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Utah skiing's had no better friend than Spence Eccles

Published: Sunday, April 14 2013 9:32 p.m. MDT

Spencer Eccles has enjoyed a love affair with skiing all his life. He's being honored Tuesday by the Utah Sports Commission with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Spencer Fox Eccles is a certified, card-carrying member of Utah’s first family of finance and philanthropy. His grandfather, David Eccles, came to Utah in 1863 with lint in his pocket and became the state’s first multimillionaire. In turn, David’s progeny have taken such good care of what he left them, and been so generous with its profits, that it’s difficult to travel the width and length of the state and not find something or someone the Eccles haven’t touched and helped.

But curiously enough, when Spence is honored tomorrow at the Utah Sports Commission’s annual awards luncheon, it won’t be because he wrote out big checks as an Eccles.

It will be because Utah skiing’s never had a better friend.

The 78-year-old Eccles, banker extraordinaire and chairman and CEO of the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, will receive the commission’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award because of a love affair with the sport of skiing that, truth be told and if he’d had his way, once upon a time would have considerably delayed his entry into the family business.

Flash back to the winter of 1958-59. Spence was newly married and enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University in New York City.

He was also an avid ski racer. He’d spent four years skiing for the University of Utah when he was an undergraduate, winding up an All-American, and in 1957-58 he was named to the team that would represent the United States at the FIS world championships in Austria. Unfortunately, however, he was the seventh member of the team and the cash-strapped U.S. could only afford to send six men.

But he was oh so close and he knew it, and in the fall of 1958 he began training in dedicated seriousness to qualify for the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif. All was going great until he broke a bone in his foot while training at Alta in December.

The doctors put a cast on his foot, gave him some crutches, and he was off to school at Columbia, where that would have been that if not for a command decision he made one day while sitting in class: He found a hacksaw and cut off the cast.

He shot the foot with novocaine and limped back to the racing circuit determined to give it one more shot.

If they didn’t see him again soon, he told his professors, look for him in Squaw Valley.

But they did see him again soon. Spence raced every week for a month, but his results reflected that he wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent.

“That’s it. I gave it my best,” he said to his new wife, Cleone, and they headed back to New York and school.

A year later, while those ’60 Olympic Games came and went, he was working on Wall Street. Not long after that he returned to the Intermountain West and went to work for First Security, the family bank he would eventually help merge with Wells Fargo.

But he never stopped skiing — or chasing the Olympics. When Utah decided to try for the Games, he was part of both the 1998 and 2002 bid committees, and when the 2002 Olympics were secured, he joined the organizing committee.

It was Spence Eccles who spearheaded the creation and funding of the Athletes Village on the University of Utah campus, an effort that succeeded so splendidly that on the eve of the games the International Olympic Committee honored him with its highest award, the Pierre de Coubertin founders medal, and hung around his neck the first ceremonial gold medal of the Salt Lake Games.

Finally, the native Utahn who first learned to ski in 1943 at Snowbasin at the age of 9, and whose first coach was Corey Engen of the legendary Engen Brothers, had his Olympic medal.

At 78, Spence Eccles still skis as avidly as ever — living proof that skiing is indeed a lifetime sport.

“Just watch your Ps and Qs and don’t fall out of the lift,” he advises. “I put the bar down now, and I wear a helmet.”

He appreciates the beauty of the mountains, and the thrill of sliding down them, now more than ever after cancer took his wife of 54 years and lifetime skiing partner just a week and a half ago. Her funeral was last Wednesday.

“I really consider this award a tribute to her; one great human being,” he said of Cleone Peterson Eccles. “She was always the glue to everything we did. And she loved to ski. We all did.”

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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