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A ‘true legend’

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Remembering the life of Sam Wilson

By Bella Butler EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – It’s hard for folks to say exactly when the “old Big Sky” became “the new Big Sky.” So much has changed, but in local barroom anecdotes, a few consistencies emerge: the people, places and circumstances that were the good ol’ days.

At the center of that Big Sky of yore is a group of legends, defined by one old timer as the “people that really made this place a great place to live.”

One of those undisputed legends was born-and-raised Montanan Sam Wilson, who passed away on Sept. 17 at age 79.

Sam Wilson, a Big Sky legend, passed away on Sept. 17, 2021. PHOTO COURTESY OF SCOTT FOSTER

Sammy, as he was fondly known, had roots that ran deeper than his own renown. His grandparents, Sam and Josie Wilson, homesteaded the Buffalo Horn Ranch in 1899, later to become the 320 Ranch. He himself was a third-generation Gallatin Valley resident and his son, Clinton, was the fourth.

“Sam was definitely one of those guys that was full-blood Montanan,” said Kevin Kelleher, another Big Sky legend and longtime friend of Sam’s. Perhaps more than a full-blood Montanan, Sam was full-blood Big Sky.

Sam Wilson is, among many other things, remembered as a skier. After growing up skiing at Bridger Bowl in Bozeman, Sam began working for Lone Mountain Sports at Big Sky Resort the year it opened in 1974. 

When Sam’s friends talk about his skiing, they get a dreamy look in their eyes as if falling into a blissful memory.

“He was just elegant in his skiing,” said “Queen” Jean Palmer, 1999 Dirtbag Queen.

In 1979, Sam embarked on what would become a storied adventure. He and a group of fellow Big Sky legends—simply young “dirtbags” at the time, as some of them now recall—planned to summit Lone Mountain. Their exploit predated the Lone Peak Tram by 16 years, when there was no free ride to the summit.

The journey at the time, according to Kelleher’s tale published in a 1996 edition of the Lone Peak Lookout newspaper, began with a ride up the old Gondola in an early car with ski patrol and then one more ride up the Triple Chair. The hike began at the top of The Bowl.

“Now Sam Wilson is one of those laid-back native Montanans who usually avoids any type of uphill hike like the plague,” Kelleher wrote. But to the crew’s surprise, he wanted to tag along.

At the summit, the crew had a picnic and drank “Southern Comfort on the South Face,” the article read. 

The cover of the Lone Peak Lookout in a 1996 edition showcased a portrait of Sam Wilson on his ascent up the peak in 1979.

“Sam Wilson is one of those careful and precise type of skiers,” Kelleher wrote. “He didn’t tip over often and he didn’t ski real fast either, but on this crusty snow, he turned something loose on that day in 1979.” Kelleher goes on to describe Sam ripping down Lenin on the south face of the peak: fast, furious and unexpected.

Chris Nash, who hiked the peak often back in those days before the tram, remembers that run distinctly.

“He stomped it,” Nash said. “He definitely skied it up good.”

Kelleher wrote that after South Face Sam’s legendary run, he and Sam looked back at the face to see the line they’d left on the mountain. He asked Sam what had gotten into him on that run.

“Southern Comfort,” Sam told him, chuckling.  

Sam’s performance that day earned him a nickname that is used even in his somber absence: South Face Sam.

During a memorial for Sam at the Riverhouse bar on Sept. 30, the restaurant and deck were packed with his friends, old and young from near and far, shoulder-to-shoulder recounting stories of South Face Sam.

They told tales in a roundabout way, sneaking three more memories into each one. They’re the kind of friends that’ve been around so long nobody remembers exactly how and when they met Sam, but they sure remember plenty else.

Jerry Pape tells me about a memory he says epitomizes Sam. When Sam was working at Lone Mountain Sports, maybe 40 years ago Pape supposes, a man from Minnesota brought in a pair of bindings, brand new but not so nice.

“He came to Sam and said, ‘They seem to be broken’ … and Sam said ‘I can fix that right away,’” Pape said. Sam took the bindings over to the trash can and threw them in. “He came back and he said, ‘Now go buy yourself a good pair of bindings.” Pape said he can’t remember if the man ever did buy new bindings or whether he fished out the old ones from the garbage.

“Sam was one of these kind of guys that told it the way he saw it,” Pape said. Several other people remembered Sam this way, too.

He was straight up, but also generous, and a good friend. Pam Flach, co-owner of BYWOM restaurant, one of Sam’s regular spots, said Sam always made sure her kids and their friends had skis.

Sam used to spend summers in the 80s commercial fishing for salmon in Alaska. On one trip, Harry Ring, former LMS owner and college friend of Sam’s from Montana State University, had been partying for days leading up to the season opener.

“I woke up on my boat, alone,” Ring said. “No Sam.” He came ashore to find Sam, who refused to get back on the boat unless Ring agreed to stop drinking. “Anything,” Ring told Sam, sick and desperate for his deckmate. “I haven’t had a drink since.”

Perhaps one of Sam’s most famous identities is that of the first Dirtbag King, which he was awarded in 1979. Dirtbag in Big Sky has been somewhat of a reclaimed word for decades, honored through the annual Dirtbag Ball and crowning each winter of the Dirtbag King and Queen.

It’s not just a title; it comes with responsibility. “They still carry on the traditions that we started back then,” Nash said. “Ski as much as you can, party as much as you can, work somewhere there in between.”

Queen Jean wouldn’t earn her crown for another 20 years, but she remembers Sam’s year on the throne. “He was a good old king, let me tell you,” she said. “He just skied his heart out.”

More than in skiing circles, Sam was embedded into so many facets of the Big Sky community. A former Marine helicopter crewman and Vietnam veteran, Sam was a member of the local American Legion Post 99. He worked for the Big Sky Ski Patrol, and could often be seen walking and jogging around town, eating a BYWOM burger or grabbing his morning coffee at the Hungry Moose.  

At the Riverhouse during Sam’s celebration of life, people from all parts of his world toasted to their old friend, some clinking PBRs, Sam’s favorite. Sam Wilson’s spirit was vibrant in the shared memories, memorialized in the exchange of stories the same way that old Big Sky is honored.

Though Sam’s regular seat in the corner of BYWOM will be filled by new patrons, he’s left an unforgettable mark on Big Sky, like a ski line on the south face of Lone Mountain.

“He is one of the true legends here in Big Sky,” Nash said.

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