis is survived by three children and a brother.