There were few empty seats at the Wheeler Opera House on Sunday afternoon as friends, fans and family of the late Aspen Times arts and entertainment editor Stewart Oksenhorn paid tribute to his life.
Stewart, 50, was a New Jersey native who moved to Aspen 22 years ago. Though he possessed a law degree from Villanova University, he embarked upon a reporting career within a couple of years of arriving to the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
During the gathering, which ran well over two hours, speakers recalled his passion for music — especially the songs of the Grateful Dead — and his lust for food of all kinds. Some expressed puzzlement over his decision to end his life on the morning of Feb. 2.
Tunes from a few of Stewart’s favorite bands were played for the crowd, interspersed with comments from those who knew him best. A large screen above the stage displayed various shots of him taking photographs at concerts, kicking back on a couch, playing guitar and clowning around with co-workers.
Josh Behrman, executive director of music venue PAC3 in Carbondale, read lyrics from the Bob Dylan song “Shelter from the Storm” before talking about their 18-year friendship.
“I know that in this room there is much love for Stewart, and I know that he loved you all back,” Behrman said.
He said that they were destined to be close.
“(We were) two Jewish kids from the East Coast, into the Dead, basketball, music, food and art. Both our fathers were jewelers,” Behrman said. “Every day we spoke, and I will miss those talks immensely. We spoke of everything from our gout problems to movies.”
He also talked of Stewart’s “innocence, brilliance and kindness” and encyclopedic knowledge about hundreds of bands, local culture and certain sports teams. Stewart was an ardent Denver Nuggets follower.
“Everything about Stewart was unique and different, and that’s why we loved him so much,” Behrman said.
His mother, Deena Oksenhorn, called it “a pleasure” to raise Stewart. Upon starting first grade, he told her he didn’t need to go to school because he could already read, write and handle math.
“He gave in and said he would attend if I would come with him,” she said. “I sat on the first-grade classroom piano bench for three months. I became the unpaid teacher’s aide.”
Choking back tears, Deena called Stewart her “baby boy.” She said she understood how he ended up in Aspen.
“He loved this town, the people and the job,” Deena said. “It was meant to be.”
Stewart also is survived by his wife, Candice, and teenage daughter, Olivia. Both took a turn at the speaker’s podium on Sunday.
“Everyone is trying to find answers to the mystery of why he chose to end his life,” Candice said. “None of us will ever truly know. I imagine that every one of us has experienced dark or scary times that we wish would go away. And the paradox is that they don’t go away, and if we don’t deal with them they just grow bigger.”
In the letters that Stewart left behind for family and friends, he expressed love and humility, she said.
“And he also expressed that he did not feel equipped to deal with his life choices,” Candice said. “My message to you in Stewart’s honor is to be brave and to be vulnerable. It’s where we can bridge the gap of darkness and separation.”
She thanked the community for the outpouring of support that she and her daughter have received over the past three weeks. She also thanked Aspen Hope Center, a nonprofit that focuses on suicide prevention, for helping them through the crisis, as well as Mountain Rescue Aspen, which responded to the emergency report of his death outdoors.
Olivia — who was very close to her father and shared his passion for reading and the Nuggets — told stories about how he often had “amazing coincidences.”
“I know he would have loved this, and everyone who showed up,” she said. “He meant so much to all of us.”
In addition to several speakers, the memorial featured a few musical interludes. Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, sat at the piano to play “Intermezzo Opus 118, No. 2” by Brahms. Musicians Steve Postell and Dan Sheridan also performed.