Summit County pioneers: Marie Zdechlik
FRISCO — Marie Zdechlik possessed the firm resolve of a determined soul. The mischievous glint in her eyes sent a strong message that no chance, destiny or fate could hinder or control her spirit. Marie possessed a bedrock of strength and energy instilled from her childhood and enforced through the rugged, mountain lifestyle she adopted more than 70 years ago.
Marie felt grateful for the independence her father and mother taught her on the farm where she grew up in Minnesota. Neither of her parents had more than a seventh-grade education, but they had a lot of “hark-knocks” learning.
She clearly remembered her father sitting her down one day and saying, “Now that I’ve raised you and paid your way for 18 years, let’s see what you can do.”
Those who knew Marie would say she had more than proven herself capable of doing just about anything she set her mind to. She had never been one to wait around for someone else to do things for her. If ever there was something she didn’t know how to do, she just dove in and tried it anyway.
“You learn to do all these things because you have to do them,” Marie said. “No one can teach you anything if you don’t want to learn. Learning is a privilege.”
During World War II, Marie joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, which was designed to increase the number of nurses supporting the war effort by paying the enlistee’s tuition. She graduated in 1946 and moved to Colorado, where she worked at the University of Colorado Hospital with the Red Cross during the polio epidemic, caring for children with the disease. The gym was turned into to a ward with 160 children, ages 18 months to 16 years.
As one of six nurses on a shift, Marie explained, “We gave baths, physical therapy, hot packs, read stories, sang songs and anything else that might help make their stay less painful and lonesome.”
A mountain lifestyle
During those years in Colorado, Marie also helped her sister with her new baby as well as attempted skiing for the first time.
“I think I fell 45 times in Winter Park, but I knew I would some day master skiing,” she said, admitting that she always thrived on new challenges.
Marie then moved to Climax in 1947, where about 500 workers lived with their families. She went to work for $1 per hour and $1.08 for the graveyard shift in the Climax infirmary. The hospital was fully equipped and staffed for emergency care as well as inpatient and outpatient care, including occasionally delivering babies when bad road conditions prevented people from making the drive to Leadville.
She joined a bowling league called The Panhandlers with a group of other nurses. In the summer, fast-pitch softball became the free-time activity of choice, and Climax sponsored a women’s team on which Marie played. They traveled to Leadville, Basalt, Glenwood Springs and to the state tournament in Denver.
Also at that time, Mount Massive Golf Course was in the early stages of development, so Marie and a group of her friends decided to play a round.
“Tufts of grass made up the fairways, the roughs consisted of sagebrush and the greens were sand,” Marie said. “From that day on, I became a golf-aholic.”
Skiing was just gaining recognition in Colorado in the late 1940s when a T-bar was installed at Climax. The terrain was still quite rugged by modern standards. A lift ticket was $10 a year, and it was open Wednesday and Saturday nights as well as weekend days.
“If you could ski Climax, you could ski anywhere,” Marie said.
Having mastered the sport, she joined the ski patrol. One of the largest concerns for the patrol was the boys from the 10th Mountain Division from nearby Camp Hale. Many of the soldiers were from places like Alabama and Georgia with no opportunities until now to ski, so when they crashed, they crashed hard.
“There weren’t safety bindings,” Marie said, referring to the older equipment technology. “You could fall on your face, and you would never come out of those bindings.”
Starting a family
New Year’s Eve of 1953, she married Bob Zdechlik, a math and science teacher at the Climax School. He had been stationed at Lowry Field and, like Marie, became an avid skier. They lived in a one-room apartment during that first year of marriage, and Marie continued to work up until the day she delivered their first child.
After becoming a mother, Marie ran the ski patrol at Climax. Many people who skied during the years Marie worked at Climax remember her using the loud speaker system by singing and yodeling to the crowd.
Climax began experiencing geographically altering changes in the late 1950s as residents were asked to move their houses in order to make room for more mining. Marie explained that all the skiers moved to the east side of Fremont Pass, and by 1962, all homes were moved to Leadville.
As a wedding gift, a longtime engineering friend gave Bob and Marie three lots in Frisco, and they purchased six more. Armed with books on construction, plumbing and electrical wiring, they began building a home in 1954, moved in 1958, added on in 1960 and filled the last nail hole in 1964.
