By Janelle Faignant
“‘Where are they now?’ Is that the theme? I’m still alive,” Rick Chaffee says with a laugh.
Rick is the Chaffee in Chaffee Art Gallery. His grandfather, Frederick Chaffee, was raised in the mansion, which was built with lumber from the Chaffee Lumber Company and marble from the then Chaffee quarry, before it was an art gallery. Both he and his sister, Suzy Chaffee, were Olympic skiers. The name Chaffee is almost synonymous with Rutland, and goes back for generations. But Rick’s story began when Rutland native Andrea Mead Lawrence won America’s first gold medals in Alpine Skiing in the 1952 Winter Olympics.
“There was this outgrowth of extraordinary enthusiasm,” he recalled. “They had parades down Merchants Row when she won.”
Organized ski races developed because of it, and all of the mid-Vermont ski areas began racing weekly during the winter.
“I never thought of becoming a ski racer,” Rick said. “(But) I was skiing at age five, racing by the time I was six. We got good because we had really good coaching from people like Joe Jones, and were swept along in this well-organized, cutting-edge expression of ski racing.”
He went on to win two U.S. National Championship gold medals (1968) and three NCAA individual National Championships gold medals (1965, 1967) in alpine ski racing, and competed in two Winter Olympics — in 1968 along with Suzy, and again in 1972.
But in 1963, Rick left Rutland for the University of Denver, about to leave behind a long and difficult history with education.
“I’m dyslexic,” he said, “And I hated school because I could never do all my homework every night, because I couldn’t read fast enough. I went to school scared every day of being humiliated or feeling like a failure.”
A lot of that energy got channeled into skiing.
“One of the reasons I think I got good was because it was the only area that I had any success,” he said.
He had done well in Olympic tryouts, and was considered one of the best skiers in the country as a college freshman. His roommate then was Dennis “Poncho” McCoy, son of the owner of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, and a champion skier and outstanding student.
“All he did was study, sleep and train,” Chaffee said. “There was nothing else to do but to also study. I started taking the same classes he did, and I went from a C student to an A student because of Poncho McCoy.”
One of the first courses he clicked with was economics, because he could read slowly and use the charts to understand it.
“I majored in economics because it was the first course I did well in,” he said.
This sparked a compassion for students who had struggled the way he had, and a new enthusiasm for education. When he returned from the ’72 Olympics in Japan, he began a teaching career that became his passion, to this day.
“School had been hell for me, I knew school had been difficult for them,” he said. “And I would not go on with a topic until my students got it.”
He later married and had three kids and moved around a bit. But at some point, his career and marriage seemed to hit a stopping place. He developed a serious case of adult-onset asthma, the same affliction his mother had died from, due to the deterioration of her heart from the steroid medication required to keep the condition in check.
“I was a mess, I just thought I was dying,” Rick said. And then, he and his wife split up.
“So I came back to Rutland,” he said. “And the embarrassing part of the story is I left Rutland as a hero. I was a national champion, an Olympic athlete, a PhD, but I was returning to live with my dad, unemployed, divorced and broken. I was depressed. Everything sucked. Life was just barely more worth living than not.”
He met Judy French, a nurse at Rutland Hospital, through his cousin. They hit it off, married soon after, and that started to bring him out of it.
“I was depressed from elementary school on,” he said. “I had a sister that died when I was 12. She drowned in our pool, she was 1, and I was her primary babysitter much of the time. There was a heaviness in our family from that point on. I had leaned on religion to survive, done everything I could think of to try to deal with this pain that affected every realm of my life, but nothing had touched the depression.”
In 2000 he went to a retreat, inspired by some spiritual books he’d been reading. One day in the midst of a meditation, the depression suddenly lifted.
“It never returned,” he said. “It was a meditation with eyes closed in which we simply allow whatever arises: thoughts, sensations, noises, without any interference on our part. To meditate this way is to be more interested in the awareness that perceives, than in the objects being perceived. That somehow seemed pivotal in my case. That and being open to the possibility that this awareness that perceives, is Divine.”
It changed his life profoundly, and became part of his teaching. Rick has been teaching in an undergraduate organizational leadership program with Union Institute & University since 2009, with a unique approach.
“There is a deep intuition that we have, that somehow we are one, isn’t there?” he said. “We are testing that possibility in much of my teaching.”
In his negotiation and conflict resolution class, Rick asks his students to test the following possibility like a scientist — see what it’s like when we are as concerned about fairness for the other as we are for ourselves in conflict and negotiations.
“See if the outcomes begin to convince us of its validity, in results beyond what we could have imagined, in better relationships, in more peace inside and in serendipitous events that happen, seemly out of the blue, that suggest to us, we are on the right track.
“There is no way to prove this to anyone else, but we can test it for ourselves.” Rick said. “That’s how I teach leadership and negotiation. These are not really ‘strategies,’ but the way a true leader interacts with others to bring out their best.
“So, my courses are about helping people find their voice, or in some cases, to no longer be bullies,” he said, “to see what life is like when we relate to the other as our very own self.
“I don’t seem to miss skiing,” he said. “Which has surprised me. When someone brings it up, I can still feel the joy of running through slalom gates. But my love now is teaching.”