Tom Ross: Remembering the legendary Marv Crawford

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Marvin Crawford was a singular figure in American ski racing, and by all accounts a gentleman of unmatched integrity.

He was an Olympian and a member of a world championship team. And Marv was arguably the best college ski racer of all time. Oh yes, and he was the general manager of the Storm Mountain Ski Area (now the Steamboat Ski Area) in its early days -- 1964 through 1967. But all of those accomplishments were relegated to the background Saturday as friends, comrades and family gathered at Howelsen Hill to celebrate his life.

The No. 1 topic on everyone's mind was Marv's reputation as an unrelenting practical joker.

Crawford, who moved to Steamboat Springs with his family at the age of 4 and then retired to Grand Junction in the mid-1980s, died Jan. 10 at the age of 72, a few days after suffering a stroke.

His son, Greg, said Marv's sense of humor was intact at the end of his life.

The night before he suffered his stroke, Marv, his wife, Edie, Greg and his family went out to dinner at a restaurant in Colorado Springs. There was much cheerful bantering at the table, and the hostess, sensing the Crawford party had a fine sense of humor, enlisted Marv's help in what would be his last practical joke. There was a bachelorette party taking place in another part of the restaurant, and the hostess asked Marv if he would consider marching into the next room and introducing himself as the party's stripper.

"Without hesitation, Dad said 'absolutely,'" Greg said. "He walked over to that table, there were some stunned looks, and then everyone was laughing. Up to the very last night, Dad was Dad."

Dad also was one hell of a skier. After growing up skiing on Howelsen Hill, he won an unprecedented double victory in the Junior National Championships, claiming titles in both ski jumping and Alpine.

His versatility continued in college at the University of Denver. Under the tutelage of the great Willy Schaeffler, Marv won more first places than any collegiate skier in the history of the sport -- he jumped and he skied cross country, slalom and downhill. And he was widely recognized as the best "four-way skier" in the United States during the 1950s. He won the Skimeister Award in every collegiate competition he entered between 1952 and 1954, Sureva Towler reported in her book, "the History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs."

Yet, even with all of those great accomplishments, people at his memorial service wanted to re-tell the stories of his constant good-humored trickery.

During a marathon session of the card game crazy eights one night, Marv fooled everyone into thinking he had just blown one of the monumental snot bubbles in recorded history.

Jeff Davis, himself a great Steamboat Ski jumper who finished 17th at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980, fought back sobs as he and Greg Crawford told the story.

"He wasn't happy unless he was making our lives miserable with his practical jokes," Davis said, tears streaming down his cheeks. "One night we were playing crazy eights at this huge table. Marvin was sneezing all night and we were all taken in and saying 'God bless you' and 'Gesundheit.' Finally he sneezed one great big sneeze and when he pulled his hands away from his nose, we were all stunned."

Marv had surreptitiously slipped the threaded end of an old fashioned camera flash bulb in his nostril. When he moved his hands away from his face, his card-playing companions were fooled into thinking they were witnessing a "nose bubble" of monstrous proportions.

"It looked so real," Davis said. "Most of us were laughing so hard, we had to leave the table and go outside."

Of course, there were serious moments during the celebration of Marv's life. Eldest son Rod played guitar and he and his brothers sang the Bob Dylan classic, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Youngest son Gary described his father as a man of high moral character. And Edie recalled him performing at a public music concert in Steamboat.

"He sang 'Tenderly.' It was our song and he sang it simply wonderfully," she said.

However, there were still more practical jokes to share. In a private moment, ski area pioneer Dick Randolph shared one that the late great Gordy Wren was fond of telling.

During his years as ski area manager, the Christie chair lift was the primary ski lift at Storm Mountain. There was no maze at the lift line in those days -- everyone was on the honor system. But Marv was becoming irritated with a handful of skiers who habitually cut in front of others.

Marv thought up a way to explain lift line etiquette in dramatic fashion.

He enlisted an acquaintance to get into the line and begin rudely cutting other people off. The man was wearing an old pair of wooden skis. Marv walked out of the lift shack with an axe over his shoulder and proceeded to read the riot act to his accomplice. Then, in front of a stunned crowd of skiers, Marv chopped the man's skis in half while they were still strapped to his boots. Point taken, Marv.

There were more great skiers and great ski coaches at Marv Crawford's memorial than I can do justice to in this column -- old timers like Crosby Perry-Smith, who served combat duty with the Tenth Mountain Division in Italy during World War II and came home to win the Merrill Trophy for the longest standing jump at Howelsen Hill in 1946. He recalled the time in 1950 when Marv attempted to play a practical joke while they were working construction. Marv meant to swing a concrete agitator harmlessly past Crosby's left ear, and missed by a few inches.

"I woke up five minutes later and Marv asked me, 'Did I hurt you?'"

At the conclusion of the celebration of Marv's life, his sons whipped out squirt guns and sprayed down the gathered mourners (their Dad would have insisted). Then, Rod and Gary stepped into their skis (Greg is recovering from an illness) and they carried an urn containing some of Marv's ashes to the top of the ski jump landing hill. Holding hands, they pointed their skis down the steep slope, and scattered the ashes.

I guess Marv Crawford will be up there on Howelsen Hill for as long as Steamboat youngsters summon their courage and take their first ride on the big hill. And that's fitting.

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