In March, in Sun Valley, Idaho, 600 Black skiers decked in neon gear zoom down the snow-covered mountain. They’re there for the Black Summit, an annual event hosted by the National Brotherhood of Skiers, and to honor the organization's founders, among them, Ben Finley ’60.
Finley, along with the Brotherhood’s co-founder, Art Clay, will be the first Black Americans inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. (Though originally set to be enshrined in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the postponement and ultimate cancellation of this year’s event.) Their work has introduced tens of thousands of Black skiers and snowboarders to the sport and garnered millions of dollars for the winter sports industry. It has also built an impressive network of 3,500 member Black skiers and snowboarders in more than 50 clubs nationwide.
Finley looks around at the hundreds of assembled guests and is humbled.
“This was not envisioned in any way,” Finley emphatically states.
Rather, he laughs, the route from his hometown in Harlem, New York, to his upcoming Hall of Fame induction was often shaped by persuasive women. It was a woman who pointed him to Notre Dame, and another who strapped him to his first pair of skis, two of the defining moments of his life.
While it was the priests at All Hallows, Finley’s all-boys Catholic high school, who required an application to at least one Catholic college, it was his teenage girlfriend who pushed him to select Notre Dame. At decision time, he was torn between the University of Colorado and the University of Notre Dame, but she was more decisive: “I would rather tell my friends you went to Notre Dame instead of the University of Colorado,” he recalls she said. He reasoned the stricter, all-male community would also encourage him to buckle down and do well in engineering, so off to Notre Dame he went.
There, Finley was one of the first African-American students, an experience he recalls in the anthology Black Domers: African-American Students at Notre Dame in Their Own Words. During those formative years, the Civil Rights Movement picked up momentum. Inspired by its work, and supported by Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C., Finley set up a civil rights committee at Notre Dame, thus beginning his work fighting for opportunities for Black people.
Years later, Finley would co-found the Black Alumni of Notre Dame, and would be instrumental in recruiting more than 150 Black students, including his sons, to Notre Dame. His work helped win him the William D. Reynolds Award from the Alumni Association in 2000, which is “conferred on alumni doing exceptional work with youth for the betterment of their quality of life.”
He’d also bring that commitment to creating opportunities in skiing.
In 1963, Finley and a girlfriend were camping in Yosemite National Park. On their way out of the park, they stopped to have margaritas at the base of a ski area. Watching people zip down the mountain, his partner expressed interest in learning to ski.
“The first thing that went through my mind were dollar bills and broken legs,” he laughs. But then he made her a deal: If she would get her scuba certification and join the scuba diving club he led, he’d take ski lessons. Six weeks later, she had passed her ocean check-out, and he was strapped to a pair of skis. The first four lessons were a little shaky, but then he was hooked.
“The exhilaration of flying down a hill on six-foot boards, at 20 miles per hour, hoping you wouldn’t kill yourself, it was just fun! It was different,” Finley says.
After he learned to ski, Finley wanted to get other Black skiers onto the slopes.
He asked around for fellow adventurers at the local community center near his home in California with the hope of assembling a group of 12 so they could get a group discount. Thirty-two beginners with no ski experience asked to join — enough for a charter bus to take them to and from the mountain. From there, the group started Four Seasons West Ski Club of Los Angeles, a predominately Black ski group, which has introduced thousands of Californians to winter sports.
In 1972, Finley met Art Clay, then the trip director of the Sno-Gophers Ski Club of Chicago. Together, they decided to invite skiers from 13 Black ski clubs from around the country to gather together to ski, socialize, and discuss issues pertinent to Black skiers. A year later, in 1973, 350 of them gathered in Aspen, Colorado, for the first Black Summit.
Finley recounts that the first gathering was shrouded in uncertainty and anticipation. “We agreed we would sneak into Aspen because at that time in history we were not sure that Aspen, Colorado, the ski Mecca of America, was ready to have Black folks descend upon it.” Later he learned that the governor had put the National Guard on standby, but they were never called. Instead, the people of Aspen encouraged the group to return often, Finley says.
From that first Summit came the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), a nonprofit dedicated to its annual social gathering and to getting young Black kids onto the slopes to achieve the NBS mission: “To identify, develop, and support athletes of color who will win international and Olympic winter sports competitions representing the United States.” NBS members have also competed and medaled in the Paralympics.
“I was put on this earth to change people’s lives and to introduce them to things they have never been introduced to,” Finley says. “If you look at what I’ve done and have been recognized for, it’s always changing people’s lives.”
He’s hesitant to take too much credit though. He says the tribute and all the thanks has been so humbling. At the time, he says, he was just looking for a good time himself; then the snowball started rolling.
“It’s amazing what happens when you’re just having fun and can produce an event with an organization with a mission and a spirit to bring thousands of people to the mountain,” Finley says.
He still makes it onto the mountain, too, both with the NBS and on his home turf on Mammoth Mountain in California.
“At 81 years old, I average 15 days a year on skis,” he pauses then jokes, “but I don’t know how much longer I can do this!”
He’s modest. In his retirement from a career in engineering weapons systems, he has taken up sailing instruction and is still chasing adventure from the Greek isles, to Tonga, to Thailand.
In April 2021 his travels will take him to Snowmass, Colorado, this time for his official induction ceremony into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.
The induction ceremony was originally scheduled for March 28, 2020, but has been canceled in light of the coronavirus pandemic.