Kirk Dwyer: A desire to set the record straight

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Kirk Dwyer, the headmaster at Burke Mountain Academy.

Earlier this week in an article posted on VTDigger.org regarding Q Burke, Ariel Quiros senior, owner of Q Burke, was quoted making statements regarding Don Graham and the Graham family which are grossly inaccurate.

Burke Mountain Academy is committed to working cooperatively with the new ownership at Burke, doing whatever we can to insure a successful future that will benefit us all. That said, as headmaster of BMA, I simply cannot stand by while errors are published about an individual — Don Graham — who for 40 years has given quietly, but extremely generously to benefit the school, the mountain and this community.

Within the article it claimed that Don, among others, mismanaged the mountain “driving it into bankruptcy” while taking profits. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In point of fact, Don Graham has had a 40-year legacy of philanthropy at BMA and in 2000 provided the money for BMA to buy the mountain out of bankruptcy when it had been purchased at auction and was literally set to be shuttered — the ski resort closed, assets sold, and the Sherburne base lodge turned into a storage facility for a tent rental business. The impact on BMA and the local community would have been devastating. Don somehow convinced the investor to instead sell the mountain that he had just bought to BMA. In addition to funding this purchase, Don went on to quietly fund the mountain for five years to cover the operating losses and necessary capital improvements until a “real resort buyer” could be found.

When the Q ownership arrived, Don called me and suggested that BMA ought to start the relationship off on a positive footing with a declaration of our good faith as partners. We conceived of the notion for BMA to offer to fund over $400,000 (the majority made possible via a gift by Don Graham) of snowmaking.

 

When the Ginn Company acquired Burke from BMA in 2005 in a deal largely brokered by Don Graham, in accordance with his wishes, no “profit,” in fact no money at all went back to Don and the Graham family. Instead, the entirety of the proceeds went to BMA, which established the core of the school’s current endowment and financial security. A new lease on life for the mountain as a going concern was simply Don’s gift to the school and the Burke community.

This has been Don’s winter home for 40 years, and never an “investment interest” as so inaccurately characterized in the recent article. Without Don Graham’s involvement the mountain and BMA would have closed. I know that Don acted as much on behalf of the local community as he did for BMA. At the time of the sale by BMA to Ginn there was no debt and certainly no bankruptcy.

Don’s drive to insure Burke’s future did not stop there. When the Ginn ownership began to falter, he convinced them that an investment focused on the ski experience — not valet services and the like — would best help make Burke a viable resort. Leveraging his personal contacts at the Leitner-Poma ski lift manufacturer, Don helped procure the Mid Burke Express at advantaged price and terms — and personally provided financing for half the chair, though he had no ownership in the mountain. It was Don’s belief that a modern high-speed lift was a fundamental necessity for Burke to compete and that, in any event, it would greatly improve the odds of attracting a new buyer as Ginn was clearly looking for a way out. Once again, Don’s instinct proved right. Jay Peak and the Quiros ownership acquired Burke in 2012.

Yet Don did not stop there. When the Q ownership arrived, Don called me and suggested that BMA ought to start the relationship off on a positive footing with a declaration of our good faith as partners. We conceived of the notion for BMA to offer to fund over $400,000 (the majority made possible via a gift by Don Graham) of snowmaking to help the new ownership keep on an accelerated improvement plan and start its ownership tenure with vastly improved capacity to make snow. This was undertaken within three months of the Q Burke ownerships arrival.

Don Graham has never advertised his efforts, preferring to work behind the scenes, always asking that we respect his wishes for privacy and anonymity. But now that such an inaccurate portrayal of his role at Burke has been made public, it is incumbent upon those of us who have benefited from Don’s generosity to set the record straight and show the “real Don Graham.” Don is a true entrepreneur. Having started his businesses in the basement of a farmhouse, he built his businesses to a global scale, but all the while giving generously to his community.

He has been a trusted mentor to three BMA headmasters across these 40 years, and at 81 years old later this month, he still can be found just about every morning skiing Willoughby and, in the afternoon, snowshoeing in the fields near his home. He and his wife Ingrid have opened up their hearth and home to countless people over the years. The Burke community has benefited greatly from their kindness, generosity and giving spirit.

