The Mountain Times

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Once upon a time in history: Remembering June Acker Wright

A woman who ran with lifts

June Thomas Acker Wright is one of a handful of women to have owned and operated a ski area in Vermont and one of a dozen to do so solo in the United States.

She died on March 11, 2013. Although many are too young to recall her early role in American skiing, her legacy lives on in her "hometown" ski area of Pico Mountain. 

In fact, June Acker was only the second woman to have owned and operated a ski area at a time when "women's lib" was still unknown. That alone makes her accomplishments not only significant but downright heroic. It was era when ski-area operations were dominated by men.

Today, one finds many women in top marketing and sales, human resources, and ski school positions, but it is still rare to find women who are general managers, CFOs or vice presidents charged with overseeing operations (about 30 nationwide) let alone solo owner/operators. There have only been three of the latter in Vermont, and two were at Pico (Betsey Pratt was the third at Mad River Glen, 1975-1995).

6--Karl -June -and -Tommy

June Thomas was born in Rutland on June 10, 1927 and attended local schools, graduating from Mount Saint Joseph Academy in 1944 and then from Trinity College in 1948 with a Bachelor of Science degree. On July 24, 1948, she married Karl Acker. They had met when he was doing carpentry for Grover Wright in the "off-season" at the Long Trail Lodge where she had been waitressing during college vacations.

Karl was already managing Pico Peak (winters) for Janet Mead, widow of Brad Mead. (Together Brad and Janet had founded Pico in 1937 and hired the Swiss racer and instructor to head Karl Acker Ski School in 1938-39. After Brad died in 1942 in a boating accident, Janet had kept Pico open during World War II, and Karl returned after the war to help run the area.

When the Meads' two children Peter and Andrea moved West to take up ranching, Janet sold Pico to Karl and June in May 1954.

Knowing that the ski industry was booming in the post-World War II era and that they needed to expand the mountain, Karl worked feverishly to update Pico, which had two rope tows and a T-Bar. While able to obtain some funding - he added the Gnomes Knoll Triple Slope area and a T-Bar and later a J-Bar and more trails - he ended up doing most of the expansion (clearing trails, installing lifts, etc.), repair work, and operations himself - including directing the ski school, managing the ski shop, and coaching racers.

Several years ago in a phone interview, June said at the time they purchased the mountain that the three banks that had lent them the money had "insisted on a life insurance policy on Karl." With a touch of irony, she noted, that they had mentioned that if he died, she was "a woman" and they needed to be secure in her ability to repay the loan.

Perhaps the sudden and untimely death of Brad Mead had made them more aware of the risky nature of the business, and they were no doubt aware of the competition that was brewing with talk of Killington being developed and Mount Snow, among others, opening that very same year. In any event, June said it was the insurance policy that had enabled her to continue to own and operate the mountain when Karl died suddenly at the age of 42 in May 1958.

June felt that the lack of access to funding had caused Karl to do too much of the work himself and that the long hours had, along with the stress of the new J-Bar which he "couldn't get to work quite right," contributed to his fatal heart attack.

Although she was only 30 when he died, June was very familiar with Pico operations and decided to operate the area herself. She and Karl had moved to an apartment at the Pico base area in 1949 and lived there with their son Karl Thomas "Tommy" who was born in 1949. During their ownership, she had been very involved with complete management of the mountain and plans for future development.

6--Karl -and -June

"She had good business sense," son Karl noted of her determination to carry out plans for the mountain.

June was able to secure financing for Pico's first chairlift, which cost $110,000 and was installed in 1962.

It was a double that served the lower mountain (where today's Lower Pike is) and was to meet with a second, upper chair to the summit. She succeeded in clearing the trail to the summit for the second chairlift but was unable to obtain the financing for it. (She also had replaced one of the surface lifts with a more modern T-bar.)

Noting that the financing difficulties hadn't changed from when Karl was alive, June said that she knew that Pico needed lift service to the summit to compete and survive. Realizing that being a woman had contributed to the banks' reluctance to provide more loans and not wanting to lose control of the direction of the area, which she felt would happen if she looked for investors, June decided to sell.

At one point, Killington had expressed interest, but she preferred family ownership to that of a corporation. She found her answer in Bruce and Verlene Belden who were able to carry on with the family-oriented vision that the Ackers and Meads had for Pico.
June Acker had managed Pico Peak for six years at a time when women were truly rare among the leadership of ski areas. Had women's lib hit 10 years earlier, who knows what would have transpired had the loans been forthcoming. But at that time, women couldn't even get home mortgages - lenders would require other signatories because "a woman could get pregnant" and yes, bankers could say that to a woman, no matter how accomplished she was!

So June Acker left the mountain in the Belden's capable hands, and now, three owners later, Pico has become one of only 30 continuously operating, major U.S. ski areas to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Her leadership played a role in that feat, as did Karl's and Janet's before her.

In another of life's ironies, in 1970 June Acker married widower Grover Wright, the former owner of the Long Trail Lodge. They enjoyed traveling and an active life until his death in 1990. She remained an avid golfer and member of Proctor-Pittsford Country Club and also was a hospice volunteer for 15 years. 

She made her home in Florida and Vermont in recent years and was in her beloved Vermont home surrounded by family when she passed on.

June's survivors include her son Karl Thomas Acker and his wife Lynn of Mendon, and two grandchildren: Kristina Acker Delaney (and her husband Sean and their children Cameron and Paige Delaney) and Karly Acker.

In honor of her memory and contribution to skiing, donations may be made to Rutland Visiting Nurse and Hospice Association, Albert Cree Drive, Rutland, VT 05701.

Photos courtesy of the Acker family
The flag at the entrance to Pico Mountain was flown at half mast for a week in respect to the passing of former owner/operator June Thomas Acker Wright.