“First he was a skier.”
So began remembrances of an Aroostook County sport legend at a memorial service in New Sweden on July 9.
Children and grandchildren of Ralph L. Ostlund, who died July 2 at age 92, expressed the thoughts and feelings of many athletes and other friends who will remember Ostlund as a model for fitness and friendliness.
Heads nodded when son Jeffrey observed that his father had probably outskied a number of those gathered at Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church and had danced with more than a few of the ladies.
“He always won his age group until he was the only one in his age group,” recalled one of his grandchildren of the man who cross-country skied whenever possible well into his 80s. And when the snow melted, he ran and biked.
“Running and skiing are the best things I ever did,” he told me in an interview in 2004, explaining he didn’t ski much between his youth and his 50s. “I didn’t ski when I was in my prime,” he said. “I skied every day after I retired.”
Those who knew him might say he reached his prime late in life. Dozens of trophies, medals, ribbons and plaques, including one for the 85-and-over division, attest to his achievements.
When Ralph was 80, his children gave him two kayaks, one for him and one for a person to accompany him on excursions, his son said. At 85, however, Ralph bought a new kayak that gave him more speed.
Ralph’s athletic ability was exceeded only by his capacity for affection. His greeting was a hug, at least for the ladies, and he often expressed his love of family by saying, “I was born into a good family, I married into a good family and I raised a good family.”
In 2012, he told BDN columnist Robin Clifford Wood, “I’m a rich man without money. Good health, family, what more could you ask for?” He told Wood he still skied at age 89, “but I can’t take hills and corners like I used to.”
He also loved to dance, and was often the last one off the dance floor during celebrations where he could dance the Swedish hop. He told Wood he sometimes even danced alone.
“When it’s cold and miserable, there’s only so much exercise you can get walking around the house, so I put Swedish music on and dance in the kitchen.”
When he felt too tired to dance at a recent family wedding, he lamented to his son, “Oh, to be 85 again.”
Born in 1923, one of eight children, Ralph began skiing as a toddler on wooden skis made by his father. He competed in local cross-country races until he had to quit school in order to work full time. He won most of the races he entered.
“I s’pose I could ski just as soon as I could walk,” he told Wood. He grew up during the days of long-distance races between Bangor and Caribou and from town to town in Aroostook County. His brother Buck used to ski the 179-mile Bangor to Caribou Marathon in the 1930s, and New Sweden residents were top competitors in winter carnivals organized by northern Maine communities.
“We had an athletic club and we always had some of the best skiers in the area,” Ralph told ski historian Karla Wolters. “New Sweden was proud of their ski team because they won a lot of carnivals and they bought the club white ski suits.”
He remembered when “they used to have wide skis and only one pole … And then my wife and I skied with the kids for fun. And then I got into racing and waxing …”
He told Wolters that he went on ski trips to Quebec and wherever he could.
She recalled this week that, as much as he achieved as a skier, “it was never about him. He was a humble person who loved skiing. He wanted everybody to know it is a great sport, and he never turned away anyone who wanted to know about ski history.”
New Sweden native Lendal “Lefty” Johnson, who skied thousands of miles with Ralph over the years, echoed Wolters’ view.
“His big reason for skiing was enjoyment,” Johnson said, minimizing the importance of winning.
Caribou native and avid skier Catherine Brewer called Ralph “a local icon who inspired and taught many to ski,” in a letter supporting his nomination for the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. “His presence in our ski community has been an important part of its foundation and growth — from small school winter carnivals and community ski races to hosting World Cup events at our 10th Mountain and Nordic Heritage Center venues.”
Brewer quoted her friend Don Peters describing his efforts to beat Ralph in the 5-mile Henry Anderson Race between Caribou and New Sweden: “Once Ralph led on the straightaway part of the course, I don’t think the very best high-school skier could have beaten him.” After Ralph got Peters hooked on skinny skis, the two logged thousands of miles together.
“Fifty-mile races were part of his winter lineup,” Brewer said, citing the Sam Ouellet races in Ashland requiring skiers to finish 25 miles each day of the weekend and to participate for five years in order to earn the race plaque. “Ralph skied the race into his 70s with his friend Lefty.”
Ralph’s second-youngest grandson, John Ringer, told those gathered for the memorial service that he will follow his grandfather’s advice to do four things: smile and say hello, be active, when you get the chance get up and dance, and love and cherish your family. Then, turning to the casket, he wished his grandfather “endless ski trails.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.