At BMA, we will continue working to support the mountain and the Quiros management in every way we can. I am sure that if Mr. Quiros only knew the real story of Don Graham’s role in the Burke history, he would join me in thanking Don for all that he has done for this community.

Comments

  1. Julie Hansen :

    What a nice tribute. Nicely done.

  2. Inga Graham Hulleberg :

    Thank you Kirk. I can honestly say I did not even know the full extent of all that my grandfather has done for the Burke community over the years until reading this article. I really appreciate you setting the record straight. I hope Mr. Quiros gets his facts straightened out and realizes that, contrary to his assertions in the original article by Hilary Niles, Don Graham is actually someone who really cares about the long-term sustainability of Burke mountain and the community. I know this not only because of all he’s done, but because of the way I’ve heard him talk about the place for the last 24 years. He loves Burke, plain and simple, and he wants it to succeed. I hope that instead of bad-mouthing some of the people who have worked to keep Burke going up until this point, Mr. Quiros would instead focus on the work that he has before him. Maybe he will remember that “the Grahams,” who he so casually dismisses and accuses of “letting the the mountain go to shambles,” are actually a family who spend almost half the year living in the very community that he is trying to reach.

  3. Kirk,

    This is a first class manifest of what Don has done, wanted to do, and of why BMA is of the the community of East Burke, and of the community of many, many families and alumni. Call for help. Many of us haven’t a lot of finance to offer, but we have a love and a regard for what has happened in East Burke in large part because of the generosity and caring involvement of the Graham Family.
    Pete Phillips
    Former Nordic Coach
    Burke Mountain Academy

  4. Jodi Wheeler :

    Beautiful- Thank you!

    • Maurice Diette :

      Having lived in the area and skied Burke many times during the 90’s, it was always evident to me that the little engine that could was the little engine of BMA that kept Burke on the map in spite of or because of all the other difficulties.
      With deep thanks to BMA and Don Graham and to you Kirk for articulating the mountain history so clearly!

  5. Cathi Feeley :

    Donald Graham has been Burke Mountain’s “Guardian Angel” for many years. Without out his support the mountain would probably closed many years ago. I am grateful for all he has done to keep our Mountain going and I would like to offer Mr Graham my sincere thanks for all he has done. He’s a Burkie through and through

  6. Barbara Hatch :

    As I sit in mid lodge at Burke this morning, reading this article while greeting friends and acquaintances all with hearty smiles and feeling good cheer all around I am extreme gratitude for the Graham family and all those who have cared to extend their time, energy, and resources to keep Burke Mountain alive. It is alive this morning. My family is thankful to you Don Graham.

  7. Thank you for setting the record straight! It’s about time.

  8. Ken Hammer :

    As one of several who shared many chair rides with Don Graham over the decades, I am delighted to see Kirk’s public recognition of Don’s support for the NEK. He agonized over each of the several misadventures of playboy investors in the mountain.

    At least two of those lost the mountain because their entire economic base collapsed. I’m sure none of them walked off even whole. Each left behind more physical assets than they acquired initially.

    Another giant in whose debt we all stand is Doug Kitchel. He was the first and as a Director of his bank I can say without violating privacy considerations that he funded losses every year during his ownership.

    The Quiros family has a lot to live up to as a successor to those who have left a priceless resource in the NEK. Hopefully they can do it in a profitable manner. Badmouthing the past isn’t going to aid that process.

    Right now the family would be best thinking with gratitude of Kirk Dwyer and Mikaela Shiffrin. Get on with the business.

    • Viv Buckley :

      Don Graham is and Doug Kitchel was a true gentleman. As John Worth tells the story, it was Doug Kitchel who knocked on landowners’ doors to seek the first permissions for Kingdom Trails 20 years ago. What would the Quiros family have said? Doug would be proud of KT for operating within their means while providing winter adventure at a loss. He was a founding member of an organization fulfilling its mission to the community without a single prominent benefactor. Many thanks to Don Graham who is a humble benefactor of Burke Mountain. And thanks to Kirk for respecting Don’s humble wishes, but for setting the record straight when needed.

