Bobby Johnson was a Level III PSIA instructor at Gore Mountain in New York when, during a roundtable Ski Vermont put on diversity, he met Geoff Hatheway, the president of Magic Mountain in Londonderry, Vt. Hatheway offered Bobby the job of Ski School Director last fall. Bobby, 59, his wife Nichelle (also an instructor) and son Sander (2) live in Mendon, Vt. now and, off-season, in New Jersey. Thursdays through Sundays you will now find Bobby setting up private lessons (only privates will be offered to individuals and households) at Magic.
So, if we were on a chairlift right now where would it be?
The Black Chair at Magic, of course! But if you ask me what trail I was on, I would say “the space between them” – I’m a woods skier.
What does it mean to be the first Black ski school director?
I am also the first Black, UBC card-carrying journeyman carpenter and born-again Christian who is a ski school director. My Lord taught me to serve and my message going forward to our team at Magic, and to all the people I work with and teach, is inclusivity. It doesn’t matter who you are, you deserve to have fun skiing. My hope is that perhaps I can be a mentor to others, too. I’ve mentored other African-American ski instructors like Russell Fleming, a long-time Killington instructor and member of the Brotherhood of Skiers who was going for his PSIA gold. Sadly, he passed away in 2019. That guy was amazing. Everyone loved Russell, even if you fought him (and I did) you loved him. He mentored me socially.
You met your wife in ski school?
I was teaching and my supervisor walks out with this beautiful woman and I wonder who the lucky guy is who gets to teach her. Turns out it was me. We had a week of lessons and I noticed that Nichelle learns differently from most anyone else I had ever taught. I could tell her something and the next day she would be able to do it. We’re married now and she’s a PSIA Level 1 instructor.
What’s your approach to teaching?
Everyone has their own style of learning and I like to meet people and really listen to them to understand how they learn best: by reading? By doing? By watching? That means that as Ski School Director I greet skiers as they arrive for privates. I also hope to help every new group I can get up the chairlift the first time – as long as I’m not in a lesson myself at the time.
Have you been treated differently as a Black skier?
I’m 5 feet 5 and it is easy to look down on me both literally and figuratively and yes, that’s happened, in lessons and even in PSIA. Early on, while I was teaching at Smuggler’s Notch, I had the head of PSIA hide my skis on me. Why? I just don’t know.
How did you learn to ski?
When I was at the University of Vermont a teaching assistant took us to Smuggler’s Notch and it was the worst lesson ever. I ended up falling as I got off at the mid-station chair. But soon, my college friends started to teach me. In 1983, after UVM, I was working at IBM in Essex Junction but I wanted to be outside more. I started working construction then decided that if I was going to be out in the cold, I might just as well teach skiing so I signed up to take a PSIA course. That same year, I became a born-again Christian, thanks to a small church in Jericho.
You also snowboard and teleski?
Yes, one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to strive to do something that is just beyond your goals. I got my Level III gold pin in Alpine skiing and then got the gold in telemark and am working on it for snowboarding. I found that being good at one aspect of the sport actually makes you better at the others. If it wasn’t for snowboarding, I wouldn’t be the skier I am. If it wasn’t for telemark, I would not be the snowboarder or skier that I am. And if it wasn’t for my son Sander and chasing him around the house, I would forget how old I am all the time!