Huddled on 29 acres of northern Vermont mountainside and hunkered down against winter's indignities but also perfectly positioned to preside over the glories of the other seasons, is a controversial enterprise of four small structures called Burke Mountain Academy. The buildings are designated as Frazier House, Moulton House, Woods House and The Gym. They might better be called Isolation, Unreality, Impossible Dreams and Nobody Said Life Was Easy. For life is odd at the academy. The nearest town of any size seems several light-years away.
Burke (student body: 55) is a ski academy under fire from some ski experts who sniff at what it is doing and what it achieves. Burke is also a high school and college for students from 14 to 21, and under fire from academicians who consider its credentials suspect. A faculty member, Richard Enemark, admits, "I can understand how people could wonder what goes on up here in two renovated farmhouses, a log cabin that leaks and a weight room that used to be a horse barn and usually smells like it."
What Burke is—stripped of the malarkey—is a school for rich kids who want to be world-class skiers when they grow up. Or sooner. If its physical appearance is modest, its dreams are not. And, surprisingly, the facts are on Burke's side. Since Burke's beginnings in 1971, with two teacher-coaches and five students in a rented farmhouse, it has trained and helped develop 30 boys and girls who have graduated to the U.S. Ski Team. Eleven of them have gone on to rank among the 30 best skiers in the world in at least one event. Seventy students have graduated from Burke's accredited high school and entered colleges such as Dartmouth, Middlebury, Radcliffe, Swarthmore and Williams.
Standing on a mountainside, surveying the academy, a student named Steve Graham says, "Burke is an atmosphere, more than anything. Without that it's just another ski school with studies." Steve, an 18-year-old from York, Pa., is a typical Burkie. Which is to say he fully expects to make it to the U.S. Ski Team, a pinnacle the size of a pinhead. "My dad always told me I was better than the other guys, and I always believed him." says Steve, who, predictably, is known as Cracker.
Headmaster Warren Witherell disputes the "rich" tag (tuition, training and room and board come to $5,400 for nine months). "There is all kinds of money for the poor, the depraved, the deprived, the underachiever," he says. "Programs, too. But for the kid at the top, there is very, very little. The most underprivileged is the gifted. We love gifted youngsters who set high goals." Indeed, that was how Steve Graham got in. "You sense a certain pizzazz in a kid who may be shooting above his league," Witherell says. "I saw that in Steve and he looked like a guy I'd like to have around."
Steve has been around, improving, for four years. Things, of course, were bound to improve for him—the first time he went skiing he was hit by a toboggan. Whether he will continue to improve, indeed whether he will maintain the stomach for it, is the question. "Racing is a frame of mind," he says. "To win you've got to have the ability to scare yourself—and the confidence that you can pull it out. It's a sport where you are always on the edge of disaster."
Steve's last remark qualifies as a thumbnail sketch of Burke Academy. It has always been on the verge of financial disaster, and if it doesn't continue to turn out kids who can ski like blazes, it will most likely collapse. The academy must also endure the sharpshooting of critics who have something against well-to-do students. Counters one parent, "Let's face it, skiing is not a ghetto sport. These are privileged youngsters who feel privileged to be here." Says Graham. "I sure am and I sure do." Or as former student Jeff Darrow likes to say, "This is a paradise."
A paradise does not have to justify itself, although Burke believes it can. That is because the academy thinks it might be a blueprint, or at least a rough sketch, of what the U.S. must do in order to win consistently in various kinds of world athletic competition. Yet, for all the chest-beating by Witherell, U.S. Alpine Team Director Hank Tauber has reservations. "No one creates world-class winners," he says. "All anyone can do is to give them the opportunity to develop their skills. They have to take themselves to a higher level."
Burke provides nine-month, seven-day training with heavy emphasis on conditioning. As one competitive ski season winds down, the Burkies already are thinking about the next one. While others put away their skis and their thoughts of skiing, Burke Mountain students still hike to mountaintops where there is snow. And as for dismissing skiing from their minds—never. Steve Graham, for example, and 20 other Burkies followed the snow to South America last summer. "Right now there are a lot of skiers on my level," he says. "Maybe by going down there, I can get a little ahead."
The academy offers an innovative educational program styled to fit around skiing. Public schools, understandably, can't do this. Finn Gundersen, a U.S. Women's Ski Team coach, says, "It is very difficult to make skiing and a traditional American education compatible. Burke was founded to close the gap."
When fresh snow falls, Witherell reschedules morning classes for the afternoon and everyone goes skiing. When Roots was on television last winter, the students were interested in seeing it. Because it was on late in the evening, Witherell simply delayed the start of morning classes. Witherell has been known to cancel all classes for a week and instruct every student and faculty member to use the time to read a full-length biography, feeling that a break in the routine is needed in the midst of the long competition season. "I don't think you should ever let school get in the way of a child's education," says Witherell. Steve Graham selected Ishi in Two Worlds, Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. "A funny thing happened to me when I came to Burke," he says. "I discovered an interest in learning."
