The Making of BMA

The Early Beginnings by Warren Witherell

On June 12-14, 2020, BMA will celebrate 50 years since its inception. As we prepare for this exciting milestone, we present to you a monthly series dedicated to exploring the academy’s rich history. Tune in as we learn more about “The Making of BMA” and discover the people, places, and moments that have defined North America’s first sports and ski racing academy.

Since its inception in 1970, the academy has been home to 1,178 students including 36 who have gone on to compete in the Olympics and 145 who have been members of national teams representing the USA, Australia, Canada, Chile, Estonia, Great Britain, Japan, South Korea, and Spain. Above and beyond the athletic success of its alumni, BMA has always embraced a progressive educational model that focuses on engendering creativity, curiosity, and problem-solving in all of its graduates. To learn more about BMA’s celebratory reunion, CLICK HERE.

This month, we share with you a close account of how BMA came to be. This original text was written by Warren Witherell, the academy’s founder and first head of school, before he passed away on May 26, 2014.


This is the original text provided by Warren. 

1969

September:

Warren arrives at Burke. His agreement with Doug Kitchell (owner of the ski area) is to start America’s first Alpine Training Center. The financial agreement with Mr. Kitchell is that W2 will charge $10 per day to racers who come to the ATC for coaching, film studies, boot work, etc. This $10 includes a lift ticket and all the services of the ATC. Warren keeps the entire ten dollars for his income — hoping to attract 600 racers for training and earn $6,000 for his September through March work.

It cost Mr. Kitchell nothing to provide the lift ticket as the chairlift was running regardless of the number of racers or coaches attending the ATC. Mr. Kitchell’ s benefit was to sell tickets to parents who brought their kids to the ATC, and lunches to both parents and kids. Most important for the Mountain was that new families were attracted to Burke –  both for daily training and for races that were run by the ATC. The races brought new publicity for the Mountain and provided income for timing equipment wiring, gates, PA systems, etc.

Prior to 1969, there was no race training program at Burke Mountain and no organized ski club. Local kids who were interested in ski racing (like David and Peter Dodge, and Steve and Peter Murphy) were training and racing with the Mt Mansfield Ski Club at Stowe.

During September and October (of 1969) Warren built the Alpine Training Center Building which was a one story 24 X 36 structure on sono tubes with multiple benches for ski prep, ski storage boxes, and an office for W2. All materials for this building were provided by Mr. Kitchell, and the construction was done by Warren and Stanley Brill, a carpenter/builder on the Burke Mountain maintenance crew.

This building was located on the knoll between the base lodge (now “Mid-Burke”) and the chairlift.

To supplement his income, Warren was the head coach of the varsity men’s soccer team at Lyndon State College for the 1969 fall season.

In December of 1969, training opened at the ATC. There were 6-10 kids most weekdays including numerous Dartmouth Ski Team racers and MMSC kids. On weekends the training group was about 15 – including the Murphys and Dodges from St J. and other kids from Massachusetts whose parents had weekend homes in the Burke area. During the Christmas vacation weeks, there were about 20 kids at the ATC each day. One of those kids was Martha Coughlin from Swampscott, MA.

Martha was a 14-year-old 9th grader who attended Swampscott High School and had been racing for many years from North Conway, NH, Martha had gone to New Zealand for 6 weeks of training with Warren in July and August of 1969.

1970

January 1 was a Thursday so the last day of the Christmas school break was Sunday, January 4. At the end of ski training on this Sunday afternoon, Martha packed her gear in her Dad’s car in the Burke parking lot and joined a small group of parents and kids who were talking together nearby.  

She stuck her head into the group to say:

“It’s been a fun two weeks. If I can get a ride up next weekend, I’ll see you all then.” Martha then paused, and turned to Warren, and asked:

“Hey, Warren, if I can get out of school for January, February and March, would you tutor me here at Burke –  so I can ski here every day?”

The kids in the group laughed at her unlikely idea. But Warren replied: “Yes, I could probably do that. Good luck with getting out of school.” Martha said “Great,” and got in her car, and left for home.

This could be chosen as the earliest official start date of BMA. January 4, 1970.

