Brattleboro, VT: Harris Hill Ski Jump
This is what everyone who’d loved Harris Hill remembered: You arrived early. You climbed toward the top, holding onto branches, digging your boots into the snow for leverage. You waited. Suddenly swooping down, as fast as 60 miles per hour, came a skier, and right there in front of you the takeoff–a sound you never forgot, like a flock of wild birds beating their wings–and you watched as the jumper rode a current of air like a human kite, out, out, as far as possible, then dropping into the landing, and you heard the cheers and the clapping. And then it started again with the next jumper. Could you just let those memories go?
No, you couldn’t. So a few people gathered more people, and then a movement to save ski jumping on Harris Hill was underway. The committee called in engineers, but a 90-meter ski jump wasn’t something engineering firms knew much about. Estimates to tear down and rebuild the jump approached a million dollars.
But Rex Bell, a committee member who’d once been not only a ski jumper but a coach of the national team, said, Hold on–we can make this work for half that. They could do it the way Fred Harris had, without bells and whistles, and do it right. The committee called their fundraising effort “Step Up and Soar.” They started making calls, getting the word out. “We couldn’t let it die on our watch,” says Liz Richards.
The town itself gave $30,000 to get things going, and there were donations and a telethon on local cable with all these people remembering what the jump had meant to them. For $1,000 you could have your name or the name of a loved one stenciled on one of the 187 new steps for all to see. By the fall of 2007, the committee had raised $300,000. A lot, but not enough–they needed at least $175,000 more. Pat Howell wrote a press release stating that they’d come up short, and the Associated Press picked it up. There would be no ski jumping again during the town’s 2008 winter carnival, the third year in a row without it.
Who could have known what would happen next?
A trustee of the Manton Foundation, an under-the-radar family foundation in New York with an emphasis on New England, saw the story and was struck by a town wanting to keep its tradition alive. The call came to Pat Howell: The foundation would fund the shortfall. “I called Liz and we both started crying,” Howell remembers.
There wasn’t enough time to get it all done for 2008′s winter carnival, but throughout that spring and summer the work went on. No one had anticipated how the price of materials would go through the roof, though, and there they were at that point again in the fall: so close, yet once more out of money. With the national economy plunging off its own cliff, eight committee members went to the local bank and pledged $10,000 apiece in loans. Then once again the angels at the Manton Foundation called. We want you to succeed, they said. What do you need? When the tears had dried, the Harris Hill Ski Jump committee got back to work.
Which brings us to this sun-splashed February day, one winter ago. It’s noon. A woman stands holding scissors beside a ribbon stretched across the base of Harris Hill. She is Sandy Harris, Fred’s only child. She’s dressed in black ski pants and jacket; her blond hair blows a bit in the wind.
Along the hillside people are packed three deep. Small children sit watching on top of their fathers’ shoulders. You can smell burgers and sausages frying under the tents.
The athletes, lean as gazelles, their faces young and eager, wait attentively for the ribbon cutting. They’ve come from Austria, Slovenia, Colorado, Lake Placid, the Midwest, New England.