The Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Master of Mt. Zion


March 23, 2023

Megan Hughes/The Globe

Jim VanderSpoel parks the groomer near the base of Mt. Zion Ski Area where he is director of Gogebic Community College's Ski Area Management program. He is putting the finishing touches on his final winter at GCC and will retire in October.


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Ironwood - Mt. Zion Ski Area manager and director of Gogebic Community College's Ski Area Management program, Jim VanderSpoel, is preparing for retirement later this year, and with the ski season coming to a close at Mt. Zion, he spoke The Globe about his long career in ski area management and what he has seen change over the years.

VanderSpoel said he felt it was time to bring in some new blood into the program, and that while he is retiring, he still plans to be involved with the area programs, as it is his passion.

"It's just starting to be a bit much," he said. "During the winter season I'm pushing 70-80 hours a week, and it's starting to wear on me."

His retirement date isn't until October, as the college hopes to have his replacement hired and working with him in the fall.

"I've been a skier all my life," said VanderSpoel. "I started skiing in 1964 at a little place called Franklin Hills in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I always enjoyed it, and in those early days it wasn't my intention to work in this business."

He explained he started working at a private ski area in the Grand Rapids area as a junior in high school, later moving onto Cannonsburg Ski Area in downstate Belmont.

"While I was there, my boss told me about GCC," he said.

According to VanderSpoel, he was initially planning on going to college for an engineering degree, but he loved the work he had been doing. "I came here to Gogebic and went through their SAM program," he said.

Following graduation, he went to Steamboat, Colorado, later being invited back to the area to help with construction at Blackjack in Bessemer Township, which lasted about a season.

He then worked on construction of the chair lift at the college, which was finished in 1979, and never left.

"I got hired to help build the chair lift here, and then it was 'will you help see us through the first season,'" he said. "And then the next summer they had all kinds of projects going on, building the road and moving the building."

By 1980, he was helping teach classes, specifically the ski lift courses, which led into a full time position working at the ski lift and teaching in the SAM program.

"And after Randy (Mezzano) retired, they hired me on as the director," said VanderSpoel, "I've been the director for 17 years."

"There were a few classes that I had to study up on. I understood risk management and insurance, but to teach it was a separate beast," said VanderSpoel.

He said he found those early years interesting in that, they were constantly working on projects.

"I never saw myself teaching, but I found out that I liked being in the classroom," he said, "I really don't know when I decided to stay, I just found a home and stuck to it."

Teaching has changed substantially over the years, moving into the computer age and the introduction of various technologies into the classroom.

"I'm a bit of a traditionalist," he said. "When I started here we were using punch cards, and you would go table to table scheduling classes."

VanderSpoel said his largest class was 32 students, with his ideal number of students being the mid-teens.

"The last couple years we were down in enrollment, but next year is looking better," he said.

He has taught more than 500 students in his time at GCC, who hold positions all over the world.

"Even during the period of time where we were shut down, my students would still be here, doing hands-on work. They were still out making snow, they were still out there grooming the hill," he said.

The two-year SAM program is the traditional course of study, but VanderSpoel also teaches a three-week intensive course during the summer as well, which draws students from all over the country.

When he started at GCC, its SAM program was the only one of its kind in the United States, as the Colorado Mountain College's program was still in development.

"The primary market for students is the 13 Midwest states, but you get them from all over the world," he said.

With the program relying more so on the trends in the industry, there is only one textbook that students use, the rest of the information is built up knowledge from years of experience and study of current trends.

"Sometimes finding the information is tough, but a lot of times it is just calling the right person," he said.

He described the SAM program as being a close knit community, with one student referring to it as a SAMily. He explained that he has had former students call asking if there are any students looking for internships.

He is looking forward to seeing where these various ski programs across the country go in the future, "We built ties with various groups, and I hope to see those continue."

He explained that the way ski hills are run has changed drastically since he started in the 1970s, with the mom-and-pop ski hill being a dying form. He explained that it is becoming more common for a company to own multiple ski areas, rather than a family or an individual.

His favorite part of the job was seeing people coming out and having fun at the ski hill.

"My kids grew up here, some of my grandkids grew up here. The Team Z racing program and those programs," he said, listing some things he's enjoyed. "Outside of that, I will still groom every Saturday morning. There is nothing I enjoy more than being in the snow cat and watching the sun come up over the hill, there is nothing like it. There's something about it that makes my day."

VanderSpoel said he plans to remain in the area, as it is home, and it is where his wife is from.

"I'm not leaving the ski industry, per se, I have some opportunities coming my way that I am considering," he said of his future. "The big thing is I won't be working full time as the director."

"I just got reappointed to NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) this past year, and I plan to be working with them for the next three years," he said. "There are things in the industry that I am active in and plan to stay active in. I'm just backing up a bit."


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