Young at heart

LAKE PLACID – The Lake Placid High School Winter Carnival, which officially kicked off Thursday morning, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. A Lake Placid woman remembers the days when the mid-winter festival was just taking shape.

LPHS’s Winter Carnival features sporting events, including an ice hockey tournament, plus a snow sculpture contest and plenty of school spirit. It culminates with the crowning of a king and queen, both seniors, on Saturday night.

Opening ceremonies were held Thursday, emceed by senior Elizabeth Leff. Marsha Roy was named archbishop, and numerous local dignitaries were in attendance, including Lake Placid village Mayor Craig Randall, state Olympic Regional Development Authority President and CEO Ted Blazer, Lake Placid school board President Mary Dietrich and Lake Placid police Sgt. Chuck Dobson.

But the guest of honor was 95-year-old Cornelia Bonsignore, one of the original LPHS Winter Carnival Committee members. She sat down with the Enterprise earlier this week to talk about the carnival’s rich history.

Hometown girl

Bonsignore graduated from Lake Placid High School in 1935. She received her bachelor’s degree from Boston University and her master’s from St. Lawrence University. She also studied at several state schools, including Cortland, Potsdam and Plattsburgh. She returned to the Lake Placid school district to teach physical education in 1945.

“I was born in New York City,” Bonsignore said. “My family moved up here when I was 3 years old. I love it here. I’ve loved every minute of it.”

After she retired from teaching, Bonsignore became a certified luge judge and worked at the Lake Placid, Calgary and Lillehammer Winter Olympics.

A unique event

Bonsignore said three teachers pitched the idea of holding a winter carnival in 1943. The school board approved the plan, and the first carnival was held in 1944.

“The board felt that it was an advantageous decision to go along with the idea,” Bonsignore said. “The first year, it was totally this school that was involved. They had inter-class activities – ice and snow sculpturing was one of the main things. It was a competition for the high school classes, and it was very intense. Everybody wanted to be the winner.

“What happened was, kids were skipping classes to work on their sculpturing. They’d go out after school and stay there into the night. So the police got involved as chaperones. At 9 o’clock, they used to go over there and clean out the campus – send all the kids home.”

Past carnivals included speedskating races, figure skating competitions, downhill ski races and an “Icicle Hop,” the culminating event that featured the crowning of the king and queen.

After several years, the carnival gained notoriety, other schools from around the region asked to participate, and the board once again agreed. To this day, other schools from across northern New York and Vermont still participate in the boys hockey tournament.

“I dare say that I don’t think there’s another school in the United States that expanded with a program and accomplished what this has accomplished,” Bonsignore said. “Anybody that comes here, there’s always a conversation about the Winter Carnival. Other schools would do anything to be invited to be part of the festivities.”

Risky business

Bonsignore’s face breaks into a warm smile when asked about her favorite memories of Carnivals past. One involves the ski races, which were held at Mount Whitney and Scott’s Cobble.

In the Carnival’s early days, the ski races were timed by two people – one at the top of the course, and one at the bottom – who were both equipped with earphones and microphones. The person at the top would shout, “Go!” to signal the person at the bottom to start timing with a stopwatch. When the skier crossed the finish line, the watch was stopped and the time recorded.

Bonsignore was often responsible for timing the races, and she recalled one year when student Red LaFountain was flying down the hill with “great speed.

“We can see him at the finish line, and so you just kind of keep your eyes on him,” Bonsignore said. “As he was getting closer, he was headed out of control towards the judges. So I seemed to be the victim. … By the time he got to the finish line, he collided with me.

“I saw him coming, and I knew it was going to happen. And being a physical education teacher, I was pretty limber. As he came, and I couldn’t get out of his way, I jumped and gave him a bear hug. I had my arms around his neck and my legs around his waist, and down the hill we were going. And then we stopped, and we walked back up the hill. And when we got up there – Norm Hess was timing with me that day – and we got up there, and Norm’s face was long, and I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ and he said, ‘I didn’t get the time.’

“To this day, when I see Red, he’ll say, ‘Will you ever forget?’ And I say, ‘I’ll never forget. I thought I was dead!'”

Olympic aspirations

Bonsignore isn’t just a beloved teacher and member of the community; she was one of the area’s first female speedskaters.

Women’s speedskating was introduced into the Olympics at the 1932 games in Lake Placid. The events were for demonstration only, and women’s speedskating wouldn’t return to the Olympics until 1960.

“I was a candidate,” Bonsignore said. “And it’s something I’ve lived with all my life. Being a woman, you don’t get the attention in sports.”

At 13, Bonsignore was a regional speedskating champion. She was in the running to join the Olympic team. To do so, she had to qualify, and the trials were being held in Wisconsin.

“So here I was, a 13-year-old young lady,” Bonsignore said. “Coach is male, so in order to send me out there, they had to hire a female chaperone. So they worked on it, and they had it set up so they were going to have special trials here in Lake Placid for me because the Olympics were going to be here.

“Everything was set up, and don’t we have a thaw. The ice all melts, and they can’t have the trials. They can’t afford to send me out to Wisconsin – in 1932, you’re lucky if you had a penny to rub against another. So I never got to be a candidate for the women’s Winter Olympics.”

Bonsignore said her practice times in 1932 were faster than the woman who won.

“You live with that all your life,” she said.

Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or