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Powder Days

David Lucy

As a competitive collegiate skier, David Lucy says he had two speeds: stopped and as fast as he could go. Photo: Justin Edmonds

Ask DU alumnus David Lucy (BS ’61) what it was like being the only black varsity skier in America and you get a stare as if he didn’t understand the question.

Weren’t you a trailblazer of the 1950s? you ask. A high-altitude Jackie Robinson fighting uphill for a place in the downhill?

Same stare. You trot out data from the National Ski Areas Association showing that as recently as 2009–10 only 1.4 percent of skiers and snowboarders were black and 89 percent were white.

1959 was ages ago, you say, before the March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Weren’t you a role model, a groundbreaker, a pioneer among Pioneers?

Lucy looks you straight in the eyes. “I’m not significant,” he says firmly. “I’m just a fact.” A kid from New Hampshire who loved to ski, competed for DU, earned a business degree, married his sweetheart, raised two kids, worked hard, played harder and retired in 2001. That’s it, Lucy emphasizes. “Just a fact.”

At that he breaks into a wide smile and redirects the conversation to skiing. “I had two speeds: stopped, and as fast as I could go.”

Light dances from his 73-year-old eyes like sunshine on spring snow. “It was a competitive thing,” he gushes. “I just wanted to go fast. Others were right behind me.”

Lucy grins, kicking up wrinkles where hair used to be, stretching his 6-foot-1-inch athletic frame still lean from trips to the gym. “I did downhill and slalom and specialty events like the 55-meter ski jump. Set a record at 103 feet. But I was never mistreated. Name-calling in grade school but not after that.”

No mistreatment in high school in North Conway, N.H., and not when he was practicing and competing for DU on the ski slopes of Aspen, Steamboat and Winter Park. He pauses to think. Only one bad experience, Lucy says. When he and his Hawaiian/Filipino wife, Sylvia—married 50 years now—were looking for an apartment near DU. The landlord’s explanation of why she wouldn’t rent them an apartment on Race Street was pretty much about race.

But that was decades ago. Lucy doesn’t dwell on the unfairness any more than he does his singularity on the ski slopes. He was just a fact, he repeats; silent scenery on the train ride from where America was to where it is today. If he was a trailblazer, it’s for others to say.

A tolerant campus

One of those “others” is Associate Professor Tom Romero II (BA history and public affairs ’95), a lawyer with a doctorate in history who teaches at DU’s Sturm College of Law. Romero is researching law and race relations in Denver after World War II. Ask him for a racial profile of Denver in the late 1950s and he can tick off a list of tensions: segregated swimming at Washington Park; real estate agents and mortgage lenders who denied loans and steered minorities away from tony neighborhoods like University Park, Crestmoor and Bonnie Brae, where race-restricted covenants continued despite being outlawed by the courts; and public school attendance boundaries so jiggered to disadvantage minorities that twice in the late ’50s, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. showed up in Denver to help fight the unfairness.

Racial tension in Denver wasn’t as tinder-dry as it was in Detroit and Los Angeles, Romero says, but it was absolutely present. “There weren’t signs or laws that said ‘No Blacks Allowed’ or ‘No Mexicans Allowed.’ What was going on was a lot more implicit.”

At the University of Denver, Romero points out, attitudes were “pretty progressive.” In part this was because DU’s research mission focused on the community, where faculty was very active, particularly through the school of social work. It wasn’t unusual for firebrand leaders in the city’s Chicano and African-American movements to take courses at DU or enter as full-time students. The result, Romero believes, was a remarkably tolerant campus.

“I think it would be very easy to come to a university, focus on your studies and your athletics, and move pretty seamlessly without having racial restrictions thrown in your face.”

The Department of Education didn’t require universities to count minority enrollments until 1980, so the number of black students on campus in 1959–60 is not clear. Photos of graduates in the 1960 Kynewisbok yearbook show six black graduates among 411 pictured. Sports team photos in the same yearbook show seven black athletes on the football team, three in track, one in skiing, one in basketball and none in hockey, baseball, tennis, wrestling, gymnastics or swimming.

The black skier in the team photo is Lucy, and the basketball player is Jim Peay (BS transportation ’60), a first-team all-Skyline Conference standout from 1958–60 who ranks sixth at DU all-time in rebounding and 22nd in scoring with 1,086 points.

Today, minorities at DU are 16 percent of the student body, not counting international students. Black students are about 3.7 percent of DU’s 11,842 total enrollment. With that growth in numbers has come growth in racial consciousness. Situations are addressed swiftly.

“I was on the elevator and someone said a racial slur to me,” recalls DU senior Brianna Culberson, a star women’s basketball player from Jefferson City, Mo. “I brought it to my floor person, and she helped get it brought to attention. He had to come to me and give me an apology and talk about the situation. It made me feel good that there were people around me who were on my side.”

