On the alpine slopes above Whitefish and along the shores of Flathead Lake, there is some disagreement over whether Peter Brucato was more devoted to skiing or sailing – after all, the “Mayor of Big Mountain” competed as an Olympic alternate in both disciplines, pursuing them with hot-blooded zeal even as he crossed the threshold to his 90s and confronted the attendant, attenuating health maladies of longevity.
In observation of his ninth decade, Brucato toured the San Juan Islands for 10 days on a 22-foot boat, sailing alongside friend and former Big Mountain CEO Mike Collins. After suffering a stroke last year he still cut powder turns on The Big, skiing top to bottom with his son, Rick. When gout prevented him from putting on his ski boots, he had one toe and part of another removed so he could buckle in.
“You would be hard pressed to pick one or the other for Dad,” Rick Brucato said. “He was just happy that there was more than one season, because he loved to ski and he loved to sail.”
Despite the ski-or-sail debate, there was never any dispute in the Brucato family about where his deepest passions resided – in his late wife, Martha, his three boys, Bill, Pete and Rick, his grandchildren, and his many friends, the collective makeup of his ballast long before he arrived in Whitefish to be knighted “Mayor,” an honorary handle of distinction and a mark of pride.
After 87 years of skiing and sailing adventures, Brucato passed away April 22, at the age of 92. He was recently remembered by friends and family who recalled his larger-than-life presence on Big Mountain, where he moved in 1991, and the colorful patchwork mosaic that defined his epic pre-Montana adventures while living in Massachusetts, Idaho and Wisconsin.
Brucato began skiing when he was 5 years old, and first encountered the “big peaks” in Utah in 1941, followed by a stint working and skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho.
His athletic achievements and dedication only flourished with time.
By the late 1940s, after serving with the U.S. Navy in World War II, he was skiing with the nation’s best as an Olympic alternate. In 1950, he won the New York state downhill ski competition, one of many championships in a distinguished racing career that would span decades. His involvement with the U.S. Ski Team over the years included several different positions and he was the chairman of the U.S. Ski Educational Foundation.
He completed the 34-mile American Birkebeiner cross country ski marathon 25 consecutive years, including one year when he was recovering from a spinal fusion and defied a doctor’s orders, according to his sons. He also completed 24 marathons.
Brucato’s impressive resume might belong to an adherent of a rigid, inflexible regimen, but he was even more devoted to fun.
Rick Brucato recalls how, on Sunday nights in Milwaukee, following a full day of skiing at the family’s local ski area, Alpine Valley, the boys would settle into the den for a night of television, relishing programs like Wild Kingdom and Jacques Cousteau.
Setting up TV trays for dinner, the boys soon realized the collapsible trays were an ideal height for bench jumps, a kind of workout familiar to ski racers.
“Back and forth, back and forth, we cleared our good TV trays no problem. But we were making noise and mom looked in to check on us,” Rick Brucato recalled. “Dad was also in the kitchen and Mom told Dad to go in the den and control the boys. Dad came in and sized up the situation. Before long another older, bald, slightly paunchy boy was jumping over the TV trays with his sons. Mom looked in at us and exclaimed, ‘Peter!’ And this is how it went: four boys and one mom.”
Through the 1980s, he visited Whitefish only sporadically up until his wife’s death in 1990. The following year, he purchased his third-story condo in the Edelweiss, overlooking Chair 1. After a day of skiing he would relax in the evenings by watching the groomers rumble up and down the ski hill, sipping wine as the mesmerizing lights tracked across the snowy expanse.
“You can chuck a snowball to the quad from our deck, and at night the groomers start out on that side of the hill,” Rick Brucato said. “He would just have a glass of wine and watch the groomers go up and down Inspo or Toni Matt. It was like entertainment for him.”
It was during those years he was dubbed “The Mayor of Big Mountain.”
The welcome wagon to newcomers each season, Brucato became known as the de facto ambassador and source of critical ski beta on the mountain.
In 2000, when the resort launched an official ambassador program, Brucato balked.
“They sort of encroached on some of Peter’s territory, because he would help people find trails and show them where to go. He didn’t want to become an ambassador, he wanted to be kind of his own ambassador,” former resort CEO Mike Collins said. “So, in a moment of weakness, I said, ‘well, why don’t we just make you the Mayor of Big Mountain?’ Of course I never thought that it would stick, but Peter relished it and the next thing I knew he had the nickname stitched on his jacket, and then he made business cards. We sort of had two ambassador programs; we had the formal ambassador program, and then we had the Mayor.”
Just prior to Brucato’s death, Rick traveled to Whitefish from his home in New Jersey for an annual ritual – spend a few days skiing on Big Mountain before returning east, where the Mayor would spend time visiting his three sons, all of whom followed in their father’s footsteps as competitive skiers, sailors and runners.
But his health was flagging, and a trip to the hospital confirmed he was suffering from a heart attack; unfortunately, he did not survive it, Rick said.
“My dad lived a full life but it was not easy letting go of him,” he said. “I was very thankful to be out in Whitefish that whole time, but it’s the last thing we wanted. We wanted to bring him home and keep him going until 100.”
After college, the younger Brucato spent an entire year living in Whitefish with his father, and recalls falling in with the local community, and falling in love with the lifestyle.
Further confirmation came when he would watch his father, who was 72 at the time, ski alongside him down difficult runs, never revealing his age.
“Dad had these crazy days where he would come out to the hill and the lines in his face would disappear and all his body chemistry lined up,” Rick Brucato said. “It was part of his DNA. Here’s this 72-year-old guy and he didn’t look a day over 50. We skied a lot together that winter.”
A strong supporter of the Montana Special Olympics Winter Games, Peter Brucato played a major role in the annual event on Big Mountain. The family has encouraged donations to www.somt.org/donate.
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