Gary Berger was a little bit like E.F. Hutton.
When he spoke, people listened. Even Sam Walker.
As Tom Cage said this week with a laugh, “Gary was one of the few people where, when he started to talk, Sam Walker would shut up.”
Gary Berger, who excelled at so many things – as a father, husband, ski instructor, restaurateur, soccer coach – passed away on July 24 at his home in Mammoth. He was 80 years old.
Berger was born in Los Angeles in 1940 and grew up in Venice Beach. In high school, sister Roberta said Gary was voted Student Body President. He was also a pole vaulter who competed in the city championships at the L.A. Coliseum.
He was introduced to Mammoth first during the summers, when his father would take Gary’s Boy Scout troop on camping trips to Horseshoe Lake.
His father did more than simply visit Mammoth – he also invested. The family owned the corner at Minaret and Main where The Eatery/Mammoth Brewing Company now stands.
Gary’s father later traded that lot for one up the street, where Burgers and the Alpenhof are now.
Roberta says her parents built the original Alpenhof Lodge (the first eight units) back in 1961, and sold it to the Schaubmayer family in 1972.
But Gary’s first and greatest passion was always skiing. As a boy, the family would take trips every weekend to Holiday Hill (now known as Mountain High) in the San Gabriels.
Upon graduating from UCLA, where he studied business, Gary taught skiing in New Zealand as well as Sun Valley (where he also spent a memorable winter setting pins manually at the bowling alley)before arriving in Mammoth in 1964. 1964. Phil Kerridge was his first roommate.
“Gary never tired of teaching people. He tried to teach me all the time. Pissed me off,” chuckled Kerridge.
Which was a theme with Gary Berger. There was his way of doing things … and his way of doing things.
“If I drove him somewhere,” said Sam Walker, a fellow Mammoth restaurateur, “he would always pick the route. And the route never changed. There were no alternatives. He never chose something different for a change of pace. What was right was what was right.”
“He was incredibly observant,” added Walker. “He saw nuance in everything.”
This attention to detail manifested itself in everything Berger did, from teaching to business to even a choice of words.
Craig Albright, who now serves as Mammoth Mountain’s Vice-President of Skier Services, not only worked as a ski instructor under Berger, but also cooked for him at his restaurant.
“He would get ticked off at waitresses if they said we had run out of the special. We never run out, he’d say. We sell out. There’s a big difference.”
As an instructor, former proteges Albright, Gary Posekian (four-year member of the PSIA – Professional Ski Instructors Assn. – Alpine Team), John Armstrong (former Race Dept. Director and Corporate Trainer) and Julie Brown (current Vice-President, June Mountain Operations) all touched upon similar themes when recalling “taskmaster” Gary Berger. An amalgam of their observations would read something like this:
“He had no patience for you if you weren’t striving to improve yourself. And he had a sixth sense for sniffing that out. His prickliness steered away the unworthy. But once you proved yourself to him, he was great.”
But even if he loved you, he was always sure to keep you humble.
Gary Posekian recalled a time he was ripping down Broadway and Gary had a group coming up the T-Bar with him. And as Posekian says, Broadway was showtime. You knew everyone on the T-Bar was watching you.
Berger literally flagged Posekian down and instructed his group to get off halfway. Posekian was swelling with pride. He thought Berger would hold him up as a paragon of skiing excellence.
Berger, addressing Posekian: Gary, you stay here while we ski down a bit so we can observe you. I wanted to give my class an example of a truly dysfunctional pole plant.
But don’t be fooled. Berger loved Posekian. As daughter Kinley said, “He could pick him out a half a mountain away just based on the turns.”
Armstrong: Gary had a fondness for saying any snow, any slope [That’s what a good instructor had to be able to do]. He would take us out in terrible conditions, breakable crust in Gravy Chute. He’d flash that ironic, wry grin and off we’d go.
Brown: When I got here, I’d tell people I wanted to be the future director of ski school. My friends would laugh. Gary? He’d say okay, what’s the next task [to help make that happen].
And to echo what Armstrong said, “Gary would take you to terrain that would gut you. But it’s in that experience, in that situational learning, where you might fix a weakness.
Brown was also a fan of Berger’s “Mr. Miyagi” [Pat Morita’s character in the Karate Kid] teaching moments. As in, “teach this without speaking.” Wait, what? “It could be windy up there. They can’t hear you. Show them.”
Then, “Teach this as if they can’t see you … it’s a whiteout. Poor visibility.” And sure enough, the next class, you’d have someone who might be vision impaired, and Gary had prepared you for it.
Berger was given an honorary lifetime membership in the PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors Assn.) last year.
The nomination, submitted by John Armstrong, Randy Short, Jack Copeland and Blaine Lomen, states:
He was directly involved in the preparation of 7 PSIA National Team Members. These individuals included: Gary Posekian, Dave Mannetter, Gordy Johnson, JP Chevalier, Tom Tuttle, Urmas Franosch and Carl Underkoffler
BERGERS AND BERGERS
But when you think about the accolades and the leadership skills Gary acquired in his ski career, it’s as if he were preparing himself for a deeper and more profound second act of life within his tight family circle.
