Palo Alto Weekly

Community Pulse - April 15, 2011

Winter Lodge founder Duncan Williams dies

Illinois native turned Winter Lodge into one of the largest skating schools in U.S.

Duncan Williams, 90, the founder of Palo Alto's Winter Lodge skating rink, died from complications of a brain tumor April 11, 2011.

Williams was commended by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on the 50th anniversary of Winter Lodge, in 2006. In the proclamation from the county, Williams was noted as having "brought with him to Palo Alto the joy and excitement of community outdoor ice skating." It also noted that Winter Lodge is now one of the three largest skating schools in the United States.

He was born June 6, 1920, in Evanston, Ill., and studied engineering at Dartmouth College. He earned his graduate degrees in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin.

He met his wife, Mercedes, on the beach at Lake Michigan when they were teenagers. They married in 1942.

He served as an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, then taught engineering at the University of Wisconsin for nine years. He moved to Ladera, Calif., in 1956 to work as a civil and mechanical engineering professor at San Jose State University.

His fond memories of ice skating outdoors in Illinois and Wisconsin made him want to recreate the experience in California, Winter Lodge's Executive Director Linda Jensen said.

"No one had ever done that before. It was his big experiment," she said.

He decided to open a rink on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto because of the open space and increasing number of young families, Jensen said. The Winter Club was opened in 1956, offering recreational skating and lessons to kids and adults, as it still does today.

He utilized his engineering background to develop a system of refrigeration and brine to maintain an outdoor ice rink in Palo Alto's mild weather, making the rink the first of its kind west of the Sierras.

He retired in 1983, after his lease expired. When The Winter Club was then threatened with closure, a community group was founded to help save the rink. In 1986, Palo Alto residents passed an initiative asking the city to acquire the land from the owner and preserve the skating facility. It's now supported and run by a nonprofit group.

After retirement, he maintained an active interest in Winter Lodge (as it was renamed) and was a familiar, friendly face to many.

"Any time we needed help, he would be here. He was really proud of it. He was sort of everybody's grandpa," Jensen said, noting his gentleness and wisdom.

He was also a volunteer tutor at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park for 19 years, helping English-language learners. He also tutored adults in English after he and Mercedes moved to The Sequoias Retirement home in Portola Valley eight years ago.

Family members recalled him as kind, humble and witty.

He is survived by his wife, Mercedes Williams of Portola Valley; sons and daughters-in-law Jeff and Katie Williams of Georgia, Dave Williams of Cloverdale, Calif., Don and Elaine Williams of Sonoma, Calif., and Tom and Vicki Williams of Belmont; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, May 21, at 2 p.m. at The Sequoias, 501 Portola Road, Portola Valley.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the charity or environmental organization of one's choice.

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