By Robin Miller
Daily News correspondent
At age 88, John Heron isn’t taking being “over the hill” sitting down. If anything, he’s skiing down it.
‘Get back up and go’
Heron still remembers his first competitive downhill race. He adjusted his goggles, leaned forward in his boots and planted his ski poles into the white crusty snow at Beaver Creek ski resort in Colorado. The timer started and down the hill he went, back and forth between the markers.
An Edmore resident who enjoys skiing with his wife, Shirley, Heron has earned several state and national NASTAR (National STAndard Race) downhill ski racing medals in the 70-and-older age division. But his first national NASTAR event wasn’t all smooth skiing, as he took a hard fall on the way down. Determined to finish the race, he got back up and continued down the hill.
“I had to finish the race to advance in the competition, and I bought a helmet before my next race,” he said, remembering the incident as if it were yesterday.
Life’s a lot like skiing, according to Heron.
“If you fall down, you get back up and go,” Heron laughed. “I usually come through O.K. Sometimes I come through at the bottom of the hill lying down, feet-first, head-first, sideways; I’ve been through it all.”
Never give up
Heron believes he is fortunate to be on the slopes — fortunate to be alive, actually.
In 1944, while serving in Normandy during World War II, an explosion from a German hand grenade wounded his head and lower left leg.
“It all happened so fast,” said Heron, remembering that day in Normandy. “I must have been in shock because I didn’t realize I was hit until I felt the moisture of the wound. The first thing the sergeant said was ‘you’re going home, Heron, you’re going home.”
After a few days in a MASH unit, Heron went to a military hospital in England, where he spent months recovering. Just before he was scheduled to fly to a hospital in Ohio, he insisted that nurses remove the bandage.
“The pain was getting worse and I suspected something was wrong,” Heron said. “I told them ‘take this bandage off or I’m not going anywhere.’”
It was fortunate they did, as a piece of gauze batting had inadvertently been left inside the wound and caused infection. A new drug — Penicillin — had helped fight the infection and ultimately saved his leg.
The pain, he said, seemed unbearable at times, yet he never gave up.
Never too old to learn new tricks
This same determination inspired Heron to begin competitive ski racing when he was in his 70s.
Skiing was a part of John’s life most of his life, even before tow ropes and chair lifts were around.
“I like going down the hill, and now, I especially like riding up,” Heron laughed, remembering those long treks to the top when he was younger.
Heron, his wife, Shirley, and their four children skied at Brady’s Hills until it closed in the winter of 1982. Brady’s Hills was a small 10-run ski area situated just east of Lakeview on what some say is the highest point in Montcalm County, according to John.
While in his 40s, Heron wanted to improve his ski style so he took lessons at Brady’s Hills with long-time ski instructor Bud Abbey.
“I learned from the best,” Heron said.
Abbey was recently named as one of the top 100 ski instructors in the nation by Ski Magazine. Also, Crystal Mountain named a ski run in Abbey’s honor.
For Heron, his lessons with Abbey paid off.
Almost 30 years later, Heron has advanced to nationals every year he’s competed in the 70-and-older division of NASTAR. Nationals are held at resorts in Colorado — usually Beaver Creek, Vail, Winter Park or Breckenridge. Heron remembers skiing in Park City, Utah one year, as well.
For the love of it
The Herons have been married for 66 years. They met at a dance as teenagers in Millersburg, near Rogers City, where Shirley lived and John spent summers on his grandfather’s farm.
Still very much in love, the Herons swing and twirl to the music of life. They dance at the Six Lakes VFW hall to “I’ll Always Remember,” the song they danced to on the night they met more than 70 years ago.
Heron said they have always stayed busy.
He and Shirley worked on the original Fred Meijer Heartland Trail Committee. He remembers meeting Fred Meijer to discuss funding the first section of CSX Railroad corridor. John Heron owned a hardware store in Edmore and taught science, agriculture and gym at Montabella for 19 years and at Weidman for four years. Shirley taught kindergarten at Vestaburg for 17 years.
“Being around children was a big part of our life,” Shirley said. “Now, we spend a lot time with our great-grandchildren.”
The Herons plan to ski with grandchildren and great-grandchildren at Nubs Nob and Crystal Mountain this winter.
For John Heron, he isn’t ready to give it up competitive skiing just yet. While the others are skiing at the resort, he said he plans to sneak away for a few quick NASTAR races.
“Skiing and athletics help people keep moving,” he said. “You know that’s important.”
Robin Miller is an Edmore resident and a correspondent for The Daily News. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.