A Life: George Johann Ostler, 1925 — 2013; ‘He Loved It Up Here. It Was His Heaven’
George Ostler, of Hartford, is shown while hiking in Italy in the 1990s. (Family photograph)
George Ostler, of Hartford, shown during a break in ski competion around 1950. (Family photograph)
Hartford — The tall German with a boyish smile was rarely more in his element than when he was gliding down the slopes at the Dartmouth Skiway, as a group of students watched, eager to emulate his style of skiing.
As the founder and longtime director of the Dartmouth Ski School, George Ostler was for a generation of Dartmouth skiers a coach, instructor and mentor who led by quiet but powerful example, who never took for granted that he got paid to do what he loved.
“In this case,” said Annelies Ostler, his wife of more than 60 years, “it’s hard to distinguish between hobby and livelihood.”
Ostler, who died at age 87 on April 17, was, in the words of former Dartmouth ski coach John Morton, “just this almost larger-than-life guy. He had this terrific smile and he always had this almost childlike twinkle in his eye. (It was like) he had this joke that he was playing on somebody, and he was just waiting to see how it was going to turn out.”
The joy that overcame Ostler whenever he was on skis or spending time on his beloved Hartford farm belied the horrors he had witnessed as a member of the German army during World War II.
Raised in the German Alps town of Mittenwald, near the famous ski area of Garmisch, Ostler had been a promising ski racer in his youth. “He definitely had the talent to be a first-seed, international skier,” said his son George H. Ostler., a Norwich attorney. That career was cut short by the war, when conscription led him to enter the German army as a boy of 17.
Stationed in France as a medic in the army’s alpine corps, “So many people experience the horrors of war, and so many people were really affected by it. He rarely brought the subject up, but it was there,” said Ostler’s son Thomas.
When the European conflict ended in April 1945, Ostler was in Dresden, an area then occupied by the Soviet Army. Imminent dangers were all around, with rogue SS units and Soviet soldiers alike shooting deserters, forcing Ostler to travel covertly by foot at night for nine months until he reached Mittenwald, occupied by the Americans.
“It probably would have made a phenomenal movie, his ability to get halfway across Europe without being detected,” Morton said. “I think one of the reasons he had such a wonderful, positive outlook on life and sort of made the most of every situation was because of the horrors he saw and experienced in World War II. Obviously a different person would have a totally different outlook. Other people would have had the ‘why me’ attitude, and feeling like they were unjustly singled out for that kind of a severe injury. George, I’m sure he was just happy to be alive and happy to have made it back to Germany.”
Back on safe ground, Ostler resumed ski racing, but was unable to compete at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz due to Germany’s exclusion. So he went to work as a driver for the U.S. Army, married Annelies, who also worked for the U.S. Army, in 1952, and befriended Don Cutter, a Hanover resident who had once fought against the Germans in the Italian theater.
With Cutter sponsoring them, the Ostlers came to the U.S. in January 1957, and Cutter had secured Ostler a job as a ski instructor at Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow, Vt. More difficult was getting daughter Elke, then 5, and two-year-old George to the U.S. after a quota of German immigrants was filled.
Cutter got in touch with then-U.S. Sen. Norris Cotton, a Lebanon Republican, who “really went to bat for us,” Annelies said, and the two Ostler children came to the U.S. with Annelies’ mother and brother in the fall of 1957. The family grew three years later with the birth of Thomas, the youngest Ostler child.
“We had various places we could have gone,” Annelies said. “I had a lot of relatives in the U.S., but we came here and we loved it.”
“My father often talked about how they just couldn’t have come to a better place than the Upper Valley,” daughter Elke Hanna said, “because everybody was open and welcoming and not in any way prejudiced against them for being Germans at that time.”
In 1960, Ostler began a 30-year career at Dartmouth. He was hired as a ski coach, but later became the head of Dartmouth’s Ski School, where he devised the student instructor program, allowing experienced skiers in the student body to put their expertise to work as ski instructors for the college community. Ostler would serve as its director, in addition to being a campus tennis instructor and coaching the Eastern division of the U.S. women’s ski team.
He led many skiers to success both as student and professional athletes, but “he always believed that coaches were too much in the foreground, that the credit should go to the skier,” Annelies Ostler said.
Ostler showed an aptitude for working with individual skiers, and realized that some athletes needed more external pressure than others to perform their best.
“He would push one member who was underperforming while he would encourage and not pressure another member of the team who may have been performing at his peak or even past his peak,” said Charles Lobitz, a 1965 Dartmouth graduate.
As the leader of Dartmouth’s student ski instructors, Ostler adopted an understated approach in helping them become better teachers for their fellow students. When he wasn’t sharpening skis and drinking Tuborg beer with Ostler in the basement of Dartmouth’s Robinson Hall, Bill Mitchell, who graduated from Dartmouth in 1979, looked to his mentor in developing strategies for the slopes.
“He was very much someone who stood back and let people develop leadership skills,” Mitchell said of Ostler. “He’d have observations for you on ways he might have handled the situation on the German ski racing team, that you’d realize was a very cool way of sharing with you that he had this problem at one point in his career and this is what he did with it.”
After Ostler retired from Dartmouth in 1990, he and Annelies traveled around the world, and he read German news online each day and amazed his relatives back in Germany with his up-to-the-moment knowledge of current events.
“The joke was if they wanted to find out what was going on in the town, they’d call my father,” his son George said. “He knew who died, who lived, who sold their property.”
But Ostler was mostly content to spend time on the family’s 130-acre farm off Jericho Road, where they raised cattle, pigs and sheep.
He and Annelies shared the property with their son Thomas and his family.
“It was tremendous that he helped raised my daughters, who are 15 and 17, and having time them with everyday,” Thomas Ostler said. “They had the utmost respect for him.
“Before he died, he said to me that he was really happy with his life, that he was so fortunate to make his hobby his vocation, and that he was never a conformist,” Annelies Ostler said.
“He loved it up here,” she said. “It was just his heaven.”
Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.
Bill Mitchell is a 1979 Dartmouth College graduate who was an instructor in the campus' ski school when it was run by the late George J. Ostler. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Mitchell.