Remembering Coach Paul Putnam
It is with heavy hearts and lots of fond memories that we remember Paul Putnam. Our long-time race coach and mentor passed away on September 6 after a challenging illness.
Paul grew up in Northfield and, accompanied by his two older brothers, grew up skiing around the farm rope tows of the area. He worked for one year at Berkshire East in the ski school and raced in a pro series before moving to Stratton for a few years. In 1977, he returned to work for Berkshire East under my father, Roy Schaefer, and under race director Bill Farrell, a local but well-known ski racer at the national level.
Paul took over the race program in 1979 and retired in 2012. During that time, he organized over 700 competitions, married Tina, finished his degree and became a counselor at the Franklin-Hampshire Youth Employment Center, had a son, and coached thousands of athletes at the Berkshire East Ski Team (a weekend-only program) many of whom went on to successfully compete against the best full-time ski academies in the Eastern Region. Team members competed at many Eastern Region races and US Nationals. They went on to compete for many collegiate teams, and some made the US Ski Team or US development programs. Berkshire East racers competed in the NCAA Nationals, and several became USCSA National Champions.
Paul had a dynamic personality and was stubbornly committed to defending the issues he cared most about. Specifically, Paul witnessed several ski racing fatalities in the 1980s that stuck with him. He felt compelled to not let the memory of those athletes and the tragic circumstances of those deaths be forgotten by younger generations of coaches. It is hard to say how many people realized how much these memories drove him every single day. Still, they were always memories he shared openly with me.
For some, that conviction was a challenge. For everyone else, he was a fun, caring, passionate, and, yes, intense leader who helped many generations of athletes become lifelong skiers and, more importantly - good citizens. At a certain point, the goal of teaching kids to become good lifetime skiers and a good work ethic became more important to Paul than competitive ski racing success. During the late 1990s and 2000, he began to question the costs of the sport, including travel expenses, fancy camps, and race fees. The first time I qualified for the US Nationals, he told me how bad he felt for my dad, who had to buy plane tickets, hotel rooms, etc… As academies raised their prices and priced many families out of the sport, Paul pivoted and focused on the general improvement of many athletes versus the hyperintensity required to focus on top-level success.
From Paul's son Jeff, "I'll keep this brief (and I'm still processing some of this), but I think my dad cared deeply about the merits of putting 100% effort into something (whether a success or failure) as a way to find oneself. He believed in healthy competition (he loved Saturday afternoon time trials). He also believed in broad participation and process-driven development. One of his favorite sayings was, "You have to enjoy the journey," – meaning if you are entirely goal-driven, you might find yourself lacking purpose. He always used to say that we spent too much time in the gates and not enough time free-skiing around the mountain. He was incredibly sympathetic to families that could not afford the race program, kids who were having trouble at home, etc. He believed that skiing, and perhaps organized sports more broadly, was an avenue for personal growth and development. His proudest moments were not of individual race results (honestly, he rarely talked about placings and point results), but rather of his athletes that went on to do other things outside of skiing."
Paul had many great sayings, and Jeff compiled an extensive list. He told me many things, but the one that comes to mind here is, "Never point your skis at the woods…" He meant two things, the first being the ski racing advice of not turning too far across the fall line, which was slow. The second is a metaphor for life: don't focus on the obstacle because if you aim for the block, you will most likely hit it - his advice was to aim for the gap between barriers... Paul would use these sayings to shape people, first by the technical training coaching for sport. Still, in time, those sayings would become something else to both teacher and student.
He was always teaching, shaping, and, most importantly, caring. I always felt watched by Paul. He had his eye on everything.
I have spent every winter since I was a baby at Berkshire East and part of the community. I am 43 years old. I am sad to see Paul gone; we all are, but we have so many memories of him in our community, and those memories, his teaching, and his systems are woven into the fabric of Berkshire East, and they always will. I, for one, have many voices of the people who have taught me and cared for me, bouncing around in my head. For every hill-related choice I make at Berkshire East, I consider Paul's opinion and develop a plan to counter it. I always have, and I always will.
After his retirement, Paul joined the fair-weather ski crowd. You always knew when Jeff was in town because they would ski together, carving different turns in the same place as they had been for a lifetime. Tina was a constant by his side. Pleasantly smiling in a blue jacket as they skied on the warm, well-groomed days.
I always felt lucky to make a run with them. Paul's illness took hold around pre-COVID. Always illusive, he became even more so. Personal sitings became phone calls, and those slipped away, too. I was skiing with my daughters this spring on a beautiful March day.
Coach Pinkham had set a stubby course on comp, and we were skiing it. All trails were open, the snow was beginning to melt, and the mountain was slow enough that it was perfectly groomed till midday. A perfect spring ski day. It was a beautiful day, and the mountain was in excellent shape.
Not much goes on around the resort that I don't catch wind of and the rumor of Paul's presence rippled through the locals. And then I saw the same balanced, orange-booted (mid-80s Lange's) skier I had seen ten thousand times before. Paul and Tina were skiing, and for a moment, all was right at Berkshire East.
I never told him how proud I was to have my girls ski with him that day, but he knew. He just smiled when I told him what technique we were working on. He was dismissing me with a smile. He was smiling because what I passed on to Reese and Willa was the same things he had passed on to us. I tried to get him to coach the girls, but he just enjoyed their turns, laughter, skiing, and the company of young racers working to make their way. We should have had hundreds of more days with him on the slopes, watching, skiing, and enjoying, but time slips, and people are lost - but not Paul.
His lessons, teachings, techniques, and style are left to us to carry on, pass down, and influence another generation of young ski racers. As the saying goes, "A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life."
Paul certainly lived up to that mantra.
We'd like to hear your stories of Paul. To do this, please fill out this form to write them down. They can run the gamut from his quotable quotes to a tense moment at a captain's meeting. We will share these in time, and they will help fill out a gaping hole in the history of Berkshire East.
There will be a Celebration for Life for Paul and a memorial event open to all at the Crazy Horse on Saturday, December 23, 2023.
In the meantime, please send your prayers and thoughts to his loving family.
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