Wally Dobbs, 65, patiently helps an 8-year-old boy and his grandmother onto a chairlift, and then hops aboard to escort the novice skiers to a gentle, snow-covered slope that winds through aspens at Red River (N.M.) Ski Area.
"Welcome to my office," he says, pointing to a breathtaking view of the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Ascending the slope, Dobbs spins stories, cracks jokes and warbles a tune to calm the anxious skiers. Learning to relax on skis is the first step to enjoying the winter sport, according to Dobbs, ski school director at the family-owned resort in the one-street town of Red River (pop. 484).
"My job is to make sure they're having fun getting from the top of the mountain to the bottom," he says cheerfully.
His strategy apparently works. Each year, thousands of skiing enthusiasts visit Red River, many inspired by personal interaction with Dobbs, a passionate and prolific ambassador, both for alpine skiing and for the former mining town near Colorado's border.
"People call up and first thing they ask, 'Is Wally still there?'" says Lauren Judycki House, 31, a spokeswoman for the resort.
Dobbs prides himself on hitting the slopes each day during Red River's five-month ski season, which begins the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and ends in April when grass begins peeking through the melting snow.
For 17 years, the Mesquite, Texas, native devoted the off-season to promoting his adopted hometown throughout the central United States, driving his colorfully decorated 1951 Willys station wagon with a ski bolted to the front bumper and a sign on the side inviting strangers to "Ask me about Red River." He passed out brochures and restaurant coupons and gave his personal testimony about New Mexico's powdery slopes to anyone who would listen. During the summer of 2000, the ambitious Dobbs visited more than 700 ski, sports and travel groups.
"Wally put Red River on the map," says Paulette Kiker, 45, a shopkeeper who was director of the town's Chamber of Commerce from 1989 to 1998. "He drove around in his funky truck inviting everybody to Red River, from the waitress serving him coffee to the driver filling up next to him at the gas station."
Once people arrive, Dobbs makes everyone feel at home. "You ski with him for three days, and you'll know everybody in town and even their dog," Kiker adds.
Growing up in Texas, Dobbs had never been on skis until he and a friend visited Red River before reporting to duty in the U.S. Army in 1968. He jokes that his first run at age 22 took three hours of intermittent tumbles down the mountain—an exhilarating experience that buoyed his spirits through two tours of duty in Vietnam.
"That kept me going—the thought of getting back home and learning how to ski," he says.
When Dobbs returned to Texas, he worked several jobs and commuted to Red River during ski season, finally moving to his favorite mountain town in 1985. Within two years, he was a ski instructor and, by 2000, director of the ski school.
"Wally gets so much joy teaching people to ski. He just wants everybody to love it like he does," says Christy Dobbs, 48, who learned to ski from her husband and now manages the area's youth ski program.
Wally's love for snow skiing served as an emotional anchor during the off-season in 2009 when he underwent a bone marrow transplant to treat lymphoma. After three months in the hospital, he was gliding down glistening mountains again—even participating in Red River's annual Frozen Turkey Races, an opening weekend tradition during which snow enthusiasts descend the slopes seated on frozen turkeys.
"Even while he was having chemo, skiing was all he could talk about," Christy says. "Every nurse at Baylor (Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas) is coming to Red River to ski this year."
Such is the healing power of skiing in the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico, according to Wally, who crisscrosses the slopes each day chatting with visitors, dispensing skiing tips and singing silly songs.
"Wally's enthusiasm for Red River is contagious," says Rebecca Latham, 32, director of tourism and economic development for the area. "He's one of our greatest assets—the closest thing to a living legend in the southern Rockies."