Tom Ross: Paul Thayer made his mark

Fighter ace brought ski area into modern era

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

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— Paul Thayer had the drive and vision 40 years ago to propel Steamboat Ski Area into the modern era. But it’s understandable that many current residents of Routt County know little about him.

In fact, you might not recognize Steamboat Springs today had Thayer not arrived on the scene when the ski area was desperate for millions of dollars of working capital.

“Who knows where we’d be today if he hadn’t stepped up to the plate and done those things,” longtime friend Jim “Moose” Barrows said recently. “All these people in Steamboat have no idea what he did for them.”

Thayer was a decorated World War II fighter ace who remained in aviation after the war, first as a transport pilot for Trans World Airlines and then as a test pilot who challenged the sound barrier.

However, it was his transition to the corporate office suite that would unalterably change Steamboat’s course as a resort town.

Steamboat Ski Area had its pioneers — Jim Temple, Gordy Wren and John Fetcher among them. But it was Thayer, as CEO of the Texas aerospace company Ling Temco Vaught, overseeing its subsidiary,

LTV-RDI (Ling Temco Vaught/Recreation Development Inc.) who acted swiftly in 1970 and 1971 to bring Steamboat its first gondola, the first resort hotel at the ski base and a designer 18-hole golf course.

Thayer died May 6 in Dallas at the age of 90.

He was born in 1919 in Henryetta, Okla., and went on to study petroleum engineering at the University of Kansas. In 1941 he enlisted in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program, and was on his way to the Pacific Theater where he had six confirmed kills of Japanese planes and was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses, according to his obituary published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Thayer worked his way up from test pilot to executive at LTV, but the company was on the verge of bankruptcy when he was named CEO.

Thayer had influenced the company’s purchase of the ski area in 1969 for $4 million, which included $500,000 in cash and stock options, according to Sureva Towler’s book, “The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs.”

“The ski area was in a precarious situation at that time,” Barrows said.

Fortunately for Steamboat, Thayer’s attention was not distracted by his aerospace company’s difficulties. Even as he pulled off a dramatic turnaround at LTV, he financed the $2.5 million Bell gondola. The Steamboat Village Inn and the new golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones were part of a $6 million capital campaign in 1971.

Thayer brought in fellow test pilots John “Mac” McGuyrt and Glen Paulk to run the business in Steamboat. Among his strokes of genius, Barrows said, were signing Billy Kidd fresh from his World Championship medal to represent Steamboat, and pro golfer Tom Watson, about a month before he won the British Open, to make the Steamboat Village Country Club (now Rollingstone Golf Course) Watson’s signature course.

Thayer lined up Wilson Foods and the old Frontier Airlines to help sponsor World Pro Skiing Races here, but he loved golf even more than skiing.

He recruited Barrows to start an annual golf tournament and insisted that it benefit a local nonprofit organization, which turned out to be the scholarship fund of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. Olympic ski racer Hank Kashiwa was recruited to lend his name and his culinary skills (he hosted large salmon bakes for the guests) to the event, which became known as the Thayer/Kashiwa Golf Tournament.

Thayer had the influence to make sure the tournament was studded with NFL names like quarterback Dan Pastorini, Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, Super Bowl MVP Jake Scott, Broncos quarterback Craig Morton and Ray Scott, the voice of the Green Bay Packers’ glory years. Actor James Garner (Maverick) also was a frequent participant.

A dark cloud came over Thayer’s life about a year after President Ronald Reagan appointed him deputy secretary of defense in 1982. He served a prison sentence after being implicated in an insider trading scandal. Media outlets reported this spring that Thayer pleaded guilty to insider trading, but Barrows said that was not the case. His good friend pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice to avoid a trial and protected other people by doing so, Barrows said.

His legal troubles aside, Thayer’s role in transforming the fledgling Steamboat Ski Area is undeniable. And by anyone’s measure, he was larger than life.

While in prison, Thayer established a program for educating the children of inmates with jobs in the aviation industry.

“He led an incredible life,” Barrows said. “If there was adventure or adrenaline involved, count him in. He was 74 when he and two other pilots flew a Learjet around the world in record time.”

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