In memoriam: Red River ski pioneer Ilse Woerndle

Woerndle_Ilse_RR_News_BW copyA survivor of World War II, devoted wife and mother, founder of Sitzmark Sporting Goods and symbol of Red River who skied into her 70s and 80s, Ilse Spemann Woerndle died May 1 at the age of 92.

Born in Stuttgart, Germany on Aug. 7, 1920 to Adolf Spemann and Ernestine (“Ina”) Schulz Speman as the youngest of four children, Ilse passed away at 10:10 p.m. May 1 at Holy Cross Hospital after struggling through the winter with a congestive heart condition, her obituary states. In spite of her illness and insufficient oxygen at this altitude, it states, “she refused to leave her beloved Red River.”

The obituary goes on to list her notable life accomplishments. She married her husband Anton “Toni” Woerndle in 1949, moving to America to start a new life in 1951. In 1959, Toni was invited to join his business partner as the ski school director at Red River Ski Area. Later, in 1960, the two of them purchased and converted the S.E.B. Motel into the Alpine Lodge.

“Through vision, daring, fortitude and hard work, Ilse and Toni converted the square, flat-roofed cinder block buildings into an alpine retreat, their second Alpine Lodge,” the obituary states. “Ilse was fundamental to this process, drawing designs for the buildings, adding a restaurant and bar, which were local and tourist favorites for decades, a ski rental shop and ski clothing shop, and continuing the operation of the movie theatre.”

After the town began to swell with more visitors and Ilse and Toni had more inventory than their small store could manage, they purchased the building that would become Sitzmark Sporting Goods.

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“In 1976, with their ski rental business growing too big for the little shop at The Alpine, the Woerndles purchased a building across the street that for years had housed a grocery store and opened Sitzmark Sports in 1977,” states a 2007 story by Ellen Miller-Goins, then-managing editor of the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle.

Susan Hogrefe, a Sitzmark manager and friend of Ilse for a couple of decades, spoke about her late friend.

“She was definitely a hard worker, a stickler for detail,” Hogrefe said.

Hogrefe said Woerndle “always came by the store and checked in all the time” even her mid-70s, but she could not be found on one particular day.

“She didn’t tell anybody she was going anywhere, and it was very unexpected for her not to come by the store at about 4 p.m.,” Hogrefe said. “She came by later, and I asked her where she had been all day. And she said ‘It was such a nice day, I decided to climb Wheeler Peak’ — by herself.”

Ilse and her husband ran Sitzmark when it was a little ski shop, and they moved it across the street in the 1980s. Soon after that, their son George took it over, Hogrefe said. Ilse would always make sure that everyone was where they should be, have things turned on and ensure that the shop was running well.

“She skied until she was in her 70s or 80s,” Hogrefe said.

The characteristics of selflessness and charity are hallmarks of Ilse’s legacy.

“Throughout her life, Ilse was a force to be reckoned with, always out-spoken, reaching out to others, reading endlessly about world events, the arts, finances, preventative medicine, and meeting life head-on,” her obituary states.

“She was just always very involved and always dressed up. And for Oktoberfest she would dress up in her dirndl, a ladies German dress,” Hogrefe said. “For the Century Tour, she would ring her cowbell when everyone crossed the finish line.”

A day of honor and memorial services were held for Ilse throughout the town Saturday (May 4).

“It’s a proclamation the town does for special elders when they pass away,” Hogrefe said. “She was one of our icons. Her smile is what I’ll miss the most.”

Ilse is survived by her sons George F. Woerndle (Carol) of Red River and Rudolph A. (“Rudi”) Woerndle (Sandra) of Midland, Texas; grandsons Graham S. Woerndle (Jenni) of Midland, Texas and Chase W. Woerndle of New York City; her older brother Dieter Spemann; nieces Gerdi Smink, Hanni Schuster, Jutta Iversen, Astrid Schulz, and Dorothee Whitaker of Germany; her step-grandson Daniel Madewell (Julia) and their daughter, Jade.