The Mountain Times

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Once upon a time in history: pick up the keys please

It is rare to find second-generation families in a town today let alone a fourth-generation native.

But not only is Ron Willis a native of Killington, there are only two others we know of who are older natives than Ron - Grace Ruby Battles Staples and Madeline Merrill. [Truman Bates is a younger native son.]

Ron was born in Rutland at the old hospital and brought up in the house next to the UCC "White" Church on US Route 4. His great grandfather was a postmaster for a short time as was his grandfather. Ron served as Killington's postmaster from 1972 to 1998.
In addition to helping thousands of customers over the years, Ron met his wife Ellen Jeanne (EJ) through his job. It was the days when the Cortina Inn had room-key rings with fobs that read 'drop in any mailbox.'

EJ was born in Boston, raised in Maine and came to Vermont via college at Castleton State. She worked at the Cortina. "Ron would call and say the keys were piling up and to please come pick them up," she recalled of their meeting.

They dated and married 33 years ago.

Memory Lane
Ron, who still skis, said that he "learned to ski on the old logging roads. Janet (Mead) allowed local kids to ski for $1 a day. We skied on the old rope tow on A Slope. Dick Fifield worked at Pico, and in the late 1940s my parents had him buy a pair of skis for me. I hit a rock and broke a ski."

EJ tried skiing once, fell and "that was it," she said.

Ron and EJ had two daughters, and she "stayed home to raise them, then worked half-days for Bernie Rome; the hours were perfect for a mother," EJ recalled. Over the years EJ worked a variety of jobs, including at the Pico Lodging Bureau and in various positions at Killington Elementary School. She also served as chair of the school board.

When the girls were both in school, she worked in Group Sales at Killington for a while and later as an assistant to Jeff Zogg, general manager of the Grand Hotel project. EJ's job involved furnishings and equipment orders. One standout memory is of the hotel's opening. "All the owners wanted to be there opening night. We had walkie-talkies. I would call pregnant Julie and say so and so has arrived; is their room ready? She would say, 'give me ten minutes to get the couch in,' and we would check them in and then say, 'your room is ready now.'

"It went that way all night," EJ said of the mad dash to accommodate so many owners when the units were still being finished.
One of Ron and EJ's fondest memories is of the years Ron's parents operated Bigelow's Lodge (1965-1976). "Ron's mother was a tremendous cook. For $10 a night, skiers got a room, country breakfast and full dinner. We did a lot of dishes there," EJ added of helping them out.

"The rooms had cots or bunks and central showers," they recalled of the simple accommodations. But the big open two-story entry was impressive. "There was a huge stone fireplace with another one upstairs and a great view of the mountain from the living room areas," they noted.

Both laughed as they recalled the "immense sign that Mrs. Bigelow hung out front." It read: "Bigelow's Lodge, No Booze All Snooze." It was a BYOB place with a set-up bar, EJ explained.

"We had great parties there at the end of the season," Ron added.

While working at the Pico Lodging Bureau, EJ sold "tickets on big days when the cars were out to the road" and "helped with counting the cash. One night we were counting and a woman came in and said, 'I want my money back - there was too much snow, I couldn't ski.'

"Another came in. She had skied Pico all day but demanded her money back because she wanted a Killington ticket and had been given a Pico ticket. She was skiing with her bus group at Pico but wanted a ticket that said Killington, probably to impress her friends," recalled EJ.

Ron remembered Pico's popularity and "the days of cars and busses parked on Route 4 all the way down to the Beaver Pond."
He also had worked at Killington. "I had just graduated Woodstock High School (June 1957) when Pres Smith knocked on the door and said, 'I am Preston Smith. We are getting ready to build a Pomalift' and asked if I would like to work on the mountain.

"I lasted about a month. He set such a pace. We'd hop in the old army surplus jeep at the farmhouse and go up the old logging road. Pres worked with us. Sometimes he would leave to go meet with Perry Merrill or other officials. He'd come back to see what we'd done. He didn't supervise by talking down. It was quite an experience," Ron said of the arduous work.

He also recalled his days on the Killington Ski Patrol and "working with Jack Giguere and skiing with patrol leader George Wesson. One time it was raining - and before snowmaking - and a television crew was coming. We got the word to go patch the grassy spots with snow. We took the old banana boat toboggans and shoveled snow out of the woods onto them and then put it on the bare spots on the original baby slope by the base lodge."

Ron was attending Castleton State College when "Frank Heald told me about the Vermont Air National Guard. I joined in November 1962." After his military service, he took a job with the Air Guard in Burlington for four years. But missing the small, close-knit community, he returned and joined the postal service as Hazel Cain's part-time clerk (March 1970). She retired in September 1971, and he was officially appointed postmaster in May 1972.

"The post office was still at Cain's, but we got so much general delivery mail for the summer visitors that people would be lined up out the door." Having outgrown that facility, Ron noted the post office "moved to Rick Cohen's building for ten years and then across the street to the new, present building with all its new equipment."

Having seen the town grow, Ron no longer knows everyone. There are new faces with younger people moving in," he said, noting, he wishes more families could do so. "The cost of real estate today makes it hard for young families to move in. If it wasn't for taking in tuition students from adjacent towns, we worry that the elementary school couldn't sustain itself," he noted.

Ron and EJ still love their community and remain active in various organizations, including the church.

EJ recently began working at the post office, and Ron, "tired of being retired," now goes to work there "to tidy up" a few times a week.

"We went to Florida and North Carolina to visit friends a few years ago, but we are not moving or going south for the winters," he said, adding, "I like the town, always have."