Sandy Poulsen: "First Lady of Squaw Valley"
On September 19, 2007, about 750 friends and family from throughout the West came to Squaw Valley to honor the life and memory of Gladys
"Sandy" Poulsen, who died quietly on Sept. 2 after a courageous battle with ovarian cancer. Fondly known as the "First Lady of Squaw Valley," Sandy and her husband Wayne, who died in 1995, were
the first to move into the valley with the dream of developing the surrounding mountains into a world-class ski resort.
Entrance to Olympic Valley where Wayne & Sandy Poulsen built their home and raised eight children
(click for larger version)
In some ways, Sandy Poulsen was an unlikely pioneer. She was born in Buffalo, New York, on August 3, 1918, to Oscar and
Gladys Kunau. Sandy was raised as a debutante in a world of comfort and privilege. Her father had achieved financial success in the textile industry and the family lived in
a penthouse at the luxurious Sherry-Netherland Hotel, which overlooked Central Park in mid-town Manhattan. After high school Sandy entered Smith College, a private
women's liberal arts college in Northampton, Massachusetts. She enjoyed her classes and weekend ski trips in New England.
Among her best friends was Kathleen Harriman, the daughter of Union Pacific
Railroad tycoon Averell Harriman. During the 1930s, Harriman noted that more Americans were becoming interested in winter sports. As Chairman of Union Pacific
, Harriman realized his railroad traversed some of the most scenic and mountainous areas in the West, and in 1935 he hired an agent to search out a good location for
an upscale winter resort that could be accessed by UP trains. The best spot turned out to be near Ketchum, Idaho, and on December 21,1936, Sun Valley Resort, the
West's first destination ski area, opened to international publicity.
In 1941, Kathleen Harriman suggested that Sandy take a ski trip to Sun Valley on her
father's railroad line. The idea intrigued Sandy who was tired of the hard, icy snow conditions on the slopes in New England. Kathleen told her that the snow at Sun
Valley was deep and soft. Sandy had recently seen the romantic movie, "Sun Valley Serenade" starring Sonja Henie, a world-class ice skater and Olympic champion.
The stunning alpine scenery drew Sandy like a powerful magnet, so she packed her things and bought a train ticket for a trip to Idaho. It took her five days to reach Salt
Lake City and then another day or two to reach Sun Valley where she boldly checked into the ski lodge unescorted.
Sandy Kunau signed up for ski lessons and soon met her future husband, Wayne Poulsen, a pilot for Pan American Airlines and ski champion from
Reno, Nevada. The couple hit it off right away, spending their days on the slopes and dancing in the Sun Valley Lodge every night until it closed. Years later Sandy liked to joke that she let her
skiing ability improve very slowly so Wayne would have to spend more time teaching her the techniques. Sandy spent the rest of the winter at Sun Valley learning to ski with Wayne and by the
time spring arrived they were engaged. Wayne told Sandy about Squaw Valley, a remote alpine valley tucked into the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe, and that when they got married they would live and
raise their family there.
Their glamorous wedding was held in August 1942 at the beautiful Santa Monica oceanfront home of
the famous Hollywood actress Norma Shearer. Shearer's first husband had died tragically in 1936, but in an interesting twist of fate, she too had decided to take a ski
vacation at Sun Valley during the same winter as Sandy Kunau. While there, she met and fell in love with Martin Arrougé, a San Francisco-born ski instructor fifteen years
her junior. "Marti" Arrougé also happened to be one of Wayne Poulsen's best ski buddies from the early days in Nevada. Later the young men had both become ski
instructors at Sun Valley. The romantic magic of Sun Valley depicted in the movie must have been true; at the resort both Poulsen and Arrougé met their future brides and lifelong partners.
Marti Arrougé's father was a Basque sheepherder who tended the flocks that grazed
in the meadows of Squaw Valley during the mild summer months. When Wayne and Marti were in high school, it was Marti's father who invited the two teenagers up to
fish and hike in the nearby mountains. During that summer sojourn, Poulsen fell in love with Squaw Valley and began to dream that he could develop it into a wonderful ski area.
