Updated: Oct. 13, 5 p.m.
Jean Marie Mayer, the technical director of the Ernie Blake Snowsports School at Taos Ski Valley since 1957, and who built and ran the Hotel St. Bernard at the ski valley for more than 60 years, died Saturday night (Oct. 10) after battling cancer. Many considered him the patron saint of skiers at Taos Ski Valley.
According to life partner Elise Waters Olonia, Mayer passed peacefully at 9 p.m., at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, with Olonia and Mayer’s eldest daughter, Monique Jacobson, at his side.
“We lived a very private life for almost 18 years,” Olonia said. “These were the most fulfilling and challenging times, full of adventure, laughter and abundant love! I am forever grateful.”
Olonia also mentioned Mayer’s famous attitude about American ageism.
“Jean Marie was 85 and, of course, never cared for anyone to focus on it. However, he seemed to carry the number with a bit more pride as of late – adding it to his many accomplishments that were measured by discipline, strength and commitment. He was fully committed to creating a meaningful and unforgettable experience for all.”
Mayer came to Taos in 1957 at the invitation of TSV founder Ernie Blake. “Jean Mayer was the one we were lucky to find,” Blake said in a quote in Rick Richard’s “Ski Pioneers,” the 1992 book about the making of Taos Ski Valley.
Blake told Mayer that Taos was a great place for skiing, “but there was no money in it, that we should have no false notions that we’d get rich here; nobody would get rich for many, many years, if ever. [Mayer] wrote back that that was just the kind of adventure he was looking for and he came the 24th of December of 1957.”
Wendy Stagg, Ernie Blake’s daughter, was 8 years old when Mayer hit Taos and started the ski school. She said Mayer is an “incredible man leaving behind an incredible family. Our debt to him is endless, on all levels.”
Mayer grew up a ski racer, flying down the slopes of the French Alps, a member of the French junior ski team and a national champion. Recruited by the U.S. Army, he served with the 10th Mountain Division – an infantry unit on skis. He was head of the ski patrol in Garmisch, Germany, where in 1956 he helped lead Hungarian and Czechoslovakian refugees into Austria and West Germany, while the Russians ended the Hungarian Revolution.
When his stint in the Army ended, Ernie Blake recruited Mayer to come to Taos, where he often noted the snow was deep – often too deep for the heavy wooden skis they were on in the ’50s.
A year after moving to Taos, Mayer’s brother Bernard “Dadou” Mayer and their parents, Charles “Papa” Mayer and Nicole “Maman” Mayer, came over from France and helped build the Hotel St. Bernard, named for the official patron saint of skiers – St. Bernard de Menthon.
Elias Montoya recalls that his housekeeper mother, the late Frances Montoya, worked for Mayer for 50 years. He said when she finally had to stay home, Mayer would continue to send her a check every week. "Everyone in our family worked for Jean at some point," Montoya said of his eight sisters and various nieces and nephews, all of whom grew up on the mountain and at the St. B. "Jean treated our family like we were his own family."
Realtor Greg Jaramillo, a Hotel St. Bernard 40-year employee known for food service on the deck of the St. B, said Jean was like a father to him. "I was only 21 or 22 years old and I worked starting out as a dishwasher with him. As the hotel deck service evolved, that was my deal, he allowed that to blossom." Their families developed together, taking trips to Hawaii, Mayer's second home. "He was the most loving, generous guy there ever was."
Jean Mayer eschewed the typical spirit of business that looks to make as much money as fast as possible. Instead, his motto ever was, “don’t try to make money out of the mountain, give to the mountain and share with it.”
From the start, the hotel was modeled on his military experience. At Garmisch, Mayer said soldiers would show up for a week of ski lessons, but needed to be housed and fed. This was how he created TSV’s famous Learn-to-Ski weeks, where guests paid for an all-inclusive experience including accommodations, gourmet meals and expert instruction.
Robin Martin, owner of Taos News and sister paper the Santa Fe New Mexican, grew up skiing and teaching at Taos Ski Valley. She has long and fond memories of Mayer.
