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Otto Lang, 1908-2006: Northwest icon founded first ski school at Mount Rainier
By Tomislav Kapular | Published  01/9/2007 | People , In Memoriam | Unrated
In Memoriam: Otto Lang 1908-2006
Otto Lang, 1908-2006: Northwest icon founded first ski school at Mount Rainier


Otto Lang, a skiing pioneer and filmmaker, was a Northwest icon who had few equals in elegance, work ethic and zest for life.

Lang, who touched the lives of neophyte skiers and Hollywood stars alike, died Monday at his West Seattle home at the age of 98. He had been suffering from heart disease.

Lang, who was born in Bosnia and spent part of his childhood in Austria, pioneered skiing in the United States, bringing European cache and technique to the United States in the 1930s. He founded the first ski school at Mount Rainier in 1937 and directed Sun Valley's ski school before and after World War II. Then he launched a successful career as a Hollywood filmmaker.

He also became an accomplished photographer, woodworker and writer. He wrote ski columns for the Seattle P-I and two books.

"He was an unbelievable human being," said skiing filmmaker and longtime friend Warren Miller. "He is the last of the old Austrian ski instructors; it is the absolute end of an era."

Miller also called Lang a "Renaissance man."

"Otto was successful at multiple careers and always kept his mind active," Miller said. "He was a great athlete, yet he'd always wear a cravat or necktie; he dressed to the nines. But he was always gracious."
Gerard Schwarz, music director for the Seattle Symphony and a friend of Lang's, said in a statement Wednesday that tonight's previously scheduled performance of Mozart's C Minor Mass will be dedicated to Lang, "a dear friend to our orchestra ... (and) a continual inspiration to us all in so many ways."

Lang was born in 1908 in the small village of Zenica, Bosnia, to an Austrian father and Croatian mother. It was the year Bosnia became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War I, the family left for Salzburg, Austria. Otto, then 10, found his first pair of skis -- Austrian army surplus from the war -- for 10 cents, friends said. The young Lang became smitten with skiing, proving adept as a racer and jumper. He was hired in 1929 by Hannes Schneider, considered the father of modern skiing, to teach at the famed Austrian ski area, St. Anton am Arlberg. Lang brought the so-called Arlberg turning technique to the United States, revolutionizing a sport that had no chair lifts, no groomed runs and long, tough-turning skis.

In the winter of 1937, Lang opened the first official North American branch of the Hannes Schneider Ski School on Mount Rainier. He opened two more Schneider schools at Mount Baker and Mount Hood in the winter of 1937-38.

One of his best-known pupils was Gretchen Kunigk of Tacoma, who later won an Olympic gold medal for the United States in 1948 under her married name, Gretchen Fraser.

In 1939, Mr. Lang joined the Sun Valley Ski School, becoming its executive director from 1941 to 1942 before the Idaho resort closed because of World War II. Mr. Lang resumed his position in 1946 when the resort reopened, remaining until 1950.

One of his Sun Valley students was Hollywood film producer Darryl Zanuck, who asked him to direct the ski-action sequences for the movie

"Sun Valley Serenade," starring ice skater Sonia Henje.

That work led to a job as an assistant director at 20th Century Fox, where he directed and produced dozens of films and TV shows. He shot all over the world and worked with some of the biggest entertainment names of the time, earning four Academy Award nominations for short subjects and documentaries.

He also wrote two books, the autobiographical "Bird of Passage" and "Around the World in 90 Years," a travel-photography memoir.
But he never lost his love for skiing and participated in the sport into his 90s.

Seattle skier Debbie Armstrong, who won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, near where Lang was born, had a special bond with Lang. Both shared a love of Bosnia, a passion for skiing and a grounded, clear-eyed approach to life.

In an article published last fall in The Professional Skier magazine, Armstrong wrote about contacting her friend Lang in early 2005 after doctors ordered her off the slopes after a medical ordeal that nearly killed her. "I learned how Otto is viewed in West Seattle," Armstrong wrote. "He is a celebrity! (A word he detests, by the way. He sees himself as a very ordinary guy.)"

Lang is survived by his companion of more than 20 years, June Campbell, and two sons -- Peter Lang of Santa Rosa, Calif., and Mark Lang of Coronado, Calif. His wife, Sinclair Gannon, preceded him in death.

Formated for CROWN by Marko Pulji
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