NewsWomen's History Month


Founder of Colorado's first Black ski club celebrates her 100th birthday

“That has puzzled me lately. Why all this hoopla about me being 100?” said Valeria Henrietta Tanaka, founder of the Slippers-N-Sliders. “I'm just somebody living every day.”
Valeria Tanaka.jpg
Posted at 11:09 PM, Mar 29, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-30 01:09:49-04

 DENVER — Valeria Henrietta Tanaka, a founder of Colorado’s first Black ski club, the Slippers-N-Sliders, turned 100 years old on Sunday, March 10.

Earlier this month, Tanaka’s family held a birthday celebration, where she was surrounded by her children and loved ones who reminisced about key moments of her life.

“I don't feel older than I did when I was about 55 or 60. I'm just moving from day to day,” Tanaka said.

Valeria Tanaka was born on March 10, 1924, in Memphis, Tennessee.

“My family didn't live there for very long. We moved. The family moved to St. Louis,” Tanaka said.

Tanaka spent her formative years in St. Louis until a job opportunity sent her to the West Coast.

“I heard that they were hiring people to work in the shipyards. That was in 1941. I went with a friend to Vancouver, Washington… we were working on barges,” Tanaka said.

The barges helped the Allies win World War II. After the war, Tanaka eventually moved to Portland, Oregon, and fell in love with her first husband and skiing.

“We had a friend who was from the East Coast, her name was Cookie. Cookie decided that I should know how to ski. So she took us up skiing in Portland on Mount Hood,” Tanaka said. “There was no such thing as a chair lift at that time. You get on the mountain by holding onto this rope tow and they pull you up the mountain. You turn it loose and come back down.”

Tanaka said in those days, she didn't see many skiers of color on the mountains.

"First of all, skiing wasn't that popular. But when we went up, if we saw a minority of any kinda way over on their slope, we were yelling and screaming and waving and getting together to ski with them because it was a little unusual to see a Black skier," Tanaka said.

Tanaka and other Black skiers would find themselves on the cover of a national magazine in the 1950s.

“At that time, the Ebony magazine was doing their first article in their magazine about Black skiers in America. So I was in the first article,” Tanaka said.

Skiing is a love that stuck with Tanaka for life. Sadly, that wasn’t the case for her first marriage.

“Irreconcilable differences. He left me,” Tanaka said.

Tanaka would fall in love again, and this love would last a lifetime.

“I had met George Tanaka in Portland after I was divorced, and he followed me (back) to St Louis. We got married. We both started working for the Air Force,” Tanaka said.

But the move back to St. Louis didn’t last long.

“We moved to Colorado because the agency closed in St. Louis because the Army Air Force was splitting. The Army went to Indianapolis. The Air Force moved their financial departments to Denver. We came with the Denver group because of the fact that we could ski in Colorado," Tanaka said.

Valeria and George Tanaka would go on to have three kids.

“And when our kids were little, we were up and down the ski slopes every weekend because he was a volunteer ski patrolman,” Tanaka said. “I'm one of the founders of the Slippers-N-Sliders Ski Club.”

Tanaka no longer hits the slopes but she finds other ways to socialize and spend as much time as she can with her loved ones.

“That has puzzled me lately. Why all this hoopla about me being 100?” Tanaka asked. “I'm just somebody living every day.”

But Tanaka said she knows every day is a special gift.

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