Published Date Written by Tom Eastman
A tribute to Zip
A QUESTION THIS SKI HISTORY enthusiast has been asking himself for the past few years has been, “What could I possibly not have asked Herbert “Zip” Schneider yet?”
I guess I will discover that all too soon, now that the beloved Cranmore skimeister has moved on to those loftier slopes in the sky.
As you all know, Herbert, 92, died in the early morning hours of June 10 at Maine Medical Center after a period of failing health.
In the days since we first published news of Herbert's passing, people have asked what this ski resort town would be like without the contributions of Herbert, his late father Hannes (1890-1955), Cranmore developer Harvey Gibson (1882-1955), early ski school founder Carroll Reed (1905-1995) or late Skimobile inventor George Morton.
Just think of it: this town has had a Hannes or Herbert Schneider for 73 years.
Other than the three years that he served in U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division Ski Troops during World War II, and the parts of recent winters he has spent with sons Hannes, 45, and Christoph, 43, at the family's guest haus in St. Anton, Herbert has been here for all of it.
And we are all the better for it.
In 1988, local graphic designer/friend Lydia Lansing of Bartlett and I were hired to produce a book, “Flight Without Wings: A Celebration of Hannes Schneider and 50 Years of Skiing at Cranmore” in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Schneiders' arrival from Nazi custody back in February 1939.
In the process of researching stories for that now out-of-print book, Herbert never tired of all the numerous pain-in-the-neck calls I made, checking facts and asking new questions every time I called. Often, he'd invite me to stop by the house there on Grove Street that Harvey Gibson had Realtor nephew Wendell Woodbury buy for the Schneiders two weeks prior to their arrival in '39
“When did you and Steve Sherlock start Local Yokel [now Mountain Meisters]?” .
“What is the story about those stainless steel Whirlygigs outside the base of the Skimobile?” [Gibson brought them to Cranmore from the New York World's Fair when he was asked to turn the financially-challenged expo around in 1940. He also brought up the Swiss Orchestra to his Eastern Slope Inn].
“What was Harvey Dow Gibson really like?” [A true gentleman].
“How much money did Gibson pay the Nazis to obtain Hannes Schnedier's release?” [“I don't know: Terms were never revealed.” That one still gets me — how much do you think was paid?]
“Did your father ever think of returning to live in St. Anton as your sister did after the war?” [No. This was home. He went back to visit, and he helped out the 1948 Austrian Olympic team by supplying them with skis, but after what had happened before the war, he could not go back].
“Is it true you were there with friend Toni Matt for the 1939 Inferno, when Toni made his historic schuss of the Tuckerman Ravine headwall?” [See below].
He answered all those questions with patience and grace — and always with his trademark, quiet-spoken gentle humor.
A few years later, the New England Ski Museum started the Hannes Schneider Meister Cup Ski Race in 1997, held as a fund-raiser at Cranmore every March.
Herbert, along with wife Doris, who died in 2009, sons Hannes and Christoph, and Hannes' sons Hannes and Markus, always presided over the festivities with poise, humility and gratitude.
A special highlight was in 2009, when the Conway Scenic Railroad and Cranmore staged a re-enactment on the 70th year anniversary of the family's arrival from Austria.
I got to play Benno Rybizka, the cigarette-smoking, stern Austrian ski instructor who was hired by Carroll Reed to run the American branch of the Hannes Schneider Ski School in Jackson in December 1936.
The ever great-of-stature George Cleveland of the Gibson Center got to play Mr. Gibson. And Herbert? He played his father, and Christoph played Herbert, as we all passed under the ski poles in front of the station, just as it happened on that February moring in 1939 when they passed under the ski arch upon their arrival at 7 a.m. on the train from New York City.
Together, they put North Conway on the skiers' map of North America. And for this ski writer, it was a thrill to get to walk with them.
At the 13th annual Schneider Cup Race at Cranmore two months later, yours truly interviewed Herbert, along with race founder Cal Conniff of the NESM.
Typically, Herbert was humble when yours truly said the event not only honored the contributions to the sport of skiing by his famous father, but also everything Herbert had done for the community
“All I can say is I am very very grateful that the community and the ski museum have take the occasion to honor my father's contributions,” replied Herbert.
When I repeated that we were also honoring him, not just his father, Herbert flashed that smile, truly moved — because he was always so devoid of ego.
Asked what his father would think of the way the community remembers him, Herbert said with typical class, “I don't think he would be surprised but I think he would be very grateful. All I can say is when we got off the train 70 years ago, we never realized how nice a community this was here in the Eastern Slope Region and how well they accepted our family. My father became a native very quickly — first of April he'd be out there fishing with the guys and a wine bottle in the back, just like the old days.”
