Family, friends remember Aspen’s Will Graham
CEREMONY BEING PLANNED
The Graham family said it is too early to release details on a life’s remembrance for Will, but they will likely hold something “short, simple and sweet” in July in Aspