George Hovland, II, beloved husband, father, grandfather and ski pioneer, died May 9, 2021, one month shy of his 95th birthday. He was the son of George Hovland and Gertrude Richter Hovland. He felt lucky to grow up in the Chester Park neighborhood, where he started skiing in the front yard at age 18 months, jumped Big Chester at age 11, and continued to ski until March of this year. He was mentored in skiing by some of Duluth’s greatest skiers and jumpers, including Erik Judeen and Peter Fosseide. Because of their support, he learned to give back to others in the ski community. Thousands of area skiers have benefited either directly or indirectly from George’s influence. As he always said, “skiing is life.”
As a 16-year-old, he won the Minnesota State Slalom and Cross-Country Championships for Central High School. He attended Duluth Junior College until he was old enough to serve in WWII. He was a quarter master on the USNS Bowditch, a geodesic survey ship which scouted landings for the Marines in the South Pacific. At the end of the war, he surveyed Bikini Atoll, which was later destroyed by atomic bomb tests. This destruction made him an outspoken critic of war. In 1948 as captain of the University of Minnesota Ski Team, he qualified as an alternate for the US Olympic Team in Nordic Combined. While on a trip to compete in Canada, he became the first person to ski down runs at Lutsen Mountain – a feat certified by the Nelsons who owned Lutsen. He graduated in 1949 from the University of Minnesota, after changing his major when he was 3 credits shy of an engineering degree. He said he couldn’t identify with engineers and liked liberal arts majors better. In 1952, he was a member of the US Olympic Nordic Special Team that competed in Oslo Norway. As George said, “sending us there was like the Norwegians sending a team to the World Series.” While in Europe, he traveled extensively, skied in various places, and was the first non-European to ski in the Swedish Vasaloppet – a 90-kilometer marathon in cross country skiing. He was celebrated by Mora Nisse at the time. When he returned to Duluth, he started importing ski equipment and Norwegian sweaters using Dick Stewart’s bike shop as a venue. When he realized that the ski trade could grow in Duluth, he opened the creatively named “Ski Shop” in the Hartley cabin on Chester Creek and 13th avenue east. It was the first ski shop in Duluth. He continued to compete and was named to the US FIS Nordic Combined team that competed in Falun, Sweden in 1954. Trying to find an appropriate summer business, he started selling SCUBA gear for Jacques Cousteau, who visited Duluth at George’s request. The gear was decidedly unsophisticated and George and like-minded divers used only masks, fins, SCUBA, and swim trunks to explore shipwrecks in Lake Superior. He also opened the first alpine area in Duluth: Ski Kenwood, and later purchased Mont du Lac with Ivan Iverson. He became a manufacturers’ representative for ski gear and lifts and continued to compete as a 4- event skier– earning four Central Division championships, the last at age 46. He coached the UMD ski team and was always willing to help skiers learn to train and ski better. He was a consistent winner in NASTAR, so much so that NASTAR created the ‘Hovland rule’ barring repeat championships in an age group. George, as a result, asked to compete in younger age groups. His last national championship was at age 91 at Steamboat Springs where he was happy to race with his son.
George assembled and analyzed data on the growth of cross-country skiing in the US for friend Tony Wise at Telemark. He co-wrote the feasibility study on cross country skiing at Telemark resulting in a strong trail and training program at the resort and giving birth to the largest cross- country event in North America, the American Birkebeiner. He was a class champion 12 times, earned 6 second and 1 third place in over 30 Birkies. In 1983, he was a National Masters Champion in both 10 and 30 k events. He also competed internationally in Worldloppet ski marathons with dear friends Carol and Tom Duffy of Hayward.
George was a designer of homes in Duluth. The skyline is dotted with his distinctive designs which took advantage of natural landscapes and vistas of Lake Superior. He reveled in nature and considered it his sanctuary. He loved snow and skied at many areas in the Midwest whenever possible. He and Rick Scott and Jon Stephenson (the Three Amigos) skied from the Canadian border to Duluth in 2.5 days on the North Shore trail. He created a downhill race on Lake Avenue from Mesaba Avenue to Superior street, which fortunately had its one and only iteration. He and his friends Betty and Boyd Christensen created the Duluth Loppet, a marathon ski race at Lester Park. With these latter friends, he agitated for the Duluth Clean Air Ordinance, which protected non-smokers’ rights to healthy air.
With the Duluth Ski Club and volunteers, George designed and supervised construction of the Chester Bowl Alpine area. George was the founder of Spirit Mountain (having talked his friends Monnie and Erwin Goldfine into the idea), was a founding member of Grandma’s Marathon, a co-founder of the Duluth Alpine Club, was the sole founder of the Northshore Inline Marathon, and most important, created Snowflake Nordic Ski Center with his wife Jane. George and Jane envisioned a family focused ski area open to a variety of activities throughout the year. They loved dogs and encouraged members of Snowflake to ski with their dogs no matter their size. For all of his sports activities and development, George was inducted into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1983.
More than anything, George enjoyed his role as encourager-in-chief to multitudes of skiers. He had a natural teaching style and through the Duluth Ski Touring Club, which he also helped to found, developed ways teaching cross country skiing to groups. He and Jane also developed KidSki, a learn to ski program involving high school mentors who taught younger children how to ski at Snowflake using Scandinavian snow games. Many of the Duluth-Superior ski trails bear his stamp, including the original Spirit Mountain Cross Country trails, the Hartley Trails (with Tom Jordan) and the trails of the Superior Forest. He and his friend Al Merrill designed the cross-country trails at Giants Ridge.
George loved and adored Jane, his partner of 41 years, his daughter Julie, and his sons George III (Cynthia) and Lee (who died in 1980). He felt so lucky to be the grandfather of Christian, Ariana, Dana, Haley and Bridget. Jane and George have many friends, and especially enjoyed 30 years of weekly movies and laughter with Sharon and Toby Marcovich. Five years ago, Jane hosted a celebration of George’s life that he could attend – his 90th birthday. Over 350 people affirmed his friendship.
To honor George, an Ice Cream Social will be on July 18, 2021, at Northland Country Club, 3901 E. Superior Street, Duluth, from 2 – 4:30. Friends of all ages are invited to enjoy George’s favorite food and to share memories of a remarkable man. Memorials may be directed to the newly established George Hovland Foundation, the mission of which will be to support young skiers in the Duluth/Superior community. Please contact any member of the Hovland family for details.