Two of the reasons Burke has critics are because it was the first skiing sports academy and because it is the best. The caliber of the education Witherell offers is questionable (generally, students ski half a day and study half a day, but skiing's half is bigger) and he concedes that "traditional educators will question us, but there are lots of roads to Jerusalem." Some think of Burke—erroneously—as a dumping ground for incorrigible kids who won't do anything but ski. By and large, it is a school without classrooms. There are no homerooms, study halls, whistles, horns, intercoms, tests, grades or class ranks. There is a blackboard, but nobody knows where it is. There are no dorm proctors because, as Witherell says, "Then you get one person who is responsible and 15 who aren't."
Classes are usually held in faculty apartments. "It's possible to sit on the floor and sip a cup of tea and learn," says Enemark. Sure enough, there are Graham and half a dozen other students in Enemark's apartment, sitting on a green carpet, sipping tea and listening to the creative-writing effort of a student who is describing a pimp as someone who wears "Gucci loafers that drive his hookers wild." In another bow to flexibility, Witherell recently decreed no dessert on Thursday nights in the dining hall. Instead, faculty members (there are 10) make dessert for the students, and the youngsters gather at staff members' homes to eat it and talk.
"We have an odd theory about education here," says Enemark. "It's called Teaching Kids How To Think." Still, doubt lingers. Says the father of one student, "Frankly, I think the kids are far better prepared to stay in college than they are to get in." But continual emphasis on education, rather than skiing, brings respectability. Another parent says, "I sure wasn't going to spend $5,400 for my child not to learn."
Leighton Hazlehurst, who directs the college program at Burke (students can earn about 12 credit hours in a year, compared to about 30 for a regular, full-time college student), has written, "At Burke, one senses that success is fleeting and hope enduring. And this, it seems to me, is the way things should be." This attitude has rubbed off on Steve Graham, who considers himself "self-centered but perceptive," and who says, "You learn from your losses and failures. Besides, the winner isn't always the wisest or the best athlete."
A youngster who skis at nearby Stowe shakes his head when asked about the academy. "All Burke and no play," he says. Burke is a lot of work but not all work. For fun, students will run down to the little village of East Burke, visit The Whipple-Tree, buy a bag of used clothing for a quarter and dress up for a party. They dance at the Bear Den. Not long ago they had a high old time stuffing peanut butter into each other's ears. They go rafting in the spring, sleep out in the meadows, visit the swimming hole and go sugaring. "Life here is like what kids did 40 years ago," says Witherell.
"These kids come the closest of any in the country to believing in the American dream," Enemark says. "They think if you work hard, you will succeed." The students are straight. Drugs, booze and hanging around on street corners (if there were street corners) are mainly things they are familiar with from television, although there was a flap several years ago over pot smoking. "These are all youngsters with a big dream," says Witherell. "What we do is help them chase it."
Why Burke works, assuming it does, is not so mysterious. The academy takes highly motivated, bright youngsters, gives them concentrated training and the best food in one of the most competitive skiing states in the union, on a mountain with plenty of snow-making equipment and top coaches. Then it makes them think they're special, that they are doing something significant and that they're in charge. For example, students are consulted on which applicants the school should accept.
After hearing about Burke from a friend, Steve Graham took a shine to the place when he arrived for his interview and found Warren Witherell sitting on the floor with several students, eating Cheerios and watching Bugs Bunny on television. Later, Steve rode up the chair lift with a student who said, "Warren says I'm supposed to see if I like you." Given all this, though, Burke is not an asylum where the inmates are in control. As a parent says, "The kids can do whatever they want as long as it's also what Warren wants."
Of the 29 members of this year's U.S. A and B teams, 11 have a Burke connection. (To make, the A team, a man must be ranked among the 30 best skiers in the world in his event; a woman, among the top 15. To get on the B team, Americans must be ranked among the second 30 men or the second 15 women in the world.)
Among the male skiers who have gone to Burke are A-teamers Cary Adgate ("If you've got the aptitude, Burke has the environment"), Geoff Bruce and Eric Wilson. Four Burke women are A-team skiers—Mary Seaton ("If I hadn't been at Burke, I wouldn't have made it"), Viki Fleckenstein, Maggie Crane and Becky Dorsey. Four more Burkies are on the B teams—Holly Flanders, Tiania Tutt, Peter Dodge and Bobby Hill.
These numbers may be misleading, however. In the past, top U.S. Ski Team people took a "so what" attitude. Says one official, "Making the national team is nice, but the name of the game is winning internationally." The U.S. has never been very good at this.
"The kids just have to ski better, which means beyond their ability," says Witherell. "Besides, it's a tough league when you play mostly away games." The national team people once had a tendency to believe that great skiers will suddenly ski off a mountain somewhere and onto the top of the world. In fact, nearly all of the best U.S. skiers have grown up at the bottom of ski hills—Buddy Werner, Billy Kidd, Jimmie Heuga, Barbara Ann Cochran, Cindy Nelson, Phil and Steve Mahre. Not many people in this country live within walking distance of a chair lift. Ergo, the U.S. must be missing a lot of potentially great talent. Burke Mountain and its imitators might help here. Already several city kids are emerging, such as Dorsey, who is from the Boston area, and Fleckenstein, who is from Syracuse.
