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Winter Lodge founder Duncan Williams dies at 90

Longtime Ladera resident turned Winter Lodge into one of three largest skating schools in U.S.

By Embarcadero Media staff

Duncan Williams, 90, a longtime resident of Ladera and the founder of Palo Alto's Winter Lodge skating rink, died from complications of a brain tumor Monday.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday, May 21, at The Sequoias retirement community at 501 Portola Road in Portola Valley. He and his wife Mercedes moved to The Sequoias eight years ago.

Mr. Williams, who lived in Ladera for 47 years, was commended by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on the 50th anniversary of Winter Lodge, in 2006. In the proclamation from the county, he was noted as having "brought with him to Palo Alto the joy and excitement of community outdoor ice skating." It also noted that Winter Lodge is one of the three largest skating schools in the United States.

He was born June 6, 1920, in Evanston, Ill., and studied engineering at Dartmouth College. He earned his graduate degrees in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin.

He met his future wife, Mercedes, on the beach at Lake Michigan when they were teenagers. They married in 1942.

He served as an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II, then taught engineering at the University of Wisconsin for nine years. He moved to Ladera in 1956 to work as a civil and mechanical engineering professor at San Jose State University.

His fond memories of ice skating outdoors in Illinois and Wisconsin made him want to recreate the experience in California, Winter Lodge's Executive Director Linda Jensen said.

"No one had ever done that before. It was his big experiment," she said.

He decided to open a rink on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto because of the open space and increasing number of young families, Ms. Jensen said. The Winter Club was opened in 1956, offering recreational skating and lessons to kids and adults, as it still does today.

He utilized his engineering background to develop a system of refrigeration and brine to maintain an outdoor ice rink in Palo Alto's mild weather, making the rink the first of its kind west of the Sierras.

He retired in 1983, after his lease expired. When The Winter Club was then threatened with closure, a community group was founded to help save the rink. In 1986, Palo Alto residents passed an initiative asking the city to acquire the land from the owner and preserve the skating facility. It's now supported and run by a nonprofit group.

After retirement, he maintained an active interest in Winter Lodge (as it was renamed) and was a familiar, friendly face to many.

"Any time we needed help, he would be here. He was really proud of it. He was sort of everybody's grandpa," Ms. Jensen said.

He was a volunteer tutor at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park for 19 years, helping English-language learners. He also tutored adults in English after he and Mercedes moved to The Sequoias in Portola Valley.

Family members recalled him as kind, humble and witty.

He is survived by his wife, Mercedes Williams of Portola Valley; sons Jeff Williams of Georgia, Dave Williams of Cloverdale, California, Don Williams of Sonoma, and Tom Williams of Belmont; and five grandchildren.

The family asks that any memorial donations be made to the Nature Conservancy or CARE.

Carpooling to the May 21 service is advised.

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