That interview took place four years after yours truly and ski history-loving and skiing friend Jeff Leich of the New England Ski Museum had stayed with the Schneiders in St. Anton, during a symposium marking the 50th anniversary of the passing of Hannes Schneider.
Herbert and Christoph graciously served as our tour guides, taking us on trips around the Arlberg region, with Christoph even serving as our ski tour guide as we skied over to St. Christoph.
During those tours, in between some salutes involving Austrian pear schnaps shots, white asperagus soup and visits to ski museums, I took hundreds of photos of the Schneiders — and Herbert never complained once.
So, during the 70th anniversary interview in 2009, I took the opportunity to thank Herbert for his patience those years before.
He laughed, and said, “Yeah, one thing about that is for sure, you have improved since then, when it took you an hour to take one picture!”
I told him I wished he could help me ski quicker, too.
We then shifted the focus of the interview to the 70th anniversary the following month in April 2009 of friend Toni Matt's 80 mile per hour schuss of the Tuckerman Ravine headwall in the '39 Inferno.
“Yas, I was there. I have to take credit for it because I was his manager — I carried his sandwich up and his skins back down and packs and all that,” said Herbert. “As we were climbing up the headwall, we talked about it, and I asked what are you going to do, and he said, well he was going to make three parallel christie turns, so off we went. Before the race started, I said 'OK, Toni, I'm going to go up the headwall and see what you're doing.' As I was skiing through the snowfield, all of a sudden Toni comes by me and I said 'Well, what's going on?' He said, 'Oh, the guy ahead of me [American racing sensation and 1934 winner Dick Durrance] wasn't quite ready so they sent me instead.'
“So of course, I never got to see him schuss the headwall, but as he said, 'Well, Herbert, it happened like this: I made my three turns before I got to the headwall, and forgot about it. So I could not do anything but go straight.' ”
He always said he was ”strong, he was young and he couldn't turn,” I reminded Herbert of Toni, who was then 19 when he made his 6.29.2-second run. As for the great Durrance, he finished second.
“He had a pair of legs on him for sure. Remember, we didn't have cars back in St. Anton growing up so we walked everywhere,” said Herbert of his friend, who died in May 1989, just two months after the “Flight Without Wings” celebration and just one month after making his first return to the ravine in 50 years.
That video interview was posted on YouTube, and is now posted on the Conway Daily Sun's Facebook page.
It's all part of our local ski history, and we thank Herbert for his role in helping to keep it alive for the rest of us.
Sons Hannes and Christoph note a Mass of Christian Burial will be held at Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church at 11 a.m. Friday, followed by a private family burial. A public celebration of Herbie's life is set for the Eating House/Zip's Pub at Cranmore Friday from 1:30 to 5 p.m.
Nine active duty soldiers from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y., will be at the funeral and burial service, according to Hannes Schneider.
Hannes Schneider said seven residents from Schneider's former hometown of St. Anton are to attend the funeral at Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church Friday morning and the celebration of Schneider's life Friday at Cranmore Friday afternoon.
Included in the delegation are: the honorable Mayor of St. Anton, Helmut Mall; Florian Werner, director of the St. Anton Tourism Office; Stefan Jochum, vice president of the Ski Club Arlberg, of which Herbert Schneider was named an honorary member in 2010; Martin Jennewein (grandson of the late Pepi Jennewein, Herbert Schneider's best friend in St. Anton while growing up, and a former ski racer who was drafted into the German Luftwaffe and became an ace in the war shooting down 80 Allied planes); Florian Alber, a Schneider family cousin and the current operator of the Sporthaus Schneider in St. Anton; Rosa Maria Nohl, operator of the Sport Cafe Schneider; and longtime Schneider family friend and Schneider guest haus housekeeper Marta Kaufman.
Pony Rice, filling in at the postal office on the summit of Mount Washington, called Thursday as we were putting a wrap on this week's column to say she had sold some international stamps to a couple from Europe Tuesday so they could mail a postcard from the top of New England. When she asked where they were from, they replied, “Austria.”
“So,” said Pony, “I held up that day's Conway Daily Sun, with Herbert on the front page. They exclaimed, 'Skiing!' They knew immediately. So it really is something what those two — Hannes and Herbert — meant to skiing, Austria and the world, let alone this community.”
Amen to that, Pony. Rest in peace, Zip — and “Bend ze knees!”