Ski instructor Kitty Matthews was chatting with a new instructor at Hyland Hills Ski Area in Bloomington when the two exchanged names and up popped a memory from almost half a century ago.
“A light bulb went off in my head when she said her name was Kitty,” said Stuart Fagrelius of St. Paul.
Way back in 1971, as a student at University of St. Thomas, Fagrelius took a ski class at Hyland for college credit.
“This young lady — older than us, but an attractive lady — was our ski instructor,” said Fagrelius, 68, a retired human resources director who recently began teaching in Hyland’s adaptive ski program.
Recalling their conversation, Matthews, now 83, laughed. Her married name at the time, she noted, was Kitty Sexe — pronounced “sexy” — which may have made her especially memorable among the St. Thomas students. But she also stood out for her skills on the slopes.
“I was at the top of my game, ski-wise,” said Matthews, who lives in Edina. “And I gave my students all that I knew.”
That’s a lot of students — including, eventually, Fagrelius’ now 35-year-old son — over a teaching career that spans more than 50 years.
The Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIA-AASI) have recognized her achievement. Less than 1 percent of the organization’s 32,000 members hold the pin indicating they’ve been members for 50 years. And only some of those are still teaching.
“It’s very unique to have someone actively teaching year after year for 50 years,” said Nicholas Herrin, PSIA-AASI’s CEO.
Matthews didn’t start skiing until she was 25, but she quickly made up for lost time. Skiing was merely the first of Matthews’ athletic feats in a life full of biking, running and rock-climbing expeditions.
“She loves adventure, she loves to be outside, she loves people,” said Glen Peterson said, retired director of Hyland’s ski school.
While dating a ski instructor, Matthews took a couple of lessons and was immediately inspired to move to Aspen, Colo. There, she took more classes and skied every day. By the time she returned to Minnesota a few months later, she “was able to ski, not all of the mountain, but most of it,” she said.
She married the ski instructor, had two children and started teaching weekend classes at a Minneapolis ski school and at Hyland.
“She was probably one of the first people that I think was important in women’s ski instruction,” Peterson said.
Matthews divorced in 1989 and remarried a few years later. In her 50s, she joined NASTAR, a large recreational ski race program, and began collecting gold medals. She loved the challenge of racing, the adrenaline rush, the exhilaration of zooming down a hill.
“It’s always a little scary but it’s so satisfying when you do reach the bottom,” she said.
Her love of outdoor challenges extended beyond the ski slope.
Matthews has taken numerous long-distance biking trips, including a 12-week journey that zigzagged about 5,000 miles across the United States. She has run multiple marathons, including the Boston marathon.
Backpacking in the mountains sparked an interest in rock climbing. She has climbed in the Andes in Peru and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. She once led a group up the sheer vertical side of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
“That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” she said.
Nowadays, Matthews still takes a weekly class designed for instructors (she’s the oldest student). But she’s winding down.
She had one shoulder replaced last year, and the other “is in bad shape,” she said. Her bones are weak and her balance isn’t what it used to be. She is afraid of falling, particularly of breaking a hip.
“If I don’t ski well this year, to my satisfaction, I probably won’t do it again,” Matthews said. “I don’t want to get hurt.”
She still has a taste for adventure. Since childhood, she has loved reading adventure tales. (“Endurance,” a book about polar explorer Ernest Shackleton is a favorite.) But she’s satisfied with what she has experienced.
“My feeling is that if I died tomorrow I would be OK,” she said. “I don’t have a single regret.”