Paying tribute to 'Skeeter'

Steamboat says goodbye to one of its best-loved residents

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— It figures Gladys "Skeeter" Werner Walker had plenty of suitors during her single years she was an astute businesswoman with movie-star looks. And then there was that not insignificant quality Olympic skiing fame. Ultimately, it took a football legend, Doak Walker, to sweep a Steamboat skiing legend off her feet. Together they drafted a chapter in Steamboat history, entertaining visiting greats from the sporting world in their unpretentious home and setting the tone for the community's friendly image.

Skeeter Werner Walker died July 20, 2001, after a long illness, at the care center named after her husband. She was 67. Skeeter passed away 34 months after Doak, the 1948 Heisman Trophy winner from Southern Methodist University, died of complications from paralysis that resulted from a skiing accident.

Skeeter, born in Steamboat and raised on Howelsen Hill, was among the top American women skiers in the mid-1950s. As a junior competitor, she won national titles in both downhill and slalom in 1948 and combined championships in 1949 and 1950. In an era of wooden skis, bamboo slalom gates and lace-up boots, Skeeter quickly rose through the ranks and became the youngest member of the American women's team at the alpine world championships in Are, Sweden, in 1954. She had been named an alternate to the Winter Olympic team in Oslo in 1952 but could not afford to accompany the team.

Skeeter took her shot at Olympic fame at Cortina, Italy, in 1956 and placed 10th in downhill the best finish of all the Americans. She retired from international competition in 1958 and pursued a career in fashion and sportswear in New York before coming home to Steamboat for good in 1962.

Skeeter's brother Loris "Bugs" Werner recalls that when Doak Walker swept into his sister's life in 1969, things began to happen fast.

"Skeeter had lots of suitors, they just couldn't keep up with her," Loris said.

The couple had seen each other only two or three times, and Doak had never met Skeeter's parents, Hazie and Pops, when they eloped to Las Vegas and said their wedding vows in May 1969.

"I don't think they'd had any formal dates," Loris said. "They met when Colorado Ski Country held a contest called 'Learn to Ski with Skeeter' and Doak was a (celebrity) winner."

Walker traveled to Steamboat to take skiing lessons from Skeeter on Storm Mountain, later to be named Mount Werner.

Loris Werner's first impression of the great Detroit Lion running back and his future brother-in-law?

"He was a good football player, but a worthless skier," Loris laughed.

As Loris remembers it, Doak returned the following weekend with some of his buddies on the pretense that he was infatuated with skiing.

Skeeter and Doak continued to hit it off, but two weeks later Skeeter headed to Phoenix to visit a boyfriend. The unnamed gent was about to lose out. Doak just happened to be playing in a golf tournament in Phoenix that weekend and the two wound up socializing at the home of a mutual friend. That friend just happened to be a private pilot, and before the weekend was out, they had talked each other into eloping to Las Vegas.

As the story goes, Skeeter said, "Let's get married." Doak shot back, "When?" and Skeeter replied, "How about tonight?"

Loris learned of their marriage in a midnight phone call.

"I was really happy because I'd finally gotten rid of my old-maid sister," Loris cracked.

From ski racing

to New York fashion

Skeeter's international reputation was enhanced in 1955 when her photograph appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Her brother Buddy, also an Olympic skier, landed an SI cover that same year. And prophetically, her future husband was also featured on the magazine's cover that year.

After retiring from ski racing, she went to New York to model and work in the fashion industry. Ski historian Sureva Towler reported in her definitive book, "The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs," that Skeeter appeared in television commercials for women's razors manufacturer Gillette. Skeeter shared a Manhattan apartment with "Tonight Show" bandleader Skitch Henderson and his wife.

She came back to Steamboat in 1962 and opened the first of two Storm Hut ski shops with brothers Loris and Buddy and sister-in-law Vanda (Buddy's wife). Buddy died in a Swiss avalanche in 1964.

Loris observed his sister could be as tough a competitor in business as she was in skiing.

"I was considered a silent partner, and I liked it that way," Loris said. "Skeeter could be tough on the phone. She wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. If she wanted something, she would work it until she got there."

No one ever needed an appointment to have a chat with Skeeter Werner Walker. You just dropped in on the former Olympic skier and member of Steamboat's first family of skiing.

"You could just poke your head in the kitchen door and shout 'Skeeter' and she'd answer," Jane Garrison said.

Longtime friends of the family know that Skeeter learned to welcome the world into her home from her mother. Loris said all of the Werner kids had humility instilled in them by both their mother and father, Edward "Pops" Werner.

Garrison, who owns Snow Bowl, knew Skeeter from the Wednesday afternoon bowling league, where Skeeter was as intent on perfecting her skills as she was on perfecting her slalom style decades earlier.

Chris Gotchey recalls Skeeter had become tiny in physical stature in middle age, and her bowling teammates couldn't understand how she rolled so many strikes while sending her bowling ball down the lane at a snail's pace.

Skeeter had an ornery, teasing side and loved to point her long index finger at friends, then cover her giggle with one hand after misbehaving, Gotchey said. One day, at the bowling alley, Skeeter probably deserved the wisecrack brother Loris launched in her direction.

"Skeets," Loris quipped. "You might consider attaching lunch to that bowling ball so it has something to do on the way to the pins."

Skeeter pointed that finger at Loris and fixed him with a glare, then giggled.

Gotchey said there was no mischief in mind when Skeeter quietly did things to help local youngsters succeed in life whether she discreetly arranged for them to acquire ski equipment from her shop or offered them unflagging words of encouragement.

In recent weeks, Skeeter wasn't up to seeing many visitors, but she always perked up when a youngster came to the care center to see her, and easily 100 young people made the trip, Gotchey said.

Barb Shipley said she was almost as close to Skeeter as she was to her immediate family members they shared their most personal feelings.

"It was a relationship of life," Shipley said. They were also mutually demanding of one another.

"She had that Werner tenacity and that Werner mental toughness," Shipley recalled fondly. "It was her greatest asset and it was a part of her that was her greatest weakness. I wanted her to be easier on herself. I wanted her to give herself a break."

Skeeter had to overcome many physical setbacks and it was her nature to keep quiet about pain and suffering, Loris agreed.

In the mid-1980s, she suffered severe injuries a broken femur, pelvis and knee when a horse reared and fell over backward on her. At the time, she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

"It probably would have killed anybody else," Loris said.

Skeeter also suffered a badly broken femur while skiing in 1987. But she carried on, and she was always herself.

Skeeter made certain with her choice of a musical selection that people will leave her funeral services today smiling through the tears. Greg Scott is expected to perform a song written by the wife of the famous songwriter Roger Miller. It was Miller who wrote and sang a country standard, "King of the Road." Miller's wife penned a takeoff on that song, "Queen of the House."

Skeeter loved the song, and true to her wish, it will be one of the last memories her family, friends and acquaintances will share of her.

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