Aspen celebrates life of beloved Willard Clapper |

Aspen celebrates life of beloved Willard Clapper

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times
An estimated crowd of close to a thousand people gathered outside of the Aspen Fire Station for the life celebration of Willard Clapper in October.
Chistina Capasso/Special to The Aspen Times |

With hundreds of friends and family packed around the Aspen Fire Station, the moving tribute and outpouring of emotion to honor Willard Clapper spoke louder than words.

Clapper was a volunteer firefighter, teacher, husband, father and friend, and each of those aspects of his life was celebrated Saturday. There were those closest to him at the ceremony, as well as many whose lives Clapper touched. but all were there to honor the man who influenced so many people in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“This is an unbelievable community event,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. “It seems like everyone in town has turned out to honor Willard as a teacher, a citizen and a firefighter. He gave so much to this community. I think this is the least we can do is show up and celebrate the life of such a special guy.”

Clapper died at his home Oct. 16 after a battle with lymphoma. He is survived by his wife, Anne Austin-Clapper, and his stepdaughter, Ashley Austin. He was 63.

The celebration of Clapper’s life began Saturday morning at the North 40 Fire Station. Clapper’s immediate family had gathered with a few close friends to witness the passing of Clapper’s ashes to the Aspen Fire Department Honor Guard.

There were many hugs exchanged and some tears but mostly smiles among the Clappers.

“Willard is in all the hearts and all the souls of all the people who are here,” said Patti Clapper, the wife of Willard’s brother, Tommy. “This is his community; this is his family. It’s going to be an amazing day for an amazing person.”

Also at the North 40 were Ray Taylor and A.O. Forbes, two long-time friends of Clapper’s. All three were in the 1969 graduating class at Aspen High School.

“Today will be a combination of bittersweet and celebration,” said Taylor, who also made the urn that Clapper’s ashes are held in. “There’s going to be a lot of tears shed, but in Willard’s honor, we will laugh as much as we can because that’s what he taught us. He was that way growing up; it was always about making each other laugh.”

Taylor shared a story about the time he and Clapper went to the Aspen Thrift Shop and each bought a three-piece suit. The two then went outside and proceeded to rip the suits off each other, sleeve by sleeve, pocket by pocket.

“We couldn’t stop laughing,” Taylor said. “We thought it was the funniest thing ever. We tried to go back in the Thrift Shop and buy a couple more suits, but the lady at the counter wouldn’t let us.”

A.O. Forbes said he considered Clapper his best friend. Both ended up becoming teachers, and the two men eventually started the nonprofit Tomorrow’s Voices, which is now run by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

“He had this humility and this heat-seeking-missile ability to get to what mattered,” Forbes said. “By being around Willard, your life got bigger. He had a brilliant sense of humor. It was inclusive and wasn’t expensive for anyone else. His humor was pinpoint-accurate at stuff that was funny. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body, but he had a lot of courageous ones.”

The laughter stopped suddenly as Clapper’s ashes were brought forward. As the Honor Guard accepted the ashes from Roy Holloway, the chaplain for the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, Holloway took Austin-Clapper’s hand and said a quiet prayer with her.

The group then travelled to the Aspen Fire Station as a procession. By the time they arrived in Aspen and turned onto East Hopkins Avenue, nearly 1,000 people had gathered for the celebration of Clapper’s life.

One firefighter from Grand Junction said there were representatives at the celebration from nearly every mountain town on the Western Slope. Many were there through the Colorado Honor Guard Association, with not only firefighters but also police officers and emergency response people lining the street. As the procession from the North 40 arrived, all the public servants present slowly saluted together as the crowd hushed to silence.

Bagpipes began to play as the vintage Aspen firetruck slowly pulled up to the fire station, flanked by Clapper’s four brothers. Austin-Clapper and Austin were led by firefighters to their seats, followed by Clapper’s ashes, an American flag and Clapper’s firefighter helmet, which were set upon the podium facing the crowd.

As the celebration began, Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine addressed the crowd and talked about Clapper as a hero.

“I’m looking at this crowd, and I see a lot of heroes,” he said. “I see nurses, schoolteachers, doctors, firefighters, policemen and military. Thank you all for coming. You’re all heroes. I looked up the definition of hero and saw some that fit Willard. A hero is being of extraordinary strength and courage, and that was Willard. A hero is a man of distinguished ability and is admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities, and that was Willard. A hero is a man distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility and fortitude. I think we can agree that was Willard. He was brave, nice and fun to be with. A hero also saves lives, inspires people and makes miracles happen. I saw Willard do that many times.”

Holloway talked about the “high impact” award Clapper used to give out to volunteers who accidentally damaged some fire fighting equipment.

“Today we honor Willard for his high impact he had on this community,” Holloway said. “Teacher, fire service, friend, family — there was none better. His smile could melt your heart. The tears and sorrow we feel are the price you pay for love.”

After several more heartfelt tributes from friends and family, Balentine then directed the tolling of the bell to signify the end of a firefighter’s duties.

“Willard’s going home now,” he said.

Balentine then played taps on his harmonica before Holloway presented the American flag to Austin-Clapper and said another prayer with her and her daughter.

At the same time, the bagpipes began to play “Amazing Grace,” which brought forward one last round of public tears for Clapper. One of the three bagpipe players then marched by himself away from the crowd and around the corner from the celebration, creating a haunting effect as the song faded from audible range

“‘Amazing Grace’ is a perfect description of Willard,” said Catherine Garland, whose son was taught by Clapper in elementary school. “He lived his life so fully that he used up his allotment early. If everyone who knew Willard could have given him one year of their lives, we all would have, and he’d be living into his hundreds.”

After the celebration, the Fire Department hosted a hamburger and french fry feast that Clapper had requested before he died. A line of nearly 100 people formed to hug and smile with Austin-Clapper.

“I’m just overwhelmed right now,” Austin-Clapper said. “Willard would have thought this was way over the top for him. He never believed in the excess, but he deserved it so much. This was such a beautiful, beautiful honor for him. I’m just sorry we lost him so soon.”


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