As Burke historians know, Martha talked to her school principal the next morning and convinced him to let her out of school – with a clear understanding that in April he would not let her back in unless she was up to date with all of her school work. (Give this principal a gold medal and a big assist and for helping to found BMA.)

Martha arrived at Burke the next day, Tuesday, January 5. She did not call Warren and say she was coming. She just showed up at the Training Center about 4:00 PM and said: “I’m here until April. Where can I stay?”

W2 made arrangements for her to live with Joe Pete Wilson and his wife and their two young children. Martha traded room and board for reliable babysitting. The Wilsons lived in the Frazier House.

On Wednesday morning, January 6, Martha arrived at the ATC building at 8:00  sharp, with books in hand, and sequestered herself in Warren’s office to study until noon. (Warren was on the hill coaching.) So this was the first day of academic studies at BMA. Martha was entirely self-directed and self-motivated. After lunch, of course, she skied with Warren and whatever racers were at the ATC for the day.

Sometime in mid-February, Martha put a poster on the ATC door that  said:

BURKE MOUNTAIN ACADEMY

For Self Motivated Students and Hungry Ski Racers

Martha Coughlin: Student 

Warren Witherell: Headmaster & janitor

This poster represents the first joining of the words “Burke Mountain Academy”.

If this is the official start of BMA, the date is mid-February 1970.

Martha did keep up with her schoolwork. In fact, she finished all of her work through the end of March by the end of February – so she could go west for the big spring races without academic responsibilities. Martha showed the ski and educational worlds that motivated kids could do more school work in less time when out of school than in, her work ethic inspired other parents to believe in the concept.

At the end of the 1970 ski season at Burke, some other parents began asking Warren: “Hey, can my kids do next winter what Martha has done this year?”

Warren said”yes” and hired Finn Gundersen to help him coach and tutor the next winter. In April, Joe Pete Wilson left his job as mountain manager which left the Frazier house vacant. As the Frazier House was owned by Burke Mountain, Warren made arrangements with Mr. Kitchell to rent it for the following winter.

Martha and four additional students quickly signed up for the 1970-71 Burke Mountain Academy winter term tutorial program. They came to Burke in mid-November. By Christmas, there were 15 students stuffed into the Frazier House.

Burke Mountain, and the BMA tutorial program were both scheduled to close in late March. One week before these closings, five students approached Warren at Dinner and asked: “Hey W2, can we talk with you after dinner?” (They had a funny look on their faces, so Warren knew that something was cooking in their minds). He asked: “What are we going to talk about?” The kids just smiled and replied: “We’ll tell you later.” So Warren said: “OK. I’ll meet you at the woodstove at 7:00.”

So the five kids and Warren gathered around the woodstove. Warren said, “OK, what’s up?”

And Martha, speaking for the group, replied: “Ummm, the five of us have decided we aren’t going home next week. What do think of that?” The kids giggled nervously; and Warren asked: “What do you mean you aren’t going home? The lifts are closing and school is over. I think your parents might like to see you, too.”

“Well,” Martha said, “we want to be the best ski racers in the world. And the only way we can do that is to make Burke a full-time school with fall and spring training and flexible academics with schedules we control– so we can travel to big races anywhere in the world and best coordinate our training and school work. We want you to make Burke a full-time school. Can you do that?”

“Whoa” replied  Warren. “You are asking me to trade a five-month job for ten months, and being responsible for your high school transcripts and college admission, and jumping through all the hoops the state and health and fire departments require of schools. That is a really big ask.”

“We know it is,” the kids said. “But we really want to do this. Please, will you help us?”

So Warren said: “I need to think about this for a while. I’ll take a walk on the mountain and meet you back here at 9:00 O’clock.”

So Warren went for a long walk. And his first thought was: “OK, I decided when I was 14 years old that I wanted to be a teacher and a coach and someday a headmaster. This may be the only group of people who will ever offer me that opportunity. I had better take it.” And he kept walking and trying to imagine what he was getting into.

In the end – Warren met the kids again at the woodstove – and said: “Yes, I will make this a full-time school IF -you will promise that the standards of excellence will be as high for academics and community life as they are for skiing. This means WORLD CLASS, every day, in everything we do. Will you commit to  that?”