The common thread between chapter one and chapter two: Bergers Restaurant, which Gary founded in 1971 and initially operated with former wife Sally (until she was bought out) and then ran with wife of 45 years (well, together 45 and married 38) Teri.
Imagine that start-up schedule while he worked at MMSA: Prep in the morning, work at the mountain and then back at the restaurant in the evening.
With Teri, she worked the front of the house while Gary took care of the kitchen. And not many couples could have pulled that off – working together that closely and raising a family together at the same time. But they did it.
Gary loved food. His wife and daughters said he would plan vacations around restaurants. In fact, laughs daughter Jessica, he’d book the restaurant reservations before he booked the hotel reservations.
And he was a man of contradictions. He’d say he liked the kitchen because he didn’t have to talk to anybody, but once the locals showed up in the dining room, he’d go out and say his hellos in his dirty apron.
Both his daughters worked at the restaurant while in high school. And both inherited his work ethic. Jessica, 37, and husband Mathew Snow, a Staff Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, live in North Carolina. She has a Masters in Speech Pathology. Kinley, 34, works as an Obstetrician. Her husband John Miller is an Orthopedic Surgeon.
Gary loved his daughters more than anything, and consistently made huge sacrifices on their behalf.
Jessica, for example, graduated from Bishop Union High School because Mammoth didn’t have a Girls Soccer program at that time. So the Bergers drove her south every day to school.
And, during the spring (soccer is a winter sport), Jessica practiced with a club team in Carson City three days a week. Gary would drive after school from Bishop to Carson City while Jessica did her homework in the car.
Both girls love of soccer also prompted Gary to learn the sport, and he turned himself into a helluva coach.
As Tom Cage (who, like Gary, never played soccer as a kid and only learned the sport because he had daughters who played) observed, “Gary taught me how to see the whole field … he could always see three or four moves ahead.”
Gary became younger daughter Kinley’s coach during her high school years when Mammoth finally adopted the sport. He also spent countless hours with her in the driveway teaching her how to be fearless diving for volleyballs.
One of the inside family jokes is about Gary’s driving. The girls say they would often wake up to blue lights flashing on a roadtrip. Teri said that as a general rule, she would only tell him to slow down once she could no longer see the speedometer needle from the passenger seat.
But interestingly enough, he was less adept at driving backward versus forward. Teri lovingly pointed out several chinks in the garage door molding.
Craig Albright recalls this pearl of wisdom from Gary on parenting: You’re not gonna win every battle. But you better win the first one. You don’t want a kid who’ll think they can go undefeated.
*Which is kind of funny coming from guy whose daughters said he had a tough exterior and a marshmallow heart. One wonders how many battles he really won.
Gary Posekian remembers Jack Copeland asking Berger what motivated him/what did he admire?
Berger: Guys who went and figured it out by themselves.
Which suggests … it’s not just about taking classes or following instructions or doing what one is told. There has to be an innate curiosity and drive and passion for excellence.
And then there’s Jon Eisert’s story about a ski trip with Berger along with Tony Colasardo, Corty Lawrence and Craig Turner.
It was Berger’s first trip with this crew, so he got paired with Eisert as a roommate.
Because the rest of them knew Eisert could snore like a freight train.
The first night, Eisert passes out and when he wakes up at 2 a.m. to take a leak, he notices the other bed in the rom has been stripped. Gary’s not there. And when Eisert tries the bathroom door, it won’t open more than two inches because Berger’s sleeping on the bathroom floor.
So Eisert goes down to the lobby to use the facilities, returns, falls asleep.
The next day, they go out a ski and have a nice dinner. Not a word is spoken about the sleeping arrangements from the night before.
But when they get back to the room at night, Gary starts gathering up his bedding.
“Oh no. You don’t need to do that,” says Eisert. “I just happened to fall asleep on my back last night. If I’m on my side, I don’t snore, and if I do snore, just throw something at me and I’ll stop.”
“Jon, it doesn’t matter whether you snore or not. I still won’t be able to sleep. It’ll keep me up all night just anticipating that you might snore.”
Lesson: Know thyself.
Berger took the bedding and slept in Corty and Tony’s room that night.
By his very nature, Gary didn’t complain and didn’t draw attention to his declining health.
If Tom Cage asked him how he was feeling, Gary would reply. “I feel shitty. Let’s talk about soccer.”
There was nearly a decade of dialysis three days a week. There was the bad heart.
“There were days he could barely walk,” said Teri, “but his balance was so much better with skis and boots on.” So as much as possible, he tried to keep those skis and boots on.
In his final years, there was a return to teaching skiing after a long absence. He could only do a half day, generally on non-dialysis days, but he loved it. His specialty: Middle-aged women intermediate skiers. Albright said it was the last demographic he would’ve imagined for Gary, but Gary just had a knack for inspiring these women to push themselves.
He fought for every minute. He fought to see his granddaughter Mollie (named after Gary’s mother, and now three months old). He fought for the opportunity to die at home surrounded by family, versus at some Reno health center locked down with Covid.
The ride home with Teri, with his several broken ribs from a recent fall, was agony.
But Gary Berger damn well did things his way, and on his terms – to the very end.