Aspen honors military veterans, Pepper Gomes, on Memorial Day

Erica Robbie | The Aspen Times

Dine with a purpose...

On June 6, select restaurants from Aspen to Rifle will donate a portion of their proceeds to the Western Slope Veterans Coalition.

Visit the Western Slope Veterans Coalition Facebook page at to view the list of participating restaurants.

While Memorial Day may mark the “unofficial start to summer” — and a bonus ski day in Aspen — it also is a time of remembrance and reflection, Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron said before a packed Conner Park on Monday.

“Today we remember all those who lost their lives fighting to protect the freedoms we enjoy today,” Skadron solemnly said. “We honor members of the military and our Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation.”

About 250 people — including veterans, veterans’ families and valley locals — gathered at Conner Park on Monday to partake in Aspen’s Memorial Day service.

The 30th annual ceremony, which traditionally takes place at Veterans Park next to the Pitkin County building, relocated to the park behind Aspen City Hall while the county headquarters undergo renovation.

As part of the remodel, Pitkin County allocated between $200,000 and $300,000 to redesign Veterans Park, which has served as the home to local observances since 1987, veteran Dick Merritt said.

Over the years, Merritt and fellow Roaring Fork valley veteran Dan Glidden have helped orchestrate these observances, including Monday’s ceremony.

Merritt dedicated the Memorial Day ceremony to longtime Aspen local Pepper Gomes, whose life’s passion was to honor those who served.

Gomes died at his home in Aspen on May 9, following a “brief (and) courageous struggle with liver cancer,” his wife, Susan, wrote in his obituary.

Upon enlisting in the Army as a teenager, Gomes went onto join the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery as a sergeant of the first firing party.

Originally from Massachusetts, Gomes moved to Aspen in the late 1960s and developed a love for “the mountains and community,” Susan said.

He instructed skiing for nearly 50 years and had two daughters, Lauren and Shayne Graham.

Gomes’ legacy lived on at the Memorial Day ceremony Monday.

“God bless you, Pepper,” Marine Corps veteran Bob Cook said after a reading of the memorial poem “In Flanders Fields.”

“I didn’t realize how loved Pepper was until now,” Susan said in an emotional tribute to her late husband. “I mean, I knew I loved him.”

“He was very proud of his military service. He was very proud of the rights that we have in our country; the right to vote, bear arms and our privilege to be free, each and every one of us,” Susan said. “And he always wanted to honor his countrymen in any way he could.”

Local veteran Ned Sullivan reminded the audience of the role Gomes played in the memorial of John F. Kennedy, whose 100th birthday was Monday.

At the time of the president’s assassination, Gomes was assigned to guard the temporary burial site, Merritt and Susan explained after the ceremony.

“I think what’s so admirable about Pepper is that he lived his life honorably to himself and others. To me, he was the most genuine man I ever met. How he served his countrymen for our fallen brothers and sister and how he lived his life were very similar,” Susan said to The Aspen Times after the ceremony. “He loved wholeheartedly, he had a wicked sense of humor and you always knew where you stood with him. He was very outspoken — you may not like what he was going to say, but he had a very strong sense of fairness and what is right.”

Susan also noted Gomes’ love for Louis L’Amour’s collection of Western books and stories.

“That’s how he kind of he lived his life, through the Western code,” she said. “His word was good; his handshake was true.”

The Memorial Day service continued the tradition of reciting the names of men from the Roaring Fork Valley killed in battle:

Peter F. Galligan in World War I; Julio L. Caparrella, Thomas R. McNeil and Joseph W. Mogan in World War II; James Bionaz in Korea; in Vietnam, Edward Kettering Marsh, William Leonard Sandersen, Danny Gilbert Schwartz, Billy Floyd Clark, Charles Leland Adkins, Michael Filbert Gonzales, Larry Russell Kennann, James Richard Smith and Thomas Lynn Griffee.

Citing British novelist Sir Terry Pratchett, local veteran Darryl Grob, who read the names, said, “Do you know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”

“I think that really speaks to the moment that we’re here for,” he said.

After the roll call, Glidden drew attention to two other local veterans who died recently: Fred Crowley and Vincent Santucci.

Crowley served in the U.S. Marines in Vietnam and later as a Pitkin County commissioner, Glidden said after the ceremony. Crowley died sometime in early December.

Santucci, a veteran of World War II, died in late May at the age of 94, Glidden said.

Merritt and Glidden thanked those present for their observance on the hot holiday morning.

When the local veterans’ observances started in the late ’80s, Glidden recalled, “about a half a dozen people” attended.

Looking around a busy Conner Park after the ceremony Monday afternoon, Glidden said, “It is just so rewarding to see so many people here.”

“This is a true community event.”