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Don Bilodeau: August 16th, 1950 – July 13th, 2013

INDUSTRY LEADER — Don Bilodeau, a former VP of Sales and Marketing for Panorama and General Manager for Fairmont Hot Springs Resort ski area, has left behind a legacy. Photo submitted

INDUSTRY LEADER — Don Bilodeau, a former VP of Sales and Marketing for Panorama and General Manager for Fairmont Hot Springs Resort ski area, has left behind a legacy. Photo submitted

Editor’s note: Canadian ski school legend Don Bilodeau passed away on July 13th. This article by freelance writer Dorothy Isted is in honour of his life and the tremendous contribution he made to Panorama Mountain Village and the Columbia Valley community.

By Dorothy Isted
Special to The Pioneer

Don Bilodeau ended his days as he had lived them, with honour and concern for the dignity of others. Diagnosed with cancer 18 months earlier, daughter Hannah says her dad “was never a complainer. Always optimistic, could always find the fun or the laughter in anything, even if it was a pretty terrible situation.”

When the worst news arrived, “Stu and I both dropped our jobs and spent the last days at our family cabin at Savary Island [on the Sunshine Coast.] We got him out there and that was the only place he wanted to be, and we stayed there with him. He was overjoyed that his family could be with him and we could be at Savary Island all together.”

A service was held in Fairmont on July 19th, but according to Hannah, “It wasn’t a funeral. It was a celebration of life.” The next day the family hit golf balls up the mountain at the Elkhorn Cabin at Panorama and shot the potato gun there in memory of Don.

Born in Quebec City, Don moved with his family to New England as a toddler where his father secured a job with the Ford Motor Company. Bob Bilodeau had been a professional motorbike racer, careening around speedways at 80 mph on brakeless Indians, Harleys and Triumphs.

“Dad definitely got his love for motorcycles and his love for adventure from my grandfather,” Hannah said. “Because my grandfather was raised in an orphanage, he really tried to give his kids everything he could because he hardly had anything growing up. He was always taking them on little adventures and places… he took my dad skiing for the first time. The kind of stuff that didn’t really happen in Buffalo, New York.”

Don graduated from Alfred State College and University in New York with a degree in business administration and accounting.

“He minored in marketing,” his daughter explained. “That’s definitely why he got his marketing positions later on, for Panorama, RK Heliski, Fairmont Hot Springs Resort.”

Don became passionate about skiing in high school and, by the time he was in his mid-20s, he had worked himself into the position of Director of Skiing at Blue Mountain in Ontario. In 1980, Don became a member of the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance (CSIA) demo team, headed by Andre Schwarz. Heather Ritchie joined the demo team and, after a year of working and skiing together, the couple married in September 1981 and moved west.

Under Schwarz’s direction and collaborating with Martin Olson, Don wrote a technical manual titled Movement and Motion, which revolutionized Canadian skiing.

Andre said, “Don took the time. What we came up with, he put into words,” said Schwarz. “He was always working hard, he never shied from taking on a job whether it paid or not. He always pulled forward, positive thinking, everything was always with a lot of fun. He pulled pranks, as everybody heard at the eulogy. He was witty, smart, a lateral thinker, always an interesting guy to be around. Fabulous guy, I’m sad we lost him.”

While Don ran the ski school in Lake Louise, the family summered in the Columbia Valley. Eventually they decided that was where they wanted to raise their children, and moved to the valley permanently around 1985.

Heather was asked to take over the troubled Panorama ski school and she insisted it that it be an independent school. The Bilodeau School of Skiing and Snowboarding was born and became considered by some the only significant independent ski school in the industry. Meanwhile, Don became Panorama’s VP of Sales and Marketing and later, the General Manager for Fairmont Hot Spring’s resort ski area. Together Don and Heather created a new event in the industry — the Ski Pro Workshops. They were designed to create early season business by bringing in ski instructors for pre-season improvements. It was a unique, twinning passion with technique, which contributed to the huge success of the school.

When asked how employees perceived her father, Hannah said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody describe him as anything but fun, honest, supportive and professional. Even people he had to let go would always stand up and shake his hand and say thank you because he always said to leave people with their dignity.”

Hannah explained a very big highlight for her father, “one of the biggest, proudest accomplishments,” was the fruition of a dream he had even while working on other mountains — an intimate little hut on the mountainside, isolated and secluded. When Panorama was owned by Intrawest, “they absolutely loved the idea,” and so Heather and Don purchased a log cabin in 1997 from the Elkhorn Ranch near Windermere that had been used to accommodate ranch hands.

