As I watch 90-year-old Tom Awrey zigzag with ease down a snow-laden ski run, there’s no doubt in my mind that he can teach anyone to ski—and at any age.
The longtime Homestead ski instructor (and former NASTAR racer) is living proof that the sport is an option for anyone, as long as they’re willing to take the powdery plunge.
The Traverse City resident has been hitting the slopes for 85 years now and has no plans to put the brakes on anytime soon.
“It keeps me young,” Tom says. “At my age, I need it!”
On this sunny February morning, Homestead Ski School Director LeeAnna Grafstein is watching Tom and some young skiers descend Sweet Cicely hill. She’s only been in her position for part of the winter, but that’s long enough to recognize that “Tom is a great person to know.”
“He really has a lot of heart,” says LeeAnna. “He puts everything into this.”
Upon starting the job, LeeAnna told Tom she wanted to learn to ski so she could guide the other instructors. “He kept encouraging me, and one day we were slow and he said, ‘OK, let’s go out. Get your skis on!’” recalls LeeAnna. “So, I did, and within an hour, I was at the top of that hill skiing. He’s phenomenal. He will not stop until you’re skiing the proper way, and he makes sure these instructors are teaching everyone the proper way.”
Whether it’s giving advice to a passing skier, or telling stories to coworkers off the slopes, LeeAnna says Tom has left a lasting impression on her. “He goes home with me,” she says. “I go home and I think about the conversations we had. He’s just touched my heart.”
Related Read: Searching for more skiing or snowboarding tips, conditions or guides? View our Northern Michigan Ski & Snowboard page.
Tom Awrey: Born to Ski
No one pushed Tom to try skiing at the age of 5. One day, as he tells it, he just decided to grab some pine boards (for skis) and hit the hills of his small town of West Branch. “There was no such thing as lessons then,” Tom recalls. “My first pair of skis were 6 feet long and had a leather strap across the toe!”
Tom’s dad worked in a gas station, and when Tom was 6 or 7, he got an inner tube, cut two pieces off it, sewed them through the leather strap and pulled it back on his heel. The “binding” of sorts allowed him to start doing turns.
A Boy Scout who was no stranger to adventure, he would often head out to Tolfree Farm in West Branch—a plot of land that had been timbered off, leaving huge stumps in the hills. “I would go out there on the weekends and just take a backpack, pack my lunch and build a fire in one of the stumps,” Tom recalls. “I’d ski out there all day.”
Skiing remained a love of Tom’s, and eventually, it led him to the love of his life, Shirley. The two were childhood sweethearts—they met at West Branch Public High School and, naturally, he taught her to
Shirley has since lost her eyesight, but Tom says “she was a beautiful skier in her day.”
”She was one of those skiers who started at the top of the hill at a certain speed, and when she got to the bottom, she was still going the same speed,” he says with a smile. “I don’t know how she did it. She was fully in control all the way down the hill.”
Tom and Shirley were married right out of high school, and they’ve been together for more than 70 years now. “She’s probably the reason that I’m skiing today,” Tom laughs. “She puts up with me.”
Following school, Tom worked at a couple of grocery stores in West Branch before joining the U.S. Marine Corps. He went on to have a 25-year career with the Michigan State Police and retired in 1980.
Tom says he decided to start teaching skiing because “it’s something [he] always loved.” He got his start at Snow Snake Mountain, after owner Howard Brockway approached him while skiing and personally invited him to teach there. It was a perfect fit.
“It’s fun just to see people and their transformation,” Tom says. “At first they’re all nervous and scared, and all of a sudden, they’re relaxed, and they’re skiing down the hill just having a ball.”
Tom went on to teach all over Michigan—from the Lansing Ski Club and Mid Michigan College, to Timberlee Hills, Shanty Creek, The Highlands, Boyne Mountain and Sugarloaf. In 2000, he started instructing at The Homestead, making this his 22nd year at the resort.
And as if all that weren’t impressive enough, Tom added NASTAR racer to his resume while at The Homestead. (Developed by SKI Magazine in 1968, NASTAR —National Standard Race— is the largest recreational ski and snowboard race program in the world.) “I was here and they had the courses set up, so I just jumped in and started skiing,” Tom recalls. “It was fun racing for the 5-6 years we had it here.”
Tom smiles as he recounts racing down Purple Clover hill against local ski legend Lou Batori—who later on was still hitting the slopes at the age of 106. (Lou passed away in 2018 at the age of 107.) “He was a very nice guy,” says Tom. “Sometimes I beat him, and sometimes he beat me. It was fun to compare techniques.”
Related Read: The Unstoppables: 2 Northern Michigan Runners Defy the Odds.
Teaching Today’s Skiers
Over the years, Tom has seen skiing change “tremendously.” He motions down to his feet. “The skis I’m on right now are left and right skis, because the inside edge is a carving edge and the outside edge is a rocker,” says Tom. “So, it just slides right out of the way when you’re making your turns. There’s all kinds of technology built into skis today.”
And the old pine boards he used as a child? “I can just use them for kindling now,” he laughs.
But no matter how much the world of skiing changes, one constant remains: Tom’s love for the thrill of the sport. Today, he delights in sharing that passion with his family (a daughter, two sons, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren), as well as those who are lucky enough to encounter him at The Homestead.
And his advice for those still on the fence? “Take a lesson from a certified instructor.” You know where to find him.