CAMDEN — More than 500 people filled the Camden Opera House on Thursday to celebrate the life of Jeff Kuller, manager of the Camden Snow Bowl and a respected resident known for helping people in the community.

Kuller, 56, supervised one of Maine’s few municipally owned ski areas, and was widely known in Maine skiing circles. Those attending the service said he lived a full, fun and vibrant life that was cut way too short. He died Sunday when a tree he was cutting in his backyard fell on him.

Kuller expanded offerings at the Snow Bowl, increased youth involvement in skiing and helped make the annual National Toboggan Championships a staple at the facility.

The tragedy was hard for the community to understand, said his friend, the Rev. Jeffrey Lewis. But Kuller will be remembered for his unique way of bringing people together and for celebrating life, his favorite outdoor pursuits and his deep love of nature, Lewis said.

“I always was amazed at the peacefulness he had,” said Lewis, who served with Kuller on a number of town committees. “And he listened. I never saw him get mad. He always had patience. And in a town like this with 2,000 bosses, where everyone is in your face, that’s big. He would listen, even to his opponents.”

Kuller was hired eight years ago as Camden Snow Bowl’s general manager and director of the town’s parks and recreation department. Immediately, he began building a team mentality among volunteers, staff, city officials and Snow Bowl patrons.

“Jeff really understood what the Snow Bowl is. It is not Maine’s biggest mountain, but it is this region’s most important. It’s such a community asset,” said Greg Sweetser of Cumberland, the executive director of Ski Maine.

Sweetser said Kuller made the Snow Bowl a profitable venture. But extending the Snow Bowl’s reach into the community was paramount to Kuller’s mission, said Andrew Dailey, Snow Bowl youth ski director. Kuller not only helped increase revenue at the ski area, he also nurtured youth participation, volunteers on the ski patrol and trails committee, and support for a redevelopment campaign.

Under Kuller’s direction, Dailey increased participation in the fourth-grade learn-to-ski program from four schools to 19. Last year, 330 young people participated, and this year there will be 500, Dailey said.

“Jeff came in and faced a lot of hard personalities in the community who didn’t like change. But he single-handedly built a team around him and was able to change views about the Snow Bowl,” Dailey said.

The Snow Bowl is the state’s biggest community-owned ski area. It was already home to the National Toboggan Championships, a fundraising event that draws participants in costume from across the Northeast, when Kuller arrived. But he wanted to get more out of it.

“He didn’t sit up in an office. He got out there and did it with you. He didn’t need to do that,” said Bob Winslow, a Snow Bowl ski patrol volunteer for 38 years.

Kuller added miles of mountain bike trails and introduced Nordic ski trails and six glades – areas for downhill skiing through trees – at the ski area. He turned a small mountain that typically didn’t cater to expert skiers into a place where parents and young people alike could rip into powder.

“He told me to stop skiing in the trees. I said bigger mountains have glades, we should cut some. And he said, ‘You’re right. Let’s make some glades,’” said Steve Pixley, a snowboarder who Kuller hired as the Snow Bowl’s first terrain park manager.

Within a few years of his arrival at the Snow Bowl, Kuller envisioned turning it into more of a bustling four-season outdoor playground for youth and families. His vision caught fire and resulted in the $6.5 million redevelopment campaign currently under way. The campaign has already raised $3.5 million toward new lifts, snowmaking technology and a year-round lodge that will be the centerpiece of a renovated Snow Bowl.

Kuller championed the effort from the beginning, Dailey said.

“He encouraged people to get involved. The Sunday before he passed away, a bunch of us were volunteering to cut the glades. He was out there, too. He didn’t have to be. But he participated, because he believed in the Snow Bowl,” said Tom Albertson of Rockport, the Snow Bowl Ski Club’s president.

Many among the 500 at Kuller’s life celebration said he was someone whose approach to life served as an example to others. The single word that resonated through the three-hour gathering was “inspiration.”

“Jeff lived a very, very full life,” said Bob Gordon, his longtime friend. “He set a standard for all of us to fill our lives with and share the fun, the joy and the beauty of the outdoors, to patiently pursue the goals that are important to us and to our community.”

Camden residents said they are determined to find a positive in Kuller’s tragic death, just as he would have done. But for now, members of this coastal community with the ski hill overlooking the ocean will mourn the loss of their friend.

“We need to channel our inner Jeff. It’s the only way we’ll get through this,” Dailey said.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: dfleming@pressherald.com

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