Remembering John Lancaster

Normally, my meanderings through Middlebury Magazine, my college’s quarterly alumni publication, follow the same sick paths as other readers’: first I look to see who got married, and who was there, then I check the news from my fellow graduates. Then, and only then, do I actually read the articles. And I don’t always get that far.

But I’d heard a lot about this issue, about the cover story, and about Bill Clinton’s commencement speech in May. So after dinner last night I sat down and read it, cover to cover. (There’s also a charming and thought-provoking piece on cherry picking in New Zealand.) As I flipped through the last few pages in the same lazy, obsessive, not-really-reading-but-must-look-at-every-page way I always do, the obituaries zipped by.

But not fast enough. John Lancaster, 46, of Denver, CO., one read. Class of 1982.

John! He was one of those people, the kind you see every day for part of your life but never really know. And now he’s gone, and there’s a hole where I never knew anything could be missing.

I met John Lancaster in the first week of February, in 2000. My now-husband and I were in Colorado, scoping out places to spend a year ski bumming after college. When I showed up to interview to teach ski lessons at Vail, it was John who met me at the bottom of Chair 6. I remember feeling so much more relaxed at Vail than I had at other mountains; I knew John had graduated from Middlebury, and taught at the Snow Bowl under Dwight Dunning, as I had. He’d be nice. We’d have fun.

Interviewers at other mountains had pansied around, showed me the locker room, bought me coffee, talked about PSIA standards and the change in teaching techniques. Made sure I had shaped skis before we schussed down a green groomer, trying to look perfect. The guy at A-Basin made me ski around cones. Snore.

John was not one to show is cards. He told me immediately that he was pretty sure I could teach, but showed no signs of welcoming me into the nest. He wanted to know if I could ski. Then he proceeded to kick my sea-level ass, stuff me with pasta at Mid Vail (penne bolognese and a Snickers bar, I remember), and kick my ass some more.

I got the job. And when Tito and I had narrowed it down to Vail or Copper for the following year, it was John’s approach that made me push for Vail. I knew he would make me a better skier, which might surprise anyone who’s ever taught skiing (or witnessed hordes of FILA-clad instructors joey themselves down the mountain with a surprising lack of grace or ability).

And he did. I never got to know him that well, but he was always there, the omnipresent boss, the guy everyone wanted to get in with and I knew. He was solely responsible for hooking me into private instruction, which meant for a much more enjoyable winter. Instead of herringboning up the rope tow hill, I skied. He found me a new pair of skis, a deal on boots, and a 20-day client that tipped me a grand.

But he wasn’t that kind of guy. He’d never have said look what I did for you. He never treated me any differently in front of the other instructors, he just quietly moved the best clients my way, which magically lifted me out of the ranks of first-year snot-wipers and into the private instructor squad, with the white-lipped Austrian lifers. I appreciated it, and I’m sure he knew that, but I never really thanked him for it.

I didn’t talk to John much after that year. A few Christmas cards. Said Hi to him once when I went back a few years ago, and he told me he was heading to Florida. He wanted to learn to fly helicopters and then start a flight school. Or something like that.

Then just like that, he’s dead. Died in a crash, somewhere in Louisiana, in February. He was a flight instructor.

My dad raised us with the theory of traveling debt, which he learned growing up with a parent in the military.

It goes like this: Lots of people do nice things for you over the course of your life. There’s probably no way you’ll be able to pay every single one of them back, so do what you can, when you can, where you can, for whom you can. Take your debts with you when you leave a place, and repay them when the time is right.

Reading John’s obit, I knew I’d forgotten a debt when I left Vail. It’s not that I haven’t done anything nice since then; I haven’t done anything nice and thought of him.

Thanks, John. I owe you one.

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