“Jean was such a gentleman and perfect host to my parents, later to my husband and children, and to me for more than 50 years,” Martin said in an email. “One of my first memories of TSV was sitting in his hotel dining room and feeding breakfast pancakes to his St. Bernard dog.
“When I graduated from high school and was teaching skiing at TSV, the water froze for the whole season in the place where I was staying. He was so kind to let me shower in his family’s apartment and eat with his staff.
“Every stay at his hotel was wonderful, in spite of intermittent hot water and cranky heaters,” Martin added. “My only regret is that I was never quite good enough at skiing to be in his class.”
Legendary ski filmmaker Warren Miller noted Mayer transformed skiing from the mashup of Austrian and Swiss styles going on in the ’50s – “one’s doing the uphill skiing and one’s doing the downhill.”
Ernie Blake said when Mayer arrived, he already had a little sheet with “sketches showing that it was absurd for this composite thing” – with extreme reverse-shoulder, locked skis and artificial hand positions. “But Jean was consistently right. He was way ahead of everybody.”
Mayer was glad for upgrades to the resort billionaire and conservationist Louis Bacon has made at the Ski Valley since 2013, building a new lift up Kachina Peak and financing a massive base-area makeover.
In a 2019 Discover Taos magazine story about Mayer, he was reportedly “adamantly upbeat about the flurry of activity at the Ski Valley today” and he admired Bacon’s “go-for-it” attitude and reverence for the mountain itself.
“With all the changes that are happening here, there’s one thing that doesn’t change: the mountain,” Mayer said.
Chris Stagg, Wendy Stagg’s husband and vice president of Taos Ski Valley, said Mayer will be greatly missed.
“He was my coach, my friend and mentor. A consummate ski instructor, he was always focused on the beauty of being on and part of the spirit of the mountain. Taos was his, as much as anyone’s, mountain. We are so lucky he found his way to Taos in the ’50s and helped to shape what it meant to ski in Taos. Taos will never be the same without him.”
Former Taos Ski School director, instructor Max Killinger said he knew Mayer for 53 years. “He was a fanatic about ski technique and passionate about skiing. He was the soul of the ski school. He was an extremely generous person, almost to a fault. I’m extremely sorry that he left this world. They don’t make people like this anymore.”
Andrea Heckman, of Andean Software, a purveyor of imported textiles in Taos Ski Valley said, “Jean was the heart of Taos Ski Valley and anyone who knew him was blessed to spend time with him at the Hotel St. Bernard. He taught us the true meaning of ambiance and graciousness. I arrived here 45 years ago to ski and began working in the St. Bernard bar for the next 44 years, seeing his kids born and listening to his wisdom about skiing and life in general. Jean was one of the most special people in my life and he has left us all with the sweetest enduring memories. So many of us are who we are because of him. Thanks, Jean.”
Mayer's eight children – Michael, Sacha, Ryan, Monique, Kihei, Krizia, Kai Lani and Kody – sent a statement regarding their father's death: "As a family we come together with love and reverence to let our friends know that our sweet Pop has passed on. We carry him in our hearts. We feel his spirit in the mountains and with us as we make our turns in life. We extend our deepest gratitude to our beloved community as we honor and celebrate his beautiful life.
"Bravo Papa. Allez on y va."
Jean is preceded in death by his parents and his twin sister, Chantal. He is survived by his life partner, Elise Waters Olonia; his children; his younger brother, Dadou, and sister Tiki; and his seven grandchildren, Drew, Reid, Brody, Giles, Elijah, Aubrey and Devin.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the “Ski New Mexico Jean Mayer Fund” which has been set up to ensure New Mexico’s children have access to the beautiful slopes of the Southern Rockies. Checks can be mailed to: Ski New Mexico, PO Box 90037 Albuquerque, NM 87199.
A virtual public memorial service is planned for Sunday (Oct. 18) at sunset (5:30 p.m.). Information can be found through the Hotel St. Bernard website, stbernardtaos.com, and the Hotel St. Bernard Facebook Page. Arrangements by Rivera Family Funeral Home, Taos.
To share a memory, visit riverafuneralhome.com.