ASPEN - Jeff Walker had many friends, as was evidenced by the massive turnout for his memorial Monday morning at the Aspen Chapel.
Evidence indicates that the 55-year-old Aspen resident and wine salesman took his life in an out-of-bounds area near Highland Bowl on March 7, the last day he had any contact with those who knew him.
Beginning March 9, and for the next 11 days, local authorities and volunteers searched for Walker in the bowl area and other parts of Aspen Highlands to no avail. Even psychics were consulted. Finally, on Wednesday, his body was found by a snowboarder in an area of U.S. Forest Service land considered permanently closed to skiers.
At the memorial, there was little talk of the search or the problems that led to Walker's decision. More than 350 relatives and friends paid their respects, remembering him fondly for his charisma, his zest for the outdoors and a passion for good food and fine wine. A native of Maryland, Walker moved to Aspen in 1992.
The Rev. Gregg Anderson, pastor of Aspen Community Church, began the service by listing many of Walker's attributes, common descriptions that family and friends have related on social-media outlets and at private gatherings in recent days.
"Extraordinarily generous with time and assets. Always joyful. Kind. Exudes charm. Brilliant, with a photographic memory. Very fit. Loved food and wine. And often moody," Anderson said.
"He was great with kids, like his nieces and nephews. He loved to play with kids, throw them around and let them crawl all over him. He was so gifted but so humble. He loved music and live concerts. He was a terrible dancer," Anderson added, drawing laughter.
"It was also stated that he loved routine," he continued. "He was particular about his routine. His routine included such things as food and wine and rum and Paradise Bakery, putting on suntan lotion, swimming at the athletic club and, yes, skiing the (Highland) Bowl."
His sisters, Holly and Karie Walker, jointly addressed the crowd. Jeff Walker was the oldest of four siblings.
"I think this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Karie Walker said. "But we're here to celebrate his life, and I'm so happy you all are here. We all loved him so much. Jeff never met a stranger. He lived life with such gusto and all that implies."
She thanked those in the audience and the Aspen community who have supported the family and assisted with the search effort.
"You meant a lot to Jeff, and we wanted you all to know that," Karie Walker said, choking back emotion. "Our family wants to thank all of you for taking us in, holding us up and doing the hard job of finding Jeff and bringing him off the mountain."
Holly Walker, the youngest of the siblings, related a story of how her older brother took her to her first Grateful Dead concert on her 10th birthday.
"As the youngest, I really got the best part of Jeff because he spoiled me rotten, and I loved it," she said.
She recalled that on the way to the concert, she asked her brother, "What do you do at a Dead show?"
His reply: "Holly, by golly: You twirl."
She said the event with her brother sparked a lifelong affection for the band and many more concerts.
A recording of the Grateful Dead's "Ripple" followed, moving many at the service to tears.
A few minutes later, Pinons restaurant owner Rob Mobilian spoke of a wild trip he and Jeff Walker took to New Zealand and Australia. Walker arranged the "guest chef-sommelier" excursion, all expenses paid, by getting in good with a cruise line.
Prior to reaching their destination, they were drinking Dom Perignon on the airplane and sharing bottles of wine with the other passengers, with the full blessing of the flight crew.
"I imaging that we'll all be sharing (stories) about some of the wild and crazy and exciting times we've had with Jeff over a glass of wine for a long, long time," he said. "Jeff had an aura about him that could light up a room."
Jeff Walker's favorite pastime was opening up a vintage wine for friends, whether at a backyard barbecue or poolside, Mobilian said.
"It made him so happy; it made us so happy," he said. "Going with Jeff Walker to wine country was like going to Disneyland with Mickey Mouse."
But there was another side to Walker, Mobilian said. He could be extremely private and complicated.
"We are here today because somehow Jeff didn't know that any one of us here, including me, are not about counting strikes," he said. "We have strong shoulders; we have the strength. Somehow it seems Jeff didn't know that. ... I will always wonder why he chose not to reach out to us. I wish he had."
The memorial drew to a close with more comments from friends and recognition of Jeff Walker's mother, Carol Wessner, who was in the crowd. Earlier in the service, his girlfriend, Liz Sathe, of Denver, read a poem titled "A Free Spirit."
As a recording of John Denver's "Sunshine on My Shoulders" played, friends and family rose from their seats, hugged and comforted one another and shared more stories.