The kids held out their hands and said: “It’s a deal. We’ll go home for a week and  kiss our Mom’s, and then come back and build our school.” We all shook hands, and the kids ran off with joyful spirits. Warren was left thinking “God help me. What  have I gotten myself into?”

So this day, in the last week of March 1970, marks the official founding of BMA as a full-time school. 

The kids did go home for a week, and all returned. (How they convinced their parents to join in this plot remains a mystery to me.) Regardless, Warren, Finn and these five kids gathered by the woodstove to create a new school. With a blank pad of paper in his hands, Warren said: “OK, team, we are starting today with a blank sheet of paper, and we can create any kind of a school we wish. What kind of a school do you think we should have?”

Together, over the next week, these 5 kids and 2 adults choose to have a school with:

  • A strong Honor Code. Complete trust and honesty between students and staff. 
  • A non­ grading academic program. 
  • A very high work ethic in sports and academics. 
  • Co-ed dorms. 
  • Lots of independent study opportunities. 
  • A commitment to kindness and respect between all students and staff. 
  • No peer groups defined by age. 
  • All would be friends, helping one another. 
  • A commitment to earn respect for our school, every day, everywhere, with every person we meet. 
  • No drugs. 
  • No alcohol. 
  • No hazing.
  • And lots of fun. 

“Leaming is one of the most exciting activities of Man” was to be one of our mottos.” We were committed to the idea that if our school was organized with the right goals and values, it would be a joy to attend. School should never be a drag. It should be an adventure — through which hard work would bring us pleasure.

We talked a lot about the importance of trust. And we wanted to provide many kinds of freedom – always with the understanding that freedom and responsibility must always go together.

These were the core values and standards we agreed on for our school. We wrote a prospectus for this school – Burke Mountain Academy – which we submitted to the State Board of Education requesting accreditation.

We were only five students and two teacher/coaches who had a clear idea of what we were trying to build in a 100-year-old farmhouse on the side of Burke Mountain. The state understood our dream and respected our commitment to excellence. They granted full certification to Burke Mountain Academy in May of 1971.

If formal recognition by a state government marks the birth of a school, this is the date when BMA was founded. I don’t think it is the right historical date.

I believe the founding of BMA is rooted in four events that all transpired in 1970. First was Martha’s question in the parking lot on January 4. Second was the posting of Martha’s sign on the Training Center door in mid-February. Third were the commitments made in April to hire Finn, accept 4 additional students, and rent the Frazier House. And fourth was the formal opening of the winter term for Burke Mountain Academy in November of 1970.

For what it’s worth, the first “Burke Mountain Academy” stationery was printed in May of 1970. That was my way of telling the world that BMA was a real school!

REMEMBERING WARREN

Warren died on May 26, 2014, at his home near Middlebury, Vermont, after a yearlong decline in health. He was 79. An honored member of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, he founded Burke Mountain Academy.

An outstanding athlete, Witherell was the world water-skiing champion at age 18. He graduated in 1956 from Wesleyan University, where he played soccer, captained the hockey team and was an All-American swimmer. After learning to ski at age 20, he became a coach at Northwood High School in Lake Placid, New York. Applying the techniques he had mastered on water, he became an early and influential proponent of the carved turn and a savage critic of resort-based ski schools.

Witherell wrote two key learn-to-race books. The first, How the Racers Ski, was published in 1972. It became the bible by which race coaches taught their athletes for a number of years. The book promoted the idea of the pure carved turn, “without skidding or sideslipping.” In 1993, he added The Athletic Skier. In his final year, he was finishing up a book on the academy he founded, titled One School that Works.

Witherell served as Burke headmaster from its inception in 1970 until 1984. He then moved to Florida, where he coached the water-ski team at Rollins College to a national championship. In 1984, he was inducted into the U.S. Water Ski Hall of Fame; among other accomplishments in the sport, he was honored for being the first person to jump 100 feet.

In 2004, he shocked many by agreeing to come out of retirement to take the reins of the then-new Crested Butte Academy in Colorado. He retired in 2008.

Witherell is survived by his two daughters, Dr. Holly Mata, and Dr. Heidi Witherell, and two sisters and a brother.

With sources from Hank McKee (www.skiracing.com), John Fry (The Story of Modern Skiing)