Alexander C. Cushing, 92; Made Squaw Valley Into World Ski Resort

Times Staff Writer

Alexander C. Cushing, the founder of the Squaw Valley ski resort whose odds-defying landing of the 1960 Winter Olympics helped spur the popularity of skiing in the United States and put the Lake Tahoe region on the map as a world-class destination for winter sports, has died. He was 92.

Cushing, the chairman of Squaw Valley Ski Corp., died Saturday of pneumonia at his summer home in Newport, R.I., resort officials said.

The 6-foot, 5-inch Cushing was a Harvard-educated, World War II Navy veteran and Wall Street lawyer in 1946 when he first laid eyes on Squaw Valley during a ski vacation to the Sierra Nevada: a picturesque, steep-sided Alpine valley seven miles from the north shore of Lake Tahoe on the California side.

Cushing was so taken with Squaw Valley and its possibilities as a ski resort that he went into partnership to develop it with the man who first showed it to him, airline pilot Wayne Poulsen, a former champion skier who had purchased much of the land in the valley.

With $145,000 of Cushing's own money -- and money from Laurance Rockefeller and other friends -- the Squaw Valley ski resort had its grand opening on Thanksgiving Day 1949, with one double chairlift, two rope tows and a 50-room lodge that was only 90% completed.

Now considered one of the world's premier ski resorts, Squaw Valley USA boasts the most extensive lift network in North America, with 34 chairlifts, an aerial cable-car lift and North America's only Funitel -- a high-speed lift system capable of withstanding strong winds -- as well as more than 1,000 lodging rooms and numerous restaurants and shops that attract 750,000 skiers a year.

But in 1954, the resort still had only one chairlift and was relatively unknown when Cushing launched his campaign for the 1960 Winter Games.

As a result of his successful lobbying effort, Squaw Valley beat out such internationally known resorts as St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Innsbruck, Austria.

"Alex Cushing stands head and shoulders above all the skiing pioneers in the West, and his biggest contribution was to bring the Olympics here," Bill Jensen, publisher of the Squaw Valley Times and a former marketing director for the Squaw Valley Ski Corp., told The Times on Monday.

The staging of the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley, Jensen said, "was the right time at the right place and just really spurred the growth of the winter sports industry in California and the whole country.

"California and especially Lake Tahoe were known more for the summer recreation and casinos than winter sports. It was the first Winter Olympics to be televised, and all of a sudden you have a world audience."

Cushing's Olympic coup, which landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1959, started as a publicity gimmick.

He decided to pitch Squaw Valley for the Olympics after reading about Reno's bid for the Games in a two-paragraph item in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"I had no more interest in getting the Games than the man in the moon," Cushing told Time. "It was just a way of getting some newspaper space."

News reports of Squaw Valley's bid for the Olympics, however, resulted in an unexpected torrent of encouraging mail. "When I got letters from all those people saying what a nice thing I was doing, it made me feel bad," Cushing said.

With only six weeks to put Squaw Valley into consideration, Cushing obtained the endorsements of California state Sen. Harold Johnson and Gov. Goodwin Knight and lined up support for a bill to guarantee $1 million from the state Legislature for Squaw Valley.

Then, with what Time called "a hastily prepared brochure and charming dissertation" on Squaw Valley, Cushing sold the U.S. Olympic Committee on the idea.

"The USOC obviously has taken leave of their senses," International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage bluntly told Cushing, who then had to convince the delegates to the Paris meeting of the IOC.

By the time the assembly began in June 1955, Cushing and two associates had already traveled to meet with 42 of the 62 delegates to sell them on the plan.

In the end, Squaw Valley won the bid to host the games, 32 to 30 over Innsbruck, on the second ballot.

In building his world-class ski resort, Cushing had his share of critics, who, according to a 1993 Times story, "say he has long run Squaw Valley as a fiefdom and blatantly disregarded county environmental and planning laws."

At the time, the resort had recently been fined $350,000 for spilling 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel and trying to hide it in the snow. And Cushing was involved in a court battle with Hewlett-Packard co-founder Bill Hewlett, the Sierra Club and the Placer County district attorney over what they claimed was the ski resort's illegal clearing of 4,000 trees in a scenic canyon for the resort's expansion.

For his part, Cushing protested that the possible civil penalties of up to $10 million would put him out of business.

"They're really trying to crush me," he told The Times. "I'm the biggest employer in Placer County, and they treat me as if I'm running a crack house."

Even then, The Times noted, "many critics respect Cushing's accomplishments."

Cushing was born Nov. 28, 1913, in New York City and attended Groton School in Massachusetts. A 1936 graduate of Harvard, he graduated from Harvard Law School three years later and practiced law with a New York firm and for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Enlisting in the Navy the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he served in South America and the Pacific and rose to the rank of lieutenant commander.

Cushing lived in Squaw Valley in a house next to the original chairlift.

"There are very few, if any, of these old entrepreneurs left," said Warren Lerude, a member of the Squaw Valley Ski Corp. board of directors.

"Most of the ski resorts in America have gone corporate. Alex could wake up in the morning and say, 'I'll do this,' and he'd do it."

Cushing is survived by his wife, Nancy; his three daughters, Justine Cushing, Lily Kunczynski and Alexandra Howard; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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