Also, after years of sniping, it appears that the U.S. Ski Team and the development programs—like Burke's—are now ready to cooperate. Or at least talk to each other. Previously, the development people bellyached that the U.S. team grabbed off competitors when they were too young, then failed to develop them further. The U.S. coaches groused that they were getting skiers of marginal ability with neither the will nor the skill to win internationally. With repeated failures in competition, there was plenty of blame to go around.
But now, following a peace conference earlier this year, utterances from both sides sound like honeymoon talk. This fall the national teams even trained at Burke, something that never could have happened in the old days.
Jon Bowerman, coach of the national women's team, says, "It will take superstars to win internationally, and superstars just develop on their own. They are the kind of kids who go out and ding around in the snow and are naturals." And while that is probably true, there is a new emphasis on the team concept, with hope that less reliance on superskiers and more on team depth should produce dividends. Steve Graham, who admits his skiing technique wasn't much when he came to Burke ("What do you expect? I was from Pennsylvania"), agrees, sort of. "I think to win internationally you do have to be raised in the mountains, be an unbelievable athlete or come from Burke," he says. Steve is betting on Burke.
Chris Jones, formerly an assistant with the national women's team, coached at Burke for five years. "Chris told the kids back at the beginning that if they would have faith in our program, some of them would make it to the World Cup level," says Witherell. "Well, Chris had his fingers crossed."
Nobody has his fingers crossed anymore. And nobody disputes that Witherell is an innovator with a highly personal view of the world. "I live on an island in Lake George all summer," he says. "Islanders have their own vision and believe in it. I'm comfortable standing alone."
The headmaster tries to achieve a balance between expectation and reality; he stresses not so much the importance of making it to the top as of skiing up to potential. He doesn't like talk of intensity and he worries about pressure. The latter, unquestionably, is a problem for all the top skiers, of whom another Burke coach, George Rau, says, "They burn, they sizzle." Such desire can lead an athlete to the point where, as Vince Lombardi said, "There's nothing to do but scream." Still, results are what everyone wants.
All this began the day a Boston-area skier, Martha Coughlin, asked Witherell, who was teaching ski racing to all comers at Burke Mountain for $10 a day, if he would tutor her during the winter so she could stay and ski. And it was Martha (she later made the B team) who scribbled out the first sign: "Burke Mountain Academy. For hungry ski racers and self-motivated students. Warren Witherell—headmaster and JANITOR."
Witherell knew he had something when in the spring of 1971 five of his 14 students refused to go home. Again, Steve Graham is typical. "The worst moment I ever had at Burke," he says, "was when I had to go home for the summer after my first year. I didn't want to go, and when I got to Pennsylvania, I didn't want to be there."
To found a school, Witherell says, "The first thing you do is get stationery printed up. Nobody takes you seriously until you have stationery." Soon, lots of people were taking the Burke letterhead seriously. Especially competitors from the ski-and-giggle programs, who found themselves getting thrashed by the Burkie Turkeys, as they call themselves. Witherell started the seven-day-a-week training program—and it worked psychological wonders. Says Jeff Darrow, "We would spend all fall running up mountains and throwing up on the side of the road. We just knew there couldn't have been anybody who had trained any harder." Says Chris Jones, "We're either in better shape than anyone else or we think we are. Either way works." The students study ski movies. And Witherell, who is a bug on the technical aspects of skiing, insists on precision. Some students guffaw and say technique is nothing but skiing fast. Others give flip answers to serious questions. Sample: How do I stop my skis from chattering? Answer: Don't let them start.
One question to which there is no flip answer is how does Witherell keep Burke afloat. The academic budget is $300,000 a year; tuition and fees bring in only $250,000. Moreover, in an assault on the rich-school rap, Witherell hands out $45,000 a year in scholarships. God apparently does take care of drunks and headmasters. In 1973 somebody named Jac-Pierre sent in $13,000, followed by $3,000, then another $2,000. Witherell has little idea of who Jac-Pierre is; thank-you letters have been returned unopened. Another $60,000 was contributed by another source, who insists on anonymity. Yet Witherell says, "Sometimes I think I hope we don't find $1 million, and if we do, we won't tell the kids." Why? "We don't need maids making our beds and other people shoveling our walks."
So Burke is a big family without a mom; a high school without a football team; a university without tenure squabbles. It is possibly a sham without justification, but unquestionably it is a community of dreamers who work to become strong so they are able to take risks. As former student Roger Prevot says, "Nobody can come out of Burke a failure. I long to be back there. I think I always will."
Leaving schoolwork behind for the more serious business of studying how to negotiate a hill, these Burkies are aiming at straight A's in schussing.
The goal at Burke is to sharpen the ski as well as the mind, as student John Oliver is learning.
Give me gifted kids, says Headmaster Witherell.
Studying slalom under Witherell, Steve Graham also developed a new interest in academic pursuits.