“With only 87 people living in Frisco in 1954, it was challenging to find help with the construction, which is why so many do-it-yourself houses began to spring up,” Marie said.
Marie handled the challenge well. She did all her own rock work on their fireplace even though she had no previous experience. Marie and Bob also dug their own well, which was only 42 feet deep, using a frame and old miner’s technology and installed a pressure pump.
Water was continually a scarce commodity, even through the 1960s. It would typically freeze, forcing people to resort to other methods, such as melting snow to wash their hair or bleeding the fire hydrants and using buckets to fill their bathtubs. They also had to keep their septic tanks open to keep them operating or else they would freeze solid, as well.
Her husband, Bob, accepted the daunting task of becoming Frisco water commissioner during these challenging times. The eternal optimist, Marie said, “What are you going to do? Cry about it? No, you just had to keep laughing.”
With four of her soon-to-be six children keeping her busy, Marie said she had no time to complain.
Motherhood began taking more and more of her time and focus, yet Marie made certain she instilled many fundamental life philosophies in her children as they were growing up just as her parents had instilled in her. She would tell them, “You don’t have to win, just do your best. If you start something, finish it.”
A passion for skiing
The schools began including skiing as part of the curriculum, but the children still couldn’t get into a formal class unless they could snowplow and turn. Ski schools were in their infant stages at that time and did not have enough instructors to handle the large number of students.
Marie and Jody Anderson, another longtime Frisco resident, cut down a bunch of trees to make a little ski hill for the children to learn on. When they were good enough, they would go to Arapahoe Basin and practice skiing around poles to further enhance their ability. Marie began shuttling carloads of 13 or more young children to Arapahoe Basin every Saturday to learn more about the sport.
Mothers of skiing children volunteered to help with beginners on the instruction hill. Those who didn’t ski helped to put on skis and mittens, wipe noses and tell the children how great they were doing,
“It’s difficult to teach children how to ski, as they want to head straight down and go fast,” Marie recalled. “They learn best by watching and mimicking.”
Many children in the area took an interest in Nordic skiing when Steve Reischl and Jim Balfonz came to Summit County and introduced ski touring. Parents also got together and built ski jumps at the base of Mount Royal for them to practice jumping, which had also gained in popularity.
By this time, the youngest of Marie’s children, who was just 5 years old, was also ski jumping. The kids would foot-pack the ramps for take-off and landing, and Marie would help set the track on the in-run of the ski jump.
“I didn’t want to jump, but when some little kid says, ‘Mrs. Zdechlik, would you set tracks for us?’ you don’t want to say, ‘No, I’m too scared to jump.’ You just get into a tuck and then stand up. That’s all you do,” she said matter of factly.
All of the Zdechlik children were skiers. The girls skied Alpine at a very young age and branched out into cross-country and jumping. They competed for Summit schools and Rocky Mountain Division, which participates nationally and internationally. Each reached their own level of competition, taking them as far as college.
In spring 1971, Bob took some time off with the family and skied every day with children ranging in age from 5-17.
“We packed a picnic lunch the night before and went skiing at Arapahoe Basin, Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Vail,” Marie recalled. “It was a week full of fun-filled days with many laughs and was something the family talked about for many years.”
Marie became the local favorite of the neighborhood children, always playing an active role in their fun and discipline. She, with the mothers’ and children’s help, built a baseball field in a nearby meadow. Many a home-run rolled into Jug Creek.
Through the remainder of her life, Marie lived in the same home she and Bob built years ago, even using her own table saw for those occasional “projects” that arose. Bob always shared her zest for life until his death in 1991. They both have cross-country trails named after them at the Frisco Nordic Center — R.J.’s Vista and MarieZ — forever preserving that spirit of carefree joy in Summit County.
Editor’s note: Marie Zdechlik died in October 2019 at age 94.
This story previously published in the book “Summit Pioneers,” which was printed in 1999. The book was written by Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz with photos by Bob Winsett in partnership with Wilson-Lass Creative Communications. It was published to raise money for The Summit Foundation. Read more about the history of Summit County at SummitDaily.com/news/history.