WILMINGTON – This area, the world of winter sports and friends and family lost an important person this month. Jeanne Chesley Ashworth, an Olympic medalist speedskater and former Wilmington town supervisor, died Thursday, Oct. 4 at the age of 80 after a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
Born on July 1, 1938 in Burlington, Vermont, Ashworth grew up in Wilmington, Massachusetts, before moving to Wilmington, New York. As a young woman, she honed her skills as speedskater and competed in three Winter Olympics: 1960 in Squaw Valley, California; 1964 in Innsbruck, Austria; and 1968 in Grenoble, France. At Squaw Valley, Ashworth won bronze, the first medal ever for women’s speedskating in the U.S.
From 1968 to 1980, she coached speedskating for the Pee Wee Association at the Olympic Oval in Lake Placid. On her credentials for the 1964 Olympics, it stated that she lived on Saranac Avenue in Lake Placid and was a physical education instructor.
After her competition days were over, she continued to work with the Winter Olympics. For the Lake Placid games in 1980, she traveled to Greece to help deliver the Olympic flame to the U.S. via Air Force One, according to her obituary.
In recent years, Ashworth spent time speaking with Lake Placid Olympic Museum Director Alison Haas and donated some Olympic photos and mementos to the museum.
“Jeanne was an Olympic pioneer, not only in speed skating, but for women competing in the Olympic Games,” Alison Haas said in an statement Wednesday. “As a past board member of the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, Jeanne was instrumental in supporting our mission and growth. She was always dedicated to the Olympics and our community to inspire youth and visitors from around the world. We are honored that the museum continues to display and protect so many of Jeanne’s personal Olympic artifacts, including her bronze medal – the first medal awarded to a U.S. woman in Olympic speed skating. She will be missed.”
John Dimon, who runs the Human Power Planet Earth Bike Shop in Saranac Lake, is also a speedskater. For many years he was an active member of the Adirondack Speed Skating Club in Lake Placid. Dimon said Ashworth was instrumental in getting speedskating back into the Empire State Winter Games in the early 2000s.
“I’d been trying and promoting it for months,” Dimon said. “Finally, she calls me and says, ‘Do you need help?’ I don’t know what she did or who she called, but a week later I got a call from the Empire State Games saying speedskating was back in.”
In 1993, Ashworth was inducted into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame. Back then, she was described as being light on words but heavy on actions. Six years later, she was elected as Wilmington town supervisor as a Democrat. At the time, Wilmington was dominated by Republicans and had fewer registered Democrats than independents.
“I’m so excited,” she told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise right after her win. “It’s tremendous affirmation from the people with this vote. It’s really humbling and wonderful.
“I think I have some good ideas for Wilmington,” she continued. “I have a lot of energy for it.”
One of her more noteworthy moments happened a few years after the Ironman triathlon was brought to Lake Placid. At the time, the village’s sewer system wasn’t entirely ready to handle the amount of sewage that came with the influx of visitors and athletes. Waste water overflowed into the West Branch of the AuSable River and kept the Wilmington beach closed for about two years.
Ashworth and a group 50 angry Wilmington residents crashed a state Department of Environmental Conservation press conference at the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in September 2003, saying they were ready to sue the DEC, the state Department of Health and the village of Lake Placid for bacterial contamination in the river.
In the early 2000s, Dan Palmer served on the Essex County Board of Supervisors with Ashworth as the Minerva supervisor. He’s now the county manager. He said Ashworth was a good example of a someone who represented her town’s residents and not solely her party.
“She was a straightforward person,” he said. “You always knew where she stood.”
Former Jay town supervisor and Essex County board chair and fellow Democrat Randy Douglas said Ashworth was a wonderful supervisor who worked hard for Wilmington.
“She was great team player,” he said. “Jeanne was always willing to go the extra mile and get involved with any of the committees I needed her on. It saddens me to hear of her passing because we had a great working relationship. I think we accomplished quite a lot together.”
Lake Placid village Mayor Craig Randall expressed his condolences to the town of Wilmington and its residents.
“When we have people with her achievements in her sporting endeavor pass away, not only is it a loss to her community but to her sport as well,” Randall said.
As supervisor, Ashworth was also hard on the fact that Whiteface Mountain is in Wilmington, not Lake Placid, similar to how people often debate whether the Statue of Liberty is in New York or New Jersey. At an Essex County Board of Supervisors meeting in 2007, Ashworth urged “all news media to ensure that when they broadcast events happening at Whiteface Mountain they clearly state that Whiteface Mountain is located in the town of Wilmington.” A sign was also put up at the top of the Clousplitter gondola with the words “Surprise! You are in Wilmington, N.Y.”
Ashworth served as Wilmington’s town supervisor from 2000 through 2007.
In her obituary, she was described as “a skilled woodworker, a gifted athlete, competitive at softball, and cross-country skiing and an all-around outdoorswoman.”
In lieu of flowers, donations in her name are welcome at North Country Public Radio or the Lake Placid Olympic Museum.
Arrangements have been entrusted to the Heald Funeral Home, 7521 Court Street, Elizabethtown.