Charles R. Sligh Jr
A Premier Water Skier
Not long after witnessing water skiing for the first time at the New York World's Fair in 1939, Charles R. (Chuck) Sligh Jr. purchased a pair of water skis at Marshall Field's in Chicago and had them sent to his home in Grand Rapids, Mich. The purchase changed his life -- and changed the sport of water skiing.
The skis were manufactured by a New Jersey company, which Sligh wrote to find out what to do with them. A reply came from the company's Vice President in charge of sales, Dan Hains, who that same year was organizing the American Water Ski Association and completing plans for the first National Water ski championships. Their correspondence became a course of instruction for Sligh and led to his participation in the second National Tournament in 1940 when he won the national "amateur" title.
This tournament experience marked the beginning of a water skiing career that for the next 20 years took up almost as much of Sligh's time as his Charles R. Sligh Furniture Company and the National Association of Manufacturers, which he served as president, chairman of the board, and as its paid executive vice president until his retirement in 1963.
After the 1940 Nationals, Sligh organized a troupe of skiers and staged ski shows throughout the Midwest and at the President's Cup Regatta in Washington, D.C., where as a "premier Water Skier" he was given a police escort from national Airport to his hotel. For the next few years he divided his skiing time between competition ski shows.
Sligh organized the National Championships in 1941, 1946 and 1947 at Holland, Mich., and for the '47 tournament, he laid out the first slalom course of the type that is still in use today. As a jumper, he experienced the evolution of the ramp from a dangerous surface of wooden rollers to the smooth surface type that resulted in his setting the fist national distance record of 49 feet in 1947.
His show skiing took him in 1945 to Dayton, Ohio where he met Ralph Hept, a local skier. This chance meeting was indirectly responsible for the development of barefoot skiing. Hept wrote to Sligh later that he was skiing on boards 12 inches long and 2 3/8 inches wide, nailed to tennis shoes. Sligh made his own "shoe skis" the next season and took them with him to Florida that winter. Young skiers in Winter Haven soon reasoned, with Sligh's encouragement, that if you could ski on shoe skis, you could ski on bare feet -- and they did.
Dan Hains, who had continued as president of the American Water Ski Association, finally convinced Sligh to take over in 1949. One of his first acts, with the assistance of his secretary, Isabel Howe, was to increase the frequency and enlarge the distribution of a "News Bulletin" started by Hains, So that the growing number of water skiers through out the country would have a regular central means of communication.
Ski Clubs began sending in more new of their activities and forthcoming tournaments. Individuals wrote of stunts they had performed on water skis and equipment innovations they had conceived. The mimeographed newsletter soon grew until it was sometimes 16 pages long. It then evolved into a magazine, The Water Skier, the first issue of which was published in October of 1951.
Sligh served as president of AWSA until 1954 when he was elected chairman of the board, a post he held until 1963. Under his leadership, the association realized its major growth from a desk drawer operation of its president into a full-fledge national organization of geographical regions and volunteer committees. He encouraged the industry-supported Outboard Boating Club of America to take over administration of the association in 1954 until its growth warranted the hiring of a paid executive director four years later. Sligh recommended William D. Clifford for the job. Clifford, who had served as AWSA president while Sligh was chairman of the board, accepted and still was heading the headquarters operation 25 years later.
Sligh was born in Grand Rapids in 1906. His father, who had been a successful in the furniture business, died in 1927, and when the business was liquidated in 1932, Sligh bought th4e name and started his own company. His business success and his leadership role in the N.A.M. afforded him opportunities to become acquainted with such prominent figures as Hubert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, General Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eishenhower, and John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford.
But with all this, Sligh, even at age 75, liked to recall that on meeting someone new, he would be greeted with, "oh, you're the water Skier." As of 1982, he was one of only four persons ever honored by the AWSA Board of Directors as Vice President for Life.