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Remembering Warren Kitzmiller

Vermont bids adieu to Warren Kitzmiller, who represented Montpelier in the Statehouse for 22 years before announcing his retirement this spring. He died on June 10. Kitzmiller was one of the founders of Onion River Sports on Langdon Street (now Onion River Outdoors), and created the annual “Karen Kitzmiller Memorial Winter Coat Drive” in honor of his late wife. This image dates back to Kitzmiller’s Onion River Sports days and still hangs in the shop. It was drawn by Ed Koren, a local cartoonist and illustrator known for his work in The New Yorker.
By Andrew Brewer

My first purchase from Onion River Sports was a pair of blue Åsnes Marka cross-country skis. I think I was twelve or so. I can still picture the display of skis just inside Onion Rivers’ front door, between the posts and beams that are still there today. I’m pretty sure the skis are still in my parents’ garage. 

I also remember the fellow who helped me. Friendly, affable, as un-pushy as a salesperson could be. He really liked to talk. Not so much about the gear, but about the experiences I would have with it. I didn’t know then that in a few years I’d be working for Warren Kitzmiller, but the delight he took from aiding folks in their adventures was ingrained in me early. Warren’s sales technique — if he had one — was simple: if you can tap into the spirit of adventure that awaits in the outdoors, the rest will take care of itself. 

It was Warren’s founding partner, Jack Nash, who hired me as a teen to work at the shop. Jack was a bike racer, I wanted to be a bike racer. Though I worked for Warren, I didn’t know him terribly well. Jack was my guy. In my early twenties I moved to Utah, and after a couple of years was surprised to hear the news that Warren was buying Jack out of the business.

Then, a couple of years after that, Warren came to Utah for a trade show and stayed with my wife and me. The visit had a dual purpose — he needed a manager and he was thinking of retirement a few years down the road. The idea was that we would move home, I’d manage Onion River Sports, and he’d sell it to me in five to 10 years. 

In March of 1995 he handed me the keys to the front door. I was young and had lots of ideas, some grandiose. He knew when to give me the nod and when to put the brakes on. Over the next five years I learned about cost and inventory control, and how to have an open door for employees. We attended countless trade shows together — he seemed to know the best out-of-the-way steak house wherever we went. 

But, what I mostly remember was the time he took with every single customer he helped. He relished tackling some odd fix on someone’s lawn mower or swimming pool or whatever. Oh, and he whistled … a lot. 

I used to warn people, “Don’t ask about dogs unless you have the rest of the day.” Legions of central Vermonters can probably recall long sales-floor chats with Warren about dogs, politics, family, or Toothaker Island, possibly in that order. If you knew him well enough you might have greeted him with “hey Fritz,” a nickname from his youth. At some point he’d realize he’d gone on long enough and you would hear, “Well, I suppose I should ring you up for this.” 

It wasn’t about closing the deal for Warren. Yes, he needed to be profitable and make a living, but if there had been a way to trade on smiles and anticipation, he would have rather just taken that. 

Though he and I had an agreement on paper for my future at Onion River, it’s difficult to value a business so far into the future. We had formulas that made sense in the beginning, but really didn’t work for either one of us years later. So, in the end we relied on integrity and doing the right thing to account for sweat equity (if not real equity due to growth). And doing the right thing is what he did. 

There is no doubt he could have put ORS on the market and sold it for more than he sold it to me for, probably to someone from away. But he didn’t want it to go to whomever that person was, he wanted it to stay in the hands of someone the community already knew and was used to. He cared about continuity, and I understood my job was to keep the sense of community he’d created alive and well. I even kept his trademark “Hello Folks …” as the intro for radio spots. It just worked!

Warren employed or quietly supported hundreds of athletes, events, organizations, and causes. Future Olympians, national champions, teachers, and community leaders all benefited from Onion River’s support. A picture to put on the wall was plenty of reward for him. He just loved to be able to say “I knew her when.” Other things he liked doing: there was a skateboard team in the early ‘80s; Warren’s name is on the original permit for the Mt. Washington Road Race; for years he was a Justice of the Peace and loved getting a call from city hall that there was a couple who wanted to get married. Off he would go!

There were times of tragedy when Warren was also called upon to be a calm and comforting figure, including the premature deaths of employees and extended ORS family — Patti Huntsman; Tom Smith, and later Tom’s wife, Esther; Warren’s brother-in-law Kim Bitterman; and his own wife’s courageous battle with cancer. And there were times of joy, like when his grandchildren were born, or when he told me he’d reconnected with his childhood sweetheart at a class reunion. 

I was very grateful to see Warren frequently in the Statehouse in recent years. It was all about his family now. He always loved to tell me some story about his grandkids. I’ll remember him as one of the kindest men I’ve known, who liked to help people, who liked to do the right thing. I’ll miss him. 

See ya later, Fritz.