In memoriam: Wally Dobbs

Wally, Christy and Isis (Courtesy photo)
Wally, Christy and Isis (Courtesy photo)

When Wally Dobbs died July 21, 2015, at the age of 70, he left behind his wife, Christy Weber Dobbs; daughters Wendee Neubauer and TeeLee Phlieger; five grandchildren and one great daughter; his sister Janie Dobbs Morris and brother Randy Dobbs. But he also left behind legion of friends, fans and followers – all whose lives will be less rich without Wally.

Born July 18, 1945, Wally skied for the first time in 1960.

“I was living in Mesquite, Texas, the rodeo capital of the world, when I saw the Squaw Valley Olympics on television,” Wally said when he was inducted into the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame in 2012. “I thought: women… hot tubs… that’s me.”

In 1968, the year he claims he was “invited” to go to Vietnam a buddy suggested ski trip might be fun — with the added bonus of a potential broken limb and a deferment.

“I learned to ski at Powder Puff (a now-defunct beginner’s ski area in Red River) and I took a lesson with Gary Starbuck,” Dobbs told the Chronicle in a 2008 interview. “I told him I was going to ski the ‘big mountain’ at Red River Ski Area the next day and he said, ‘Well, I think you should be careful. They got a lot of moguls there.’ I didn’t know what he meant but I skied around wondering when this animal, the mogul, was going to come out and bite me. I got on the lift at 9 and walked into the Red Onion Bar at 12 and I had made one run! We were there one week. The goal was breaking my leg, the reward was finding something I loved.”

Still Dobbs took his time getting to the full-time job of selling — and teaching — skiing. At 29, with a child on the way, he took a job at The Graphics Group in Dallas. While there, Dobbs says, he benefited from the wit and wisdom of his boss, company owner Lawrence Melton. “He’d say, ‘Happiness is not doing what you like but doing what you have to and liking it’ and I think that’s true in a lot of things.”

After several years as executive vice president and general manager, Dobbs left in 1980 to manage his family’s floral business (his father had died of cancer at age 59).  Then in 1987, after spending a summer in Red River and going through a divorce, Dobbs finally found his way to the slopes — for good.

“My dad told me, ‘Anybody can work for a living.’ It took me 20 years to figure out what that means. I’ll do anything as long as it doesn’t interfere with my skiing. What makes me happy is either skiing or talking about skiing. I asked everyone in Vietnam, ‘Have you tried skiing?’ and now 40 years later I’m still asking, ‘Have you tried skiing?’”

The late, great Drew Judycki and Wally Dobbs (Courtesy photo)
The late, great Drew Judycki and Wally Dobbs (Courtesy photo)

He worked as a ski instructor, co-founded the New Mexico Adventure Company with buddy Rob Swan and befriended ski area owner Drew Judycki. It was this friendship that led to Dobb’s marketing career in 1995. He once said, “I’m like a friggin’ Bible salesman. I started hitting the road going to ski shows in Texas and Louisiana. That led to all the ski areas contracting with me to represent them.”

Dobbs was so successful at marketing he was inducted into the Tourism Association of New Mexico’s Hall of Fame seven years ago. “Ernie Blake was their first skier, I was the second,” Dobbs says. (Dobbs’ buddy Drew, who died in spring 2008, was inducted posthumously that year.)

Dobbs would teach for the winter then hit the road summer and fall in his Willys Jeep Wagon a rambling hybrid with a Mustang chassis, a Corvette engine and parabolic skis for bumpers. “They made the Jeep turn easier,” Dobbs quips.

The horn played “La Cucaracha” and the sides were festooned with regional ski area logos, the back window with the words “Ask Me About Red River.”

“We all have incredible stories of life with Wally,” J.P. Rael said at Wally’s memorial Aug. 10 at Red River Ski Area. “Stories that include the coldest beers, golf, skiing and $100 bar tabs on $2 draught night. There was the time we walked in to Hooters, shocker I know, and Wally convinced the waitress that we were surgeons, on our way to surgery in just an hour, and that she should probably hurry to get us our beers so we wouldn’t be late.”

Among the things J.P. said he learned from Wally were, “When Wally says ‘Let’s eat somewhere nice tonight” that means you will be having wings at Chili’s instead of Hooters” and “The exact distance from Midland to Red River is a six pack and two tall boys… we calibrated that several times.”

Every story shared at Wally’s memorial was like that: full of humor and love and color.

“When making my notes on today… I laughed out loud that is because on the same line was ‘Jesus’ and ‘cocktails’” Paulette Kiker said at Wally’s memorial. “But that was Walter right? He was real. He was transparent… He didn’t hold back any punches just let you have it right between the eyes.

“I met Wally in the fall of my first year here. It was 1989 and I was 24 and he made an impression on me almost immediately. Skiing, tourism, marketing, raising kids, he had a tried and true method for dang near everything or, at the very least, an opinion. That’s why we are all here because he lived a life that turned our heads, made us pause, challenged us, made us try to be better.  We all have a story or a favorite thought about Wally some good maybe some bad. He wasn’t perfect, he was ornery and sometimes cantankerous.”

Once he began selling skiing across Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, etc., Dobbs was on the road so much, he took up residence in Texas to be nearer to his market in the months he wasn’t living in Red River and teaching skiing. Most of the fall months, he said, “I lived at airports” and continued traveling in the Willys. “Whenever I stopped rolling to get gas, or whatever, people would say, ‘Hey, have you got some brochures?’ It was really gorilla marketing.”

Cancer put an end to that grueling lifestyle. Still, even though the marketing business ended, Dobbs continued teaching skiing at Red River Ski Area.

“My favorite lesson to teach is the first-time lesson,” Dobbs said. What’s made that lesson a lot more enjoyable to teach is the shaped ski. I tell people I’m a doctor of the divine turn. Gravity is the devil trying to pull you down the hill but if you believe in the ski and you let it do what it does, it crosses up the devil and then you have salvation.”

“Wally gets so much joy teaching people to ski,” Christy said in a 2010 American Profile article by Pam Grout. “He just wants everybody to love it like he does.”

Wally married Christy Sept 6, 1998.

“I am not good at stories like Wally was,” Christy told the Chronicle. “All I know is that Wally and I had so many wonderful adventures that I would never have even thought about if it had not been for him. He loved his friends dearly, worked hard and played even harder. Just thinking about him puts a smile on the faces of the people who loved him. I was proud to be his wife and best friend.

“I never would have skied again, if not for him. I never would have worked at a ski area or lived in a town like Red River without him. He taught me to not take life so seriously and to enjoy myself. If you could not have fun around him then you just could not have fun.”

Christy said Wally’s love for snow skiing served as an emotional anchor during the off-season in 2009 when he underwent a bone marrow transplant to treat lymphoma. “Even while he was having chemo, skiing was all he could talk about. Every nurse at Baylor (Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas) is coming to Red River to ski.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Dobbs taught skiing as long as he could. “My guys ask me all the time, ‘When are you going to retire?’ I tell them ‘I am retired.’ Retirement is doing what you like. I can’t see myself sitting in Arizona playing bridge.”

The gospel according to Wally.