They moved it to the foot of the Panorama Mountain and then used a D6 bulldozer to tow it up 3,400 vertical feet to where it is now located, near the top of the Champagne Chair on the west side of Roller Coaster Run. Don was all about creating unique experiences for people. The Elkhorn Cabin has been used as a B&B, steak dinners and ski downs by torch or headlights, for weddings and other special events. Sadly, it is no longer in operation, but Hannah thinks it would be her father’s dream for it to continue under the right circumstances.

The Bilodeaus were a closeknit family. Hannah says they were always out on their skis together and never felt the family business took anything away from them. She describes her parents as a tenacious team who worked well together. Though Don was a hardworking and very busy man, he still managed to provide a life for his family that was packed full of love and adventure.

They had a few Volkswagen vans that were always breaking down, Hannah reminisced.

“Once, in the middle of downtown Vancouver, all our suitcases fell out the back… My dad got us into a lot of fun and out of a lot of sticky situations. As a father, he was an amazing provider. He always said he never wanted his children to have debt. He worked really hard doing the ski school, doing real estate, working at Fairmont, [writing for] the ski magazine. He was a real entrepreneur and he was able to put me, my brother and my mother through school. She did her English degree through Athabasca University the same time I was in school.”

Don’s expertise and effort led to his induction into the Canadian Ski Instructors’ Alliance Hall of Fame. In a 2010 Ski Canada magazine article, the Bilodeaus’ efforts were summed up: “This magazine rated it Canada’s best ski school, and an independent U.S. market survey of North America ski resorts picked it as number one in guest service.” But destination resorts were starting to feel financial pressure and Heather and Don could see things changing so decided to leave on a positive note. They wound down the school the same year and moved to Sechelt where they had a blast running a small waterfront hotel.

“They loved it because it was just a fun short project for them,” said Hannah. “It was some nostalgia for dad from days working as the general manager of Fairmont.”

Just before Don received news of his illness, Whistler called her parents and asked if they would run their ski pro workshop.

“That prompted the move to Whistler/Blackcomb,” said Hannah. “They helped organize it the first year, but were only in Whistler for two years.”

Don’s optimistic and caring attitude was always with him. Hannah recalls one poignant moment: “He had suffered several strokes and it was hard for him to stand up and use the right side of his body. He would struggle to his feet out of his wheelchair, look the doctor in the eye and shake his hand with his difficult right hand. The doctor said to me afterwards, ‘Your father is an amazing man.’ ”

15 Responses to Don Bilodeau: August 16th, 1950 – July 13th, 2013

  1. david r pacey says:

    Don has been an incredible person for the entire Columbia Valley and the ski industry for years and years.
    I can only say that we, my wife and I will miss Don tremendously. He has been a great friend for years.
    To Heather, and to Don’s family, our heart felt condolences.
    David and Margaret

  2. Bruce and Marlene says:

    Thank you for the wonderful article on Don Bilodeau.
    You have caught the essence of a man,
    tall in courage, with vast enthusiasm and a neverending zest for life and beyond.

    • Lawrene Rotenberg says:

      Was just reading Ski Canada and found the article about Don’s passing. It is wonderful that someone can live their dream and pass on so much enthusiasm for the sport of skiing that we so love. Unfortunately I do not think we will see his like again. I was priveleged to know him and members of his family, for all of whom I wish the best.

  3. Wally Bird says:

    Hi Bink. Some people I’ll introduce you to. I loved them, You’ll love them too. Be seeing seeing you. Wally.

  4. Denys Jones Toronto says:

    Dear Heather,
    My heartfelt condolences to you and your family, I was devastated to see the article in Ski Canada Magazine. Don was a wonderful guy who gave so much to us all in the industry. He has left a wonderful legacy and made an indelible mark on Canadian Skiing. Wishing you strength and comfort you will always miss him. Love does not stop when our loved ones pass away. Treasure those many happy times.
    Best wishes to you all
    Denys Jones

  5. Wally Bird says:

    So ride on ahead my friend, and make sure the way is safe . We’ll be along shortly , and follow you, as we did in the days of TREMBLANT. Godspeed .Wally.*

  6. Yukon Zone Patrollers says:

    Mr. Bilodeau’s professionalism and impact had far reaching effects.

    Several volunteer ski patrollers from our very own community hill had the priviledged opportunity to meet him and his professional staff over serveral years of Panorama ski clinics to crank some turns. He will be long remembered within the industry and our sincere condolences to the Bilodeau family.