Culberson says that was her only negative experience in four years at DU, a situation she believes is consistent with what other DU student-athletes tell her. She would prefer there were more black students in her classes, she notes, but she loves being a DU student and the demanding tasks of studying and playing sports.

Diversity on the slopes

In David Lucy’s day, demands on athletes were also intense, though quite different. There was no state-of-the-art strength and conditioning complex nor guiding advice from exercise professionals. In the late ’50s, skiers got in shape by running up and down the steps of DU’s football stadium, carrying other team members on their backs.

Back then, skis were like boards, bindings were primitive by today’s standards, garments weren’t as aerodynamic and boots were laced so tight you had to feel with your hand every so often to make sure your feet weren’t getting frostbitten. Then, too, skiing was not the leisure activity it is today, with high-tech, weather-protected lifts and warming areas. In Lucy’s day there were J-bars and T-bars and rope tows, and if you couldn’t hang on and keep your balance, you might take a tumble.

“It took strength in those days just to get up the mountain,” he recalls.

And it took athletic talent to get down again, especially if you wanted to post times faster than the next guy and make the DU ski team, which won national titles from 1954–57 and has 21 NCAA skiing championships in its history. In 1960, one of the years Lucy skied for the Pioneers, the University of Colorado edged DU for the national title 571.4 to 568.6.

“The judges looked at the point totals about four times,” Lucy recalls. “The guy who made the difference was someone I had competed against in high school.”

The following year, DU’s ski stars returned from their 1960 Olympics commitments and that ratcheted up the level of team competition. The result was the first of seven straight national championships for DU. But they were earned without Lucy, who was unable to dislodge the Olympians and make the team. “It was a long ride back from Aspen,” he says, the memory still stinging five decades later.

Rather than dwell on it, he focused on graduating, getting a job, raising two children, building a career at Johns Manville and other companies, running youth ski programs at Winter Park in the ’70s and working for the organizing committee that tried to bring the 1976 Winter Olympics to Denver.

Lucy was in charge of facilities, hammering out deals to accommodate visitors, reporters and the Olympians, whom DU had agreed to house. The arrangements fell apart in 1972 when Colorado voters rejected a bond issue to pay for the games, forcing Denver to officially withdraw as host.

“That was very disappointing,” Lucy says. He’s still bitter at what he views as the state’s shortsightedness. But he accepted the decision and moved on, quenching his disappointment on the ski slope and in the cockpits of Lolas, Ferraris and Indy-style cars, which he raced until injuries from a crash persuaded him to stop.

Today, Lucy enjoys retirement, tools about in his supercharged Mini Cooper, continues to ski and marvels at how few African-Americans are involved in the sport. According to 2009–10 NCAA data, the only intercollegiate sports with a lower percentage of black male participants are archery, badminton, bowling, equestrian, rugby, sailing, squash and team handball. Every other sport exceeds skiing, including water polo and riflery.

Results for black women athletes are similar, although the percentage of participants in skiing is equivalent to ice hockey and equestrian.

Lucy blames the low totals on lack of proximity to ski areas and high cost. He believes secondary schools could correct that by connecting kids to skiing the way European schools do. If they don’t, ball sports will continue to dominate.

Historian Annie Gilbert Coleman, in her 1996 paper “The Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing,” adds an additional factor — persistent advertising images that make skiing appear as “a potentially alienating experience” for minorities.

That hasn’t deterred the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), an advocacy group of black skiers with 84 clubs nationwide, including the Slippers-N-Sliders in Denver. The Denver club was a founding member of NBS in 1973, says club historian Charles Smith, 69. Smith has been skiing in Colorado since the early 1960s and teaches intermediate and advanced skiers at Loveland Ski Area. He says he’s heard stories of discrimination from others but never experienced any himself.

“Skiing is different,” Smith says. “When you deal with the elements and Mother Nature it calms everybody down.” Ski students who give “objectionable looks and reactions” when they find out Smith is the instructor “get over it right away” when they realize he’s in charge of their safety and is working hard to ensure it.

He agrees with Lucy that cost is the killer. “It’s not because we’ve been denied access,” Smith says.

Ski industry representatives say ethnic and racial minority groups are an important potential growth segment and point to Spanish-language ads that have increased the number of skiers who come to Colorado from Mexico and South America, says Caragh McLaughlin, director of marketing at Vail Resorts. But skiing’s bigger problem, she says, is raising skier numbers regardless of race or ethnicity. Baby boomers are starting to “age out” of the sport, she says, and the impact is huge. “We’re trying to make the sport attractive to all forms of minority groups.”

Smith says he sees little evidence, and Lucy just enjoys the mountains, speeding down the slopes on skis he bought on sale for four bucks. He’s determined to enjoy every run he has left, the competitive spirit that took him to the mountaintop in the 1950s taking him to the top still.

“I’m going to ski until I can’t,” he says firmly. “That’s a fact.”

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