For this 85-year-old, skiing is a part of life's lessons

Posted: February 14, 2012

When I was in my first year in college, Rob Shutler lived across the hall. He was an architecture student and had many fine qualities, but of course what impressed me was he could do a handstand for two minutes, and when we went skiing once, I saw him with my own eyes do a flip off a ski jump. He said his father was from Northfield, Vt., and that's where Rob had also learned to ski so well.

I met his dad back then, but he was a busy guy, a three-star general in the Marine Corps. I knew he must have been important because his home had a secure phone line (Rob called it a hotline). Turns out Lt. Gen. Philip D. Shutler was director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

That was somewhere around 1975.

Lt. Gen. Shutler is now just Phil, 85, a ski instructor at Liberty Mountain near Gettysburg. He gets up at 5 a.m. two days a week at his home in Northern Virginia, drives, and is on the slopes by 8.

I have long wanted to write about Rob's dad, and spent a day with him last week.

First thing, I rode up on the ski lift with Phil and his wife of 63 years, Margaret. She is 86 and still skis.

Phil went off to Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., for a year, and double dated with two girls from Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. He was much more attracted to the other girl, Margaret, than to his date. But he made such a weak impression that a year later - when he was a midshipman at the Naval Academy - he invited Margaret for a visit and she didn't remember him.

But she went anyway.

"It was wartime and men were scarce," Margaret said.

She grew up in Minnesota, loves the snow, but has always been more at home on skates than skis. I heard their love story on the way up the mountain, and saw it in action on the way down.

Phil was still a strong skier, but she was much more tortoise-like, conservative, making wide turns, and he followed her patiently, and bent over mid-mountain to tighten her boots for her.

"You need a rest, Muggs?"

"No, I'm fine."

Phil flew com in Korea and taught flight instruction in Texas in 1956. But at Liberty Mountain, he quickly realized that naval aviators as a rule came more highly motivated than many beginners in ski school. A typical refrain: "My boyfriend told me I had to come take a lesson."

But he loves teaching, not only for the joy of being on skis, but for the mental challenge. And in his own subtle way he's teaching much more than just skiing.

He had two students at his 1 p.m. lesson, Amy Thompson, 41, of Bristow, Va., and daughter Claire, 10. He quickly got them comfortable on skis and going down the beginner slope. He was warm, patient, encouraging and, not surprisingly, in command.

"Claire, you're in what grade?"

"Fourth."

"Ah, what a marvelous time to learn to ski. You have all the muscle control you need."

After graduating from Annapolis with a degree in electrical engineering, Phil got a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics in 1964 from MIT. With this unique perspective, he distilled the essence of skiing down to a child's level: "One thing you might want to think about," he told the Thompsons, "you don't turn your skis. You don't make turns. You send a signal to the snow, and with that ski edge, the snow is pushing you in a new direction."

Before one run, Phil said, "skiing is a flowing, downhill sport. And we like to just flow. Here we go, all the way to the lift." And he led them, a mother goose and flock, flowing down the beginner slope, all smiles at the bottom.

When little Claire, trying out a bigger slope for the first time, fell, he was 15 yards below her and booked up that mountain double time, skis facing out wide, like a V, digging in on the inside edges as he ran. He not only made sure she was OK but taught mother and daughter how to help someone up properly.

When the lesson was over, I watched from 50 yards away as Claire posed for a picture with her first ski instructor.

They had no idea of Phil's age or background. He prefers it that way. If students ask his age, he simply says, "I'm closer to 70 than 60."

Amy, daughter of an Army colonel, was shocked when I told her about Phil.

"I will apply his skiing tips to the rest of my life," she said, and shared a couple: "When you're afraid and don't think you can get down the mountain, you gotta just suck it up and do it." Also: "One's journey down the mountain should be peaceful and personal."

With that last comment, Amy understood Phil "was trying to tell me to give my daughter space to grow, don't worry so much about how well she was learning her lessons, but that she must figure some things out for herself."

Phil is proud of his age, but says dwelling on it can be "self-limiting." His obstacle in life now is not age or infirmity, but his own inclination to say, "I'm old, I've got aches. I can't do this anymore."

"If you know it and stand up to it," he says, "it's not self-limiting. There is a lot of stuff you can still do if you're just willing to do it."


Contact columnist Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com or on Twitter @michaelvitez.

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