Hitchens leaves ski legacy

— By all accounts, Melvin Hitchens had a lively sense of humor, too many colorful stories to count and, above all, a love for the city and county he called home.

An avid skier and horseback rider throughout his life, Hitchens was born in 1923 on his father's homestead near Milner. He flew a C-47 for the Air Force while stationed in the Philippines during World War II, after which he returned to Routt County and worked his family's land for 10 years, growing wheat, oats and barley. He made enough money in real estate to keep 40 acres near Milner for his horses and move to Steamboat Springs.

Hitchens died late Wednesday night at Yampa Valley Medical Center after suffering a stroke earlier in the day. He was 83.

The Routt County native is perhaps best known for establishing the Hitchens Brothers' Wednesday Night Jump Series at Howelsen Hill with his brother Harold, also deceased.

Melvin Hitchens was a ski jumper in his younger years, when he was a student at Steamboat Springs High School and Howelsen Hill was the only place to ski.

"I spent the best part of my life on Howelsen Hill," he told the Steamboat Pilot & Today last year. "It was so much fun. Then the Air Force called me, and when I got back, I was beyond the age to compete."

Hitchens wrote a check at the beginning of every year to ensure the jumping series would continue.

"There was a period in time when they were going to close the jump," his grandson, Rob McNearny, said Thursday. "He donated a lot of money to save it. He just wanted to make sure kids had the opportunity to jump."

McNearny said he was 13 when he met his grandfather,when a group of family members went to the 1986 World's Fair in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"He took us all to Canada," McNearny recalled. "We went in an RV. He didn't really know how to manage kids, and of course we took full advantage of that. That trip is probably my favorite memory."

In 1996, McNearny designed and built a large, blue house for Hitchens on a plot of family-owned land at Third and Pine streets in downtown Steamboat.

Hitchens lived in the house for six years, McNearny said.

He likely spent much of that time enjoying the broad view of Steamboat Ski Area visible from his living room window.

"He wanted that specifically -- a huge window with a view of the mountain," McNearny said. "Skiing was his life for a long, long time -- he started skiing before any of this was here, even Howelsen."

Long after Hitchens could no longer ski, he could still ride horses.

"We used to ride all over Emerald (Mountain)," said Jennifer France, Hitchens' granddaughter. "We'd go up in the Mt. Zirkel area, just the two of us."

Hitchens usually rode Patches, a tamed mustang he owned for about 20 years, France said.

His daughter, Candace McNearny, remembered the quiet times she spent with her father.

"In earlier years, we enjoyed films and theater," she said. "Since then, we would sit, talk and enjoy sharing the grandchildren."

Hitchens also spent time at Johnny B Good's Diner and The Shack, downtown restaurants he visited almost daily.

"Melvin was the man -- he's a legend," said Mike Diemer, owner of Johnny B Good's. "We've known him since we opened the diner in 1993. He had a great sense of humor, and he was constantly making moves on the waitresses."

"I loved to see Melvin every day," Diemer continued. "He had some great insights on the town. He's going to be sorely missed, I can tell you that."

Deb Olsen, publisher of Steamboat Magazine, said Hitchens "loved Steamboat with his heart and soul."

"He was a cantankerous, old-school Steamboat man who remembered the rough and wild old Steamboat days," Olsen said. "(Even in later years) you could still see him driving his old, 1940s-era pickup truck across the (Yampa) river to get his horses more hay."

Hitchens is survived by his daughter, Candace McNearny; grandchildren Rob McNearny and Jennifer France; and great-grandchildren Leigha McLean, Rebekah McNearny, Rachel McNearny, Rhory McNearny, Chelsea Pierce, Gwendolyn France and Catherine France.

A graveside service at Steamboat Springs Cemetery is planned for 2 p.m. Monday. In the event of bad weather, the service will be moved indoors, tentatively to the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Lincoln Avenue. For confirmation, call Grant Mortuary in Craig at 824-6133.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Hitchens Brothers' Wednesday Night Jump Series at Howelsen Hill.

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