Harry Kaiser grew up in Baldwin Harbor, digging clams in the summer for extra money. During impoverished times of the Great Depression, a fisherman who lived next door would share some of his catch with neighbors. So how did Kaiser, a guy whose Long Island background is as humble as chum and as salty as the Great South Bay, the man who is jokingly called a “harbor rat” by his wife of 61 years, evolve to become one of the latest inductees to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame (skihall.com) in Michigan?
Sitting in the living room of his Rockville Centre home, Kaiser, now 85, laughs at the unlikely trajectory that led to his April 9 induction, honoring those who have made outstanding contributions to skiing and snowboarding. Kaiser earned a spot for his 27 years as publisher of Skiing magazine — and for helping to transform the industry into the powerful cultural and commercial phenomenon it became in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I rode a big wave,” Kaiser said with a laugh.
His journey from the fishing shacks of Depression-era Long Island to the slopes of some of the world’s most exclusive ski resorts is one of hard work, opportunism and “right time — right place” luck, he said.
One of seven children, Kaiser was a dutiful student and studied his way into elite Brooklyn Prep High School. He went on to Fordham, and upon graduation was drafted into the Army. “I was scheduled to go to Korea,” he said, “and I got as far as Seattle.” In a stroke of good fortune, the Korean War came to its vague conclusion just as Kaiser was about to be deployed. Instead, he was stationed in Fort Lewis, about 40 miles south of Seattle. The following year, 1955, he married his girlfriend, Carolyn, a Malverne native he’d met a few years earlier at a house party.
“I was 16 when I met him,” recalls Carolyn, now 81. “He was and still is a very humble person.”
After the wedding, the Kaisers got into a used Dodge — the model now long forgotten — and drove across country, back to Seattle where he still had a year left of his Army hitch. Almost one year later — and exactly four days before being discharged in 1956 — Carolyn gave birth to the couple’s first child. Kaiser sold the Dodge and, with the proceeds, purchased plane tickets to New York for himself, his wife and new son. Their destination was firm, but their future uncertain. “I had a wife, a 7-day-old baby and no job,” he said. “That’s pressure!”
Back on Long Island, Kaiser found a position as a management trainee with R.H. Donnelly, a company that, among other things, printed the Yellow Pages telephone directories, which launched his career in publishing. He soon found his niche in ad sales. “That’s where the money was,” Kaiser said. His skill in selling space for smaller, sports-oriented magazines attracted the attention of a bigger fish: In 1964, Bill Ziff, of Ziff-Davis Publications, offered him a job selling ad space for Skiing magazine.
“Again, right time, but we didn’t know it,” recalled Kaiser, whose own experience on skis to that point was limited. But the industry was poised to explode. Kaiser’s success in selling ads for Skiing led to his being named publisher in 1969. The magazine became a showcase for the exciting new world on the slopes: the gear, the celebrities, the locales, the lifestyle. The publication helped sell more than goggles and boots. With Kaiser courting them, major advertisers began showing up in its pages: Chevrolet, Jeep, Absolut Vodka.
Kaiser also worked to promote skiing. “He really made a difference in the sport,” said Tom Kelly, vice president of communications for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Kaiser helped secure Subaru as a sponsor for the U.S. Ski Team. And with Carolyn as an active partner, the Kaisers helped raise money for the team at an annual event called the New York Ski Ball.
Much of Kaiser’s work took him to slopes far from Long Island. “All winter long we were out in snow country,” he said. Park City, Utah; Vail, Colorado; and Lake Tahoe, California. Closer to home, there were Hunter and Windham mountains in the Catskills. Kaiser knew all the resorts, and became a proficient skier. “I had to be!” declared Kaiser, who still skis with his family. “Clients wanted to ski with me. That’s how we did business.”
He attended every Winter Olympics from 1968 in Grenoble to 1998 in Nagano; he met the famous skiers — Jean-Claude Killy, Billy Kidd, Phil and Steve Mahre — and celebrities who enjoyed the slopes. His basement wall is filled with photos taken with former President Gerald Ford, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, football and broadcasting star Frank Gifford. There’s even a picture of a young Donald Trump, who attended one of the fundraising galas with his then-wife, Ivana.
Kaiser helped spur the development of a new version of the sport. Thanks to Skiing magazine’s sponsorship of the first U.S. freestyle team, freestyle — with its highflying aerial events and bone-jarring moguls — became all the rage on the slopes.
“Freestyle really shook up the sport when it came out,” said Kaiser’s longtime friend Bernie Weischel, president of Waltham, Massachusetts-based BEWI Productions, organizer of many ski industry events. “Freestylers were the ’60s lifestyle coming to the slopes. Harry had no trouble relating to that youthful, countercultural energy, even though he was hardly a member of the counterculture.”
Kaiser continued to adapt with the times. In the 1980s, Ziff-Davis sold Skiing to the CBS television network. Eventually, the magazine was sold to Times Mirror (the Los Angeles-based media conglomerate that once owned Newsday). There, Kaiser ran Times Mirror’s magazine division, which included not only Skiing but its longtime competitor Ski.
In 1996, Kaiser decided he’d had enough. Once again, his timing was impeccable. He retired at the dawn of the digital era, which would soon reduce the size and significance of all print media. While Skiing and Ski magazines continue in both print and digital form, they are far smaller than in their heyday.
When they retired, the Kaisers decided they wanted to winter somewhere without snow for a change. They now spend much of the year at their home in Captiva Island, Florida, where he is active with local environmental protection organizations. Kaiser said their five grown children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild find plenty of time to visit.
Kaiser was one of seven in the “Class of 2015” who were inducted into the ski Hall of Fame last month. Others included early freestyle champion Bob Salerno and three-time Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug. The event at the St. Regis Hotel Aspen Resort also provided Kaiser an opportunity to connect with friends from the past.
“Many of the old staff from Skiing [magazine] were there to see me inducted,” he said. “It was very touching.” There was also a light moment, when their old boss, Harry, was introduced as “Henry” Kaiser.
“They all laughed,” Kaiser said. “They said, ‘Who’s that?’ ”
He explained, “My real name is Henry A. Kaiser. But I didn’t even know my real name was Henry until I went into the service. I’ve been called Harry since as long as I can remember.”
Names aside, the honor of being added to the Hall of Fame, he said, allowed him to reflect on the improbable script of his career. In sum, he said, “I’ve had a great life.”