Ski historian and Alf Engen Ski Museum chairman Tom Kelly gives glimpse into museum’s future
Last fall, the Alf Engen Ski Museum board elected Tom Kelly as its new chairman. It was a significant moment for the museum, as officials had been trying to appoint Kelly for almost five years. Even with Park City’s rich ties to skiing history, Kelly stands out as a chronicler of the sport. He worked for years as the president of U.S. Ski and Snowboard, and the chairman of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum in Ishpeming, Michigan.
“Tom Kelly was selected for this role because of his incredible knowledge of ski history and his incredible knowledge of all the people in the industry and his leadership qualities,” said Connie Nelson, executive director of the Alf Engen Museum. “We’ve been asking him for years to please be the chairman because he is just so connected.”
After deciding to diminish his roles at U.S. Ski and Snowboard and his Ishpeming appointment, he at last accepted the chairmanship, which was announced at the Intermountain Ski Hall of Fame induction ceremony last fall.
According to Nelson, Kelly’s guidance will be invaluable in coming years as the museum updates and renovates several major exhibits. Kelly recently took some time from his hectic pre-Olympic schedule to walk through the museum, which is located at the Utah Olympic Park, and discuss what he, Nelson, and the board have in store in the years to come, as well as his fascination with ski history.
The 66-year-old Madison, Wisconsin, native arrived wearing a blue and white knit sweater adorned with a small Deer Valley Resort pin, and his signature hat. He began the tour by backing up, and starting at the beginning: The Ecker Hill exhibit.
The room serves as a primer for local history. Ecker Hill, now dubbed lower Pinebrook, once boasted a large ski jump where Alf Engen achieved a world record jump.
“He’s really the iconic godfather of skiing in Utah,” said Kelly, who also writes a winter sports column for The Park Record. “Alf, as the ski school director (at Alta) was really the pivotal person — similar to Stein Eriksen and his role at Deer Valley. That’s why this room is so important. You have these two legends, you have Joe Quinney who started Alta and Alf Engen who helped popularize it.”
Kelly had the pleasure of meeting Engen after Kelly moved to Park City in 1988. In the years that followed, Kelly said he watched the museum’s progress closely and attended the dedication ceremonies. Kelly was also good friends with Randy Montgomery, who was one of the early directors of the museum. Since then, Kelly said he has been to his fair share of ski museums, but he said the Alf Engen is one of the more notable.
“It’s a couple things,” he said as he made his way to the next exhibit. “One, they are evolving the displays, but they also have the traffic. There’s over 400,000 people that will come through the museum each year because of its location here at the Utah Olympic Park.”
He said the newly installed snow exhibit was a perfect example. Rounding the corner, the next room was filled with blue light emanating from a large screen showing snowfall rates at resorts across Utah. By turning the knobs below the screen, visitors could cycle through Utah’s 14 resorts and pull up a representation of last year’s snowfall. Once selected, the snow fills the screen to show the actual height of peak snowfall at the resort last season, meaning the snow usually comes up head-high on the wall for grown ups, and was well above the group of fourth-graders that was visiting that day. It was installed over the summer but has yet to be formally unveiled.
“I think too, as we watch the kids here with the snow exhibit, they can get in there and experience something. It’s not snowing in here but it feels like it is,” Kelly said. “You can see how interactive it is with the kids. They are able to control things, they are able to learn things.”
After the group left, Kelly walked into the next room and peered into a trophy case full of skiing trophies — pewter-silver chalices and pendants reminiscent of war medals, each inscribed with Engen’s name.
“This trophy case is really emblematic of the sport,” Kelly said. “We’re a sport that has roots in a number of different places, but most everyone looks at Norway as the roots of the sport. There was an ancient stone that was found in Norway. … It dates back thousands of years, but it’s the earliest indication anywhere in the world of people with these wooden slats on their feet and skiing.”
Looking over the display, Kelly said the trophies evoked consistency and Norwegian tradition, just like Eriksen’s display at Deer Valley.
“Stein and a whole bunch of the central-European ski racers of the time came and spent a winter in Sun Valley (Idaho, in 1953), and I kind of call them the Rat Pack of skiers; these young, good-looking guys from Europe came over to discover America, and you can only imagine what a great time they probably had that winter in Sun Valley. Then they went back in 1954.”
He pointed down at Eriksen’s race bibs in the next exhibit.
“Stein won three gold medals in the World Championships in Sweden that year. And there’s only a handful of people who have won three gold medals in an Olympics or World Championships,” he said. “Stein is one of them, and Ted Ligety is another. So Stein and Alf were part of this wave of Norwegians to America who found success and really brought the sport of skiing to the United States.”
Kelly turned around to face the room behind him, which had a large exhibit on a table and an avalanche education area. He said one of the museum’s goals is to update the entire room, which is the only room downstairs that hasn’t been renovated since the museum opened in 2002.
“We have some very, very, significant plans for this room that we will put forward for the next two to three years,” he said. “It will be a pretty large fundraising effort, maybe upwards of a million dollars. But the plans in here are fantastic too — to give people more of an interactive experience and to modernize the displays, particularly Stein Eriksen’s and Alf Engen’s displays.”
He said the museum plans on renovating the exhibit over the next three to five years.
After stopping by the hometown heroes exhibit — which will be updated after the Olympics, but currently displays the clothes and gear of Steve Holcomb, Joss Christensen, Ted Ligety and Sage Kotsenburg — he started walking toward the stairs to the George Eccles 2002 Olympic Winter Games museum.
Being a Wisconsin native, Kelly said he visited the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame last year and drew inspiration from how it handled stairways. As he walked upstairs, he explained that he wanted to make the area more inviting, wanted the stairway to draw people up to the second floor.
“Any time there’s two floors, it’s hard to get people to move up, and they’ve done a really great job of making their stairways inviting,” he said of the Packers Hall of Fame. “The same thing with The Olympic Museum (in Switzerland) — spiral staircase where you look up there and say, ‘Hey, I want to go up there.’”
He perused the medals on display, stopped by Shannon Barhke’s outfit replete with sparkling silver belt — the same color as the medal she took in freestyle skiing in 2002 — and he reflected on the quality of the displays.
“It’s another area we would like to refresh a little bit,” he said. “It still really stands the test of time. There’s good memories, photographs of the medalist and some explanatory things like different sized skis — you have some Rossignol jump skis and some K2 freestyle skis, so you can see the difference.”
A couple days after his stroll around the museum, Kelly would leave for Pyeongchang, South Korea, for his 10th Olympics, which he said is momentous for him, even if it cuts into his skiing time.
He said it’s also kept him from spending time at the museum recently, though it’s in no dire circumstances.
“I’m fortunate to come into an organization that is stable, that has an amazing museum, so I can put my work more into a vision to make it even better as opposed to sometimes when you head an organization you have to pull it up from its bootstraps and stabilize it,” he said. “It’s exciting for me to come in and be a part of a vision that is going to shape it for the future.”
Kelly said that, once he reached Pyeongchang, he would work 18 to 20 hours a day for the duration of the Winter Games, so the museum tour was a calm before the storm.
“You’re kind of on this adrenaline rush the entire time, so coming off of it is really difficult because you come back after an event like that and there’s a big let-down,” he said.
Which is why it will be good for him to have something big to come back to, whether it’s the museum or speaking gigs.
“I will come back to Park City the 26th of February and things will be back to normal,” he said, “Hopefully with a lot of medals.”
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