    • Cathi Feeley :

      The Ginn Company did not find success in Burke but while they were here they did a few things to improve the fortunes of the Mountain. Contrary to Mr Quiros’s comments, Ginn did not sell land. In fact they bought back approximately 700 acres of undeveloped land along the Pinkham Rd that was sold to private individuals during the Auction. They purchased the Cutter Inn and the land that went with it. They also purchased land along Rt 114 necessary for the septic system and the water system. So although Ginn did not succeed at Burke they definitely did a few things to help improve the chance of success for the Quiros family. I wish the new owners well. Like most people in the area I want the Mountain to succeed and like most living here I will continue to support Burke Mountain no matter who owns it.

  9. Bob Baker :

    Well said Kirk. It’s a shame that people in such high places at the new Burke Mountain have no idea just how valuable the Grahams have been for this community.

    • Thank you Kirk for posting such a factual rebuttal to the very nasty letter in Vt Digger…we have skied Burke Mt. since the late ’60s and have known the Graham family for a long time. I truly hope the new owners get on to making Burke Mt. The best it can be and not forget there is a wonderful community that goes along with it!! Judi

  10. Amy McClellan :

    Kirk,

    Very nice tribute to Don Graham and the Graham family. I think the Quiros family should choose their comments a bit more carefully and take time to understand what has gone on at Burke over the past years before they make statements that can be so hurtful to others.

    Burke is an amazing mountain and it would not have been there for the Quiros to buy without Don Graham and his generosity.

    Amy McClellan

  11. Eileen Boland :

    To a full time resident of the the NEK the article was startling. The account did not match my understanding of Burke’s history, so I appreciate Mr. Dwyer’s response. I hope Mr. Quiros can create a new, positive chapter that we can all be proud of.

  12. Michael Stahler :

    Thank you so much for this piece. I am still stunned, saddened, and angry at the things that the new ownership have said and done. It blows my mind that they say and do these things and then say, “we’re in the hospitality business.” At the very least they don’t understand Burke and at the most they are too arrogant to control what they say.

    They should do a little research and see what Mr. Graham, BMA, and the Community did to save the mountain in 2000. It’s better to work with folks in the community instead of declaring war on them because “you will not fail”.

  13. Michael Moylan :

    I have had the pleasure to talk with Don on the chair and at Mid Burke many times as I worked with many of the associations on the mountain.

    He in my eyes has always tried to help Burke stay alive. He did what many other folks could not do.

    As a parent of two children that went to BMA and lived thru three headmasters I appreciate what they do.

    We have a history here we watch young folks from all over this planet try to live a dream be a ski racer and rank among the best. That is a good thing.

    If it was not for Don Graham and Doug Kitchel and his mom that would never had happen.

    I to am a vet and I can tell you that in the service we have middle management they are called NCO’S. They do the heavy lifting.

    So lets take ego off the line lets try to do what is right for the community and our customers.

    We try to put smile on faces!

    I have talked to many of the players that work hard every day to make this place work. We all have different interest but we work to make this community proud.

    Lower school taxes because of that community on the mountain and a young lady who could get a medal at the games.

    So please stop the words of discord it is not our way.

    Yes you bought the mountain and contrary to what has been said we want Mountain to do well. It is in our best interest

  14. Steve Joyce :

    Well written piece.

    Thanks for adding the factual substance other articles have lacked.

  15. Charles Hall :

    Thanks for the corrected history of Don’s support of Burke Mountain. Since the mid eighties, I have skied, and watched about half a dozen owners take over Burke; and each has done something good for snow sports industry in the NEK. I trust that all will look forward to making Burke a better destination, and let the past be used for history books.
    Thanks

  16. Michael Stahler :

    Can you please post the Cal Rec article in which Q Sr. walks back his comments? (Jan. 23rd edition I believe).

    Thanks,

  17. Brendan Delaney :

    Well said Kirk, thank you for speaking up.

    We are deeply indebted to the Graham family for keeping Burke in business all these years. I knew they were involved behind the scenes but did not know the details. As an aside, Don has passed on his unpretentious and generous attributes to his children.

    As part of a house on Alpine Lane that has 20 season-pass holders, we cherish the mountain and the community and have for 35 years. Hopefully we can move forward from this and keep Burke viable on all accounts.

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