    Whitehorse, Yukon.

  7. Ellis ANDREWS , SUSAN Kain says:

    Don & Heather became very special in our lives at Panorama Ski Pro workshop. I attended the first 10 years and met Susan there and when she came out to attend the workshop from Toronto . I was living in Calgary at the time and were married in 1996 as a result of the workshop. The workshop that Don & Heather put on was a model for ski improvement combined with FUN & creating lasting friendships. I don’t believe there will ever be another time and place that this could ever happen again. I skied with Hannah & Stu when they both were bumps on Heather’s slim figure. Special times in our lives an out thoughts go out to Heather,Hannah& Stu.Don was a Very special person. Hugs Ellis & Susan

  8. I moved to Thunder Bay in 1976 from Andorra, originally from Scotland with my Canadian Bride Bobbie to run a ski school at Mt Norway. That is where I first met Heather and the Ritchie Girls,(a Thunder Bay Family) & then Don. We held Don & Heather Ski Improvement courses then CSIA Courses. Bobbie & I also had the privilege of being part of the Banff Interski organising committee. Our paths crossed over the years many times, we watched the advent of Stuball growing up and becoming part of Dons monthly articles in Ski Canada and the love that the family had for all. In 2006 VANOC recruited me to run the Whistler Nordic Center, now Whistler Olympic Park, Bobbie had just been diagnosed with breast cancer we thought “What the Hell” and moved west to Squamish for the Olympics. Bobbie became a Mountain Host on WB; 110 days + a season! Bobbie passed away in March 2011 from Cancer complications.
    So to you Heather and family I know what you are going thru, gone thru and what you still have to go thru.
    My love, my thoughts and best wishes go out to you all, thanks Don for some super times and memories….Keep smiling Heather and stay strong as I KNOW YOU WILL!
    All the very best
    Lindsay Scott Durno Squamish, BC.

  9. john cooke says:

    So sorry to hear of Don’s passing. The week I spent at the Ski Pro Workshop in Panorama was the best time I’ve ever had skiing. Thanks again for that wonderful memory! I wish you an endless run of bottomless powder.

  10. Donald MacElroy says:

    I have been following the Sochi Olympic coverage, noticed the name Andre Bilodeau and wondered if he was related to Don. My search for info led to this article and the sad news. I was a classmate of “Binky’s” at Alfred University and we skied together at Happy Valley, a small local area run by Alfred State College, for 4 years. We were both on the Ski Patrol and took turns as Patrol Leader. Bink also taught for the Ski School run by the Alfred Sports Center and raced for the Alfred University Ski Team. We must have put in close to 100 days a year on the “hill” and I often wonder how we ever graduated. I most remember final sweeps at 11 pm (night skiing) followed by an adult beverage (or several) in the lodge. I last saw Bink on a trip to Tremblant, where he was teaching in ’73. I hope my comments find their way to Heather and family and are conveyed with my respect and sympathy as well as memories of many good times.

    Sincerely,
    Donald MacElroy
    donald_macelroy@dcgdevelopment.com

  11. Gail Allen says:

    My condolences to Heather and family. I had the privilege to work with them briefly at that “small waterfront hotel in Sechelt”. Wish I had known them in my skiing days.

  12. David Maclean says:

    My condolences to you Heather and to your family. I only read about Don’s passing today while looking at a SkiPro mag. I have been out of the industry for quite sometime, but what a smile came to my face when I started remembering the wonderful memories I have of Don, “Binky”. From Ski School Pro races at Beaver Valley, when Don was the Director of Blue Mountain, in Ont. Don helped me throughout my skiing carrier as my Examiner for my Level II at Blue Mountain to my Level IV at Whistler/Blackcomb. He was a true Professional and a Fun man! He will be sadly missed but our memories of him will live on forever.
    With great pride,

    David V. Maclean

  13. Martin Young says:

    Don will continue to live on through the verbatim quotes that I still use in my clinics. The right things just make timeless sense. Thanks Don

  14. Su Penny says:

    The last time I saw Don was when he hosted a wonderful lunch in his restaurant half way up the hill at Panorama with my son and I. Don took a picture of us and it is a favorite with the mountains behind. I worked for Don as Ski School Coordinator at Blue Mountain one winter with Don and we were friends from that winter forward. Don was a great guy, filled with fun,love,enthusiasm and encouragement. I will always remember Don Bilodeau, and he was one amazing skier who’s turns I will never forget.

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