Beloved ex-fire chief Clapper dies at 77
Former Aspen fire chief Willard Charles Clapper, who is credited with bringing the local volunteer fire department into the modern age, died Thursday. He was 77.Friends and colleagues remember Clapper as a dedicated community member who raised his large family in the Roaring Fork Valley, and who was a jack-of-all-trades in the local work force.Clapper moved to Aspen in 1958 with his wife, Mary Maddalone, and worked for the Aspen Water Co., helping install the first sprinklers in Wagner Park. He then worked in the maintenance department at Aspen Highlands, although he “couldn’t ski a lick,” according to his son, Willard Clapper Jr. Later, Clapper plowed and repaired roads with the Pitkin County Road and Bridge Department, and helped bring natural gas to the valley while working for the Rocky Mountain Natural Gas Co.To many, Clapper’s name is synonymous with the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department. He was the first member to serve for 25 years, and the fire station’s original bell, which sits next to the fire station on Hopkins Avenue, is dedicated in his honor. He joined the fire department in the 1950s, when the organization was very family-oriented.
“He was a service-oriented man, and because he was related to the department by marriage, he got on,” the younger Willard said. “Getting on the department then wasn’t that easy – you had to wait for someone to die or move away.”The department at the time was a “good ol’ boys club,” but when his dad became chief in 1968 things began to change. The elder Clapper looked closely at equipment upgrades, training techniques and the standards for the fire district.”He was a very visionary leader,” said current Aspen Fire Chief Darryl Grob. “For a volunteer fire department going back as far as this one does, to the 1880s, this has been growing and developing continuously through the years. Willard Sr. was an individual with an eye on the future, and his community.”Clapper was born in the farming community of Towner in 1928. He dropped out of high school when he was 17 to join the Navy, getting his high school equivalency while in the service. Clapper next moved to Leadville to be near his father. It was there he met Maddalone, an Aspen native. The couple moved to Aspen in 1958, where they raised their six children.Basalt resident Bob Larson met Clapper when they worked together at Highlands, beginning in 1963. “He was one of the most wonderful guys I ever met,” Larson said. “Happy-go-lucky, and never had a bad thing to say about anybody, no matter what.”
Clapper was also the butt of a venerable joke at the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, affectionately referred to as the “Get behind something big” story. As former firefighter Tim Cottrell tells the story, a disgruntled employee or guest of a local lodge called in a bomb threat to the lodge. Suspecting the explosive device was in a refrigerator, the responding firefighters tied a rope to the fridge door and planned to pull the door open from outside the building.”[Clapper] said, ‘Everybody get behind something big, meaning the fire truck'” Cottrell said. “But when he turned around, four of us were standing sideways behind him.”He was a wonderful, kindhearted, fun-loving guy,” he continued. “He had an interesting golf swing, but he could just hit the cover off of the ball. He was a big man, and he could really crush it.”Cottrell also said that when Clapper was chief, he would occasionally respond to nighttime fire calls without his dentures, and then curse the firefighters who would get donuts in the morning, “when I’ve got my teeth out.”Grob called Clapper “a striking individual, with a marvelous personality and a marvelous sense of humor.”
“I’ll always remember when I was a brand-spanking-new firefighter, and when I was responding to a fire call I bounced my Land Cruiser off the side of the fire engine that was coming around the corner,” Grob said. “I spent a few hours anticipating the worst. And when Willard got a chance to talk to me, he walked up and looked me straight in the eye, and said ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ He walked away, and that was that.””He was a great guy, and instrumental in beginning to drag the fire department into the new age,” Cottrell said. Mary Maddalone died in 1991, after the couple moved to Rifle, where Clapper continued to work for the Rocky Mountain Natural Gas Co. Several years later, Clapper met and married Barbara Williams. Clapper and Williams split their time between Rifle and Desert Hot Springs, Calif., before moving to California full-time several years ago.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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