At the close of the 1938 skiing season, the Kimball Union Ski Team can boast a record that any preparatory school would envy. The success of the team was unquestionably due to the performance of four skiers, namely: Captain Edward Gignac, Robert Sawyer, Ira Townsend, and Jason Densmore. These skiers, along with Dana Seiler, Dave Chase, and Ralph Runels, who also contributed points here and there, composed a team which succeeded in vanquishing all of its opponents. – Concordia 1938
L to R: Members of the 1938 undefeated varsity ski team: Edward Gignac ’38, Robert Sawyer ’39, Ira Townsend ’38, Jason Densmore ’40
The opening paragraph of The Season begins the report of the 1938 ski team whose skiers triumphed over four college teams: the University of New Hampshire second team (42 to 13), Middlebury College second team (25 to 8), Dartmouth College freshmen (500 to 280.1) and Dartmouth second team (300 to 280.1). KUA also came out on top over New Hampton School, Hanover High School and Northwood School; the Tilton Academy and Vermont Academy meets were cancelled due to a lack of snow.
This team was also proud to keep the trophy for the Eastern Preparatory Schools Championships held at home that winter in challenging weather. Of the 12 teams who entered the competition, KUA placed first (361.9) followed by Hebron Academy, second (267.7) and Putney School, third (246.7). The report concluded that, “The success of the meet was due largely to the aid of the student body in putting the trails and the jump in shape. The Kimball Union skiers proved their superiority by taking five firsts, four seconds, two thirds, and two fourths.” Ira Townsend ‘38 placed fourth in the cross-country race “despite the fact that he was forced to run three-quarters of the race on one ski.” At that time, many team members participated in all four events: cross country, downhill, slalom and jumping. A notable fact for this team is that the four top skiers came from nearby Lebanon, NH, a town renowned then and in future years, for its quality skiers. After KUA, they had further success on college teams, and when the United States entered WW II, they all enlisted as did many of their classmates.
Left: Front, L to R: The 1938 undefeated ski team. Ira Townsend ’38, Robert Sawyer ’39, Eben Sutton ’38, Captain Edward Gignac ’38, Jason Densmore ’40, David Chase ’38, Dana Seiler ’38. Back, L to R: Coach Wilmot Babcock, Manager Oliver Houghton ’39. Below: The rope tow on the Potato Patch, KUA’s old ski hill, was built the following year, 1938-39, by physics teacher Wayland Porter and the Outing Club. The lift was powered by the engine from Headmaster Brewster’s Pierce Arrow car.
The team captain, “Eddie” Gignac ‘38, studied at KUA for two years and proved, beyond his superior skiing, to be an outstanding athlete in football and baseball. He was a member of the long-hailed undefeated, untied and unscored-upon 1937-38 football team and was chosen captain in the spring of varsity baseball, both teams under Coach Carver. His classmates chose him as Most Athletic and Best All-Around Man and stated in the Class History: Our ski team became well known as the leading team in New England, largely through the spectacular skiing of Eddie Gignac.
Gignac entered Middlebury College in the fall of 1938 and joined their ski team. There he became a national ski jumper, claiming Lake Placid’s Ski Meister Trophy for “all-around skiing prowess.” Unfortunately, he missed the 1940 Winter Olympics suffering from a knee injury. Gignac, standing at only 5’ 3”, had to work hard to gain his wings in the United States Army Air Corps. Once accomplished, he entered the war and flew his first combat missions in the Pacific Theatre. He survived injuries incurred there, ones that would have sidelined many pilots, but he decided to join the European front. Gignac flew his plane in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and went out on another mission the following day; this time his luck ran out. At first reported as MIA, it was later found that his plane had been shot down over France. He was buried in the United States Military Cemetery in Solers, France, with full military honors. They included the Silver Star, Air Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters and the Purple Heart.
Left: “Eddie” Gignac ’38, United States Eastern Class A Jumping Champion. Below: Jason Densmore ’40 poses on the Baxter Hall steps in his uniform and the latest ski equipment.
Headmaster Brewster gave a moving eulogy for his former student, Eddie Gignac. “He was a great little guy; his heart was as large as his body was small, and his physical courage was boundless. He flew, wearing the colors of Uncle Sam in his last great event with the same fullness of endeavor that so marked his life. After a desperate losing battle in which his body was riddled and scarred by bullets, he returned as indomitable as ever to go forth to the European front and there in his last great contest ride his last plane with its symbolic name, ‘Gig’s Up.’”
Ira “Ike” Townsend ’38 was a post-graduate student who, like Gignac, played on the 1937-38 football team, but perhaps his greatest joy was skiing and the Outing Club. In a May 2001 interview with former KUA archivist Patricia Erikson, he described cross country skiing as a KUA student. “But we always snow shoed our trails. Last time I offered to snowshoe a trail people laughed at me. …We had a lot of touring going on. We’d tour into Lebanon frequently, no problem. Not any trails, really, but I’d have 30 or 40 people skiing behind me. What you do is ski in the right direction to get to Lebanon and if you get tired of breaking trail, you stepped off the trail, everyone would go by, and you’d be in the rear, right? It was great back there because the trail was all made… . We did that all around Corbin Park.”
Townsend entered Middlebury College and joined the ski team. He said it wasn’t very organized, with a new coach every year, so he took over and coached the team himself his senior year. While in college, he joined the Civil Pilot Training Program and graduated a few months early in 1942 in order to join the United States Naval Reserve. Townsend, once in the Navy, learned to fly bigger and better planes and became an instructor. He was about to go overseas when World War II ended with the surrender of Japan.
Left: Townsend at a ski race and (right) with his 1960 varsity team, the USEASA Prep School Champions, a feat they accomplished without taking a single first place, a true team effort. They beat Holderness School by four points. Below: front, L to R: Coach Ira Townsend ’38, Phil Dewey ’62, Tom Easton ’62, Jim Townsend ’64, David Petelinz ’60, Peter Ruschp ’62. Back, L to R: Charlie Brown (Winter Carnival sculpture), Sandy Liman ’62, Russell Snow ’60, Doug McLaughlin ’62.
Townsend returned to KUA as a faculty member in 1945; he and his wife Sara stayed here for the next 40 years. After a short stint as math teacher, he was appointed school treasurer and continued to coach many successful ski teams. Because of his love of the outdoors, he is perhaps best known for his great dedication to creating, along with other faculty and students, the Townsend Ski Hill located just below Porter’s Cabin on French’s Ledges. The cabin, no longer standing, was a three-year effort begun in 1938, of Wayland Porter and the Outing Club. When the hill opened, it operated a “platter pull,” had two jumps, a downhill course and an A-frame, built by Ira and the Outing Club, at the bottom. According to Townsend, when the lift cable broke in 1974, the hill closed down and the ski teams went elsewhere to compete. The remains of the A-frame are still standing.
Townsend retired from KUA in 1985, but he and Sara stayed in their home on Columbus Jordan Road in Meriden until seven years ago when they moved to a retirement community in Lebanon, NH. He enjoyed many more years of cross country skiing and flying his private plane from a runway he created on his property. The Townsends put 140 acres of their land into conservation under the Upper Valley Land Trust that included five miles of public trails running through the property. Townsend maintained the trails that he had created for many years for the public to enjoy. He passed away on September 26, 2016.
“Babe” Sawyer ’39, a two-year student, was another one of the great skiers from Lebanon, NH. He, too, played on the 1937-38 football team and served as captain of the skiing and baseball teams his senior year. The 1939 ski team lost only one race that winter by a differential of seven points; rival school Vermont Academy beat them (394 to 387). The Concordia reported that Sawyer “had a field day, however, reaping a first in the jumping, slalom, and downhill events.” He established a record on the new KUA jump in a meet against the Dartmouth freshman and Vermont Academy. In their final meet against the Middlebury JV team at Middlebury, “Sawyer again took the spotlight by winning not only the downhill but establishing a new record on the course, ending an excellent season….” His Class Will stated that “Babe leaves with his athletic honors well tucked under his arm.”
Left: The KUA jump on Rt. 120, a short distance north of the Baptist Church in Meriden, was used in the 1940s and 1950s. Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic in those days as the landing area included a bridge over the brook and ended at the road. Below left: One of the two jumps on the Townsend Ski Hill that was used in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Sawyer attended Norwich University where he continued his success as a member of their ski team, especially in jumping. He served in the United States Army during World War II. Afterwards he worked for the Bridgewater Woolen Mill and then as a salesman for Gerrish Motors in Woodstock, VT. He maintained his love for skiing for the remainder of his life. “Men of few words are the best,” was written next to his senior photograph in the Concordia.
Jason “Ja” Densmore ‘40 came to KUA for three years, no doubt encouraged by his father, Alfred Densmore ’04, a KUA trustee (1932 to 1962) and president of the board (1940 to 1962). Ja was a member of the varsity ski team, serving as the assistant captain in 1939 and captain in 1940. Although he shared his love of skiing with his teammates, he veered off in different directions, playing JV football as a junior before switching to soccer his senior year. Instead of baseball, he joined a group of novices learning the new sport of lacrosse in the spring of 1938; he played with them all three years. He joined the Outing Club, worked on the Kimball Union Magazine and yearbook and was a member of the orchestra and band.
Denmore began the 1940 season by winning three out of four events against the Middlebury freshman team. The fourth event of the season was Winter Carnival at Saxtons River against a strong Vermont Academy team. The event included Deerfield Academy and Cushing Academy. Densmore won the jumping event and coincidentally broke Vermont’s record by jumping 67 feet. Later in the day he crossed the line first in cross country and the downhill races, taking a third in slalom. KUA beat Vermont (393.84 to 392. 53) and kept the trophy for another year.
The next meet was KUA’s Winter Carnival when, according to the yearbook, “Everybody’s young lady was out on the slopes to witness a grand spectacle. Two feet of beautiful powder snow had just fallen.” Again, Densmore started the day with a first in the jumping event, followed by a first in cross country. After lunch he took a first in downhill “by a slight margin, for he had some very stiff competition.” Vermont took first in slalom. It was a great season, especially for Densmore whose older brother Bob coached the team.
As a Dartmouth student, Densmore earned his numerals as a freshman skier and later, his varsity letter. He entered the Army Air Corps Cadet program in 1942 and graduated a year later as a second lieutenant. In September 1944, he began a combat tour of duty with the 452nd Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force stationed in Attleboro, England. Densmore flew 35 missions over Germany through mid-1945 and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with Four Oak Leaf Clusters. Under his leadership, the 452nd Bomb group was awarded a Presidential Citation for its contribution to the April 7, 1945, attack on a strategic airfield in Kaltenkitchen, Germany.
When he returned Stateside in 1946, Densmore became president of the family business, the Densmore Brick Co., in Lebanon, NH, and Essex Junction, VT. He coached Dartmouth’s Nordic Ski Team from 1945-1954 and filled in as head coach in 1948 while Walter Prager was coaching the United States Olympic Team. He continued to ski into his seventies. In 1966, Densmore Hall was named in his father’s honor for his long service to the Academy.
Above, L to R: The Townsend Ski Hill in its heyday, with the campus in the foreground. Gignac and Densmore (below) in the uniforms of Uncle Sam. Ira Townsend said of his classmate Gignac, “He was always doing something ridiculous, dangerous…doing somersaults off of the ski jump. He always got into exciting things.”