Remembering Warren Witherell, Clay Island Resident, Water Skiing Legend and Olympians’ Mentor
Warren Witherell, whose family has had a home on Clay Island since 1937, died at the age of 79 in Middlebury, Vermont on May 26.
Witherell achieved national prominence as an athlete, a coach and a writer as well as the founding headmaster of Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vermont, an innovative prep school that has produced 115 members of the US Ski Team and 43 Winter Olympians.
Witherell was inducted into the Water Skiing Hall of Fame in recognition of his achievements as both a record-breaking water skier and a designer of water skis.
“I have been honored mostly for inventing things, for finding new and more efficient ways to do things, such as better shapes for skis,” Witherell told the Lake George Mirror in 1998. “Curiosity and imagination have been the foundations of my creativity. I built those foundations living on Clay Island.”
Witherell first visited Lake George in 1936, when he was less than two years old.
“My father Spike and my mother Bobby rented a canoe from Lamb Brothers, paddled down the Narrows and we spent our first week on a Lake George island. Mom and Dad fell in love with Lake George. The next spring, they began looking for property,” Witherell recalled.
He continued, “Mrs. Reynolds, of Recluse Island, suggested that my parents talk to a Reverend MacMaster. She said, ‘His camp on Clay Island has been for sale for a number of years, but whenever someone expresses an interest, he hems and haws and refuses to sell.’ With my older sister Wendy and me in tow, Mom and Dad went to see the Reverend. He was well into his eighties. His wife had passed on and his children had no interest in the camp. We loved it.
“My father said, ‘We’d like to buy it. What’s the price?’ ’$18,000,’ the Reverend replied. That was a hefty sum in 1937. ‘We can’t afford that,’ Dad said, and no doubt we all looked sad. ‘Well, what can you afford?’ the Reverend asked. ‘$4,000 cash and an equal amount mortgage,’ answered Dad. The good preacher pulled on his whiskers for a while, took a careful measure of the young family before him and said, ‘I have been looking for many years for a family that would appreciate and love this place as much as I have. You are the people I have been looking for. I am old and don’t need the money. I’ll accept your $4,000, and you won’t need a mortgage. Good luck and enjoy the island. Thus we became an island family,” said Witherell.
Witherell and his younger brother Charles built a water ski jump in Bolton Bay and the two began practicing the jumps that would lead to their participation in Lake George water ski shows and competitions and ultimately, several regional and national championships and five world records while still teen-agers.
“I liked boats. I was fascinated by wakes and by how the boats would move through the water. By the age of six, I was a student of hydro-dynamics. Years later I would be paid good money to design water skis. I was the first to bevel edges on slalom skis so their tails would ‘suck down’ in the water and be more stable. I won National Championships and set world records on those skis. Finding new ways to do things is what my life has been about,” he said.
Witherell grew up in Albany and graduated from Weslyan University in 1956. He taught English and History at a number of prep schools before founding Burke Mountain Academy, the first sports academy in the nation.
He was the author of ‘How the Racers Ski,’ for many years the standard text for American skiers, and the co-author of ‘The Athletic Skier,’ A final book, ‘Lessons from Burke: One School that Works,’ was unfinished at the time of his death.
Witherell is survived by his two daughters, Dr. Holly Mata and Dr. Heidi Witherell; his sisters Wendy Hill and Fayette Witherell; and his brother Charles.