At the time Wayne told Sandy about living in Squaw Valley he didn't own anything
there, but true to his word, in 1943 he purchased 640 acres from Southern Pacific Railroad. Wayne whisked Sandy away from her upscale lifestyle in Manhattan and
moved her into a tent in remote Squaw Valley. They spent the summer in the valley, bathing in the frigid waters of Shirley Canyon and eating the fresh trout Wayne
caught everyday. It was tough going in the early days, but Sandy had no complaints. She often recalled how peaceful the valley was and that although the couple had
virtually nothing in the way of material possessions, they were full of hopes and dreams. After World War II ended, the Poulsen's purchased two surplus army
barracks and converted them into a real home that could withstand the severe Sierra winters. It was the first house built in Squaw Valley and survives today as Graham's Restaurant.
Wayne spent about two weeks a month flying for Pan Am which left Sandy on her own as she began to raise the first of their eight children. As the
children grew older they attended Tahoe Lake School near Tahoe City and later Truckee High. During winter the bus rarely made it to Squaw Valley so for many years Sandy drove the kids to
school in an old beat-up station wagon. During Wayne's frequent extended absences, Sandy took on the various roles of a ranch boss, postmaster, realtor, writer, and mother of eight ski racers who
constantly needed rides to competitive events. Two of the children went on to become Olympic Ski Champions and one became All-American.
While skiing at Alta, Utah, in 1946, the couple met Alex Cushing, a Harvard
-educated lawyer with financial contacts. The Poulsen's needed investors for their dream of making Squaw Valley into a ski area and in 1948 Cushing became their
partner in the Squaw Valley Development Corporation. The business relationship did not work out, however, and Cushing went on to develop the valley as a ski resort
while the Poulsen's began a successful career in real estate selling the land they owned there.
Sandy Poulsen always had a sense of adventure. She was one of the first women to
earn a commercial pilot's license and after World War II the Poulsen's purchased a single-engine plane. The war surplus, two-man aircraft had an open cockpit; Sandy
and Wayne wore leather helmets and communicated using a rubber tube. After they bought an amphibious floatplane, they took family camping trips to Alaska or fishing
trips to remote Sierra lakes. In later years, they sometimes used the floatplane to visit Tahoe lakefront restaurants for dinner.
One of the classic stories about Sandy involves her "improving" skiing ability. During
the design stage of the ski resort in 1948, Sandy and Wayne were skiing a very steep, north-facing slope. Wayne was an expert skier and proved it by carving turns
straight down the steep pitch. Sandy, however, was terrified and could only negotiate the slope by traversing into the trees to secretly make a kick turn. (Wayne had told
her he wanted her to "ski" down the mountain, not traverse the slope with kick turns.) Despite Wayne's admonishments to ski, Sandy continued to kick turn and traverse
the slope little by little until she reached the bottom. Wayne, who was patiently waiting and counting the number of traverses, calmly informed her that she had
made 22 kick turns to negotiate the hill. He then named the mountain KT-22 in honor of her embarrassing descent. KT-22 remains one of America's favorite and challenging ski slopes.
After a lifetime of impressive accomplishments in skiing and aviation, Wayne Poulsen died in 1995. It's hard to separate the achievements of Sandy
and her husband Wayne, their love affair lasted 53 years. In 2004, Sandy accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Squaw Valley Institute given to honor both Wayne and Sandy. In 2005, the
U.S. Board of Geographic Names officially designated a peak in Squaw Valley as "Poulsen Peak" commemorating Wayne Poulsen, a ski area pioneer and founder of Squaw Valley.
Sandy's love for Squaw Valley was only surpassed by her love for her husband and
her family who survive her including her eight children: Christian, Wayne Jr., Lance, Eric, Sandra, Craig, Glen and Russell, as well as her 18 grandchildren and one great
grandchild. Sandy Poulsen was a true pioneer, a loving mother, an inspiration and pillar of strength to those who knew her and a great lover of life.
Sandy Poulsen regularly attended the Squaw Valley Chapel, which was built for the
1960 Winter Olympics after the Poulsen's donated the land that the church now sits on. The charming chapel is a fitting tribute to Wayne and Sandy, located between KT
-22 and Poulsen Peak. In 1992, Sandy Poulsen said, "I grew up in New York, in a penthouse, but I ended up living in a tent in Squaw Valley. Yet I couldn't have been luckier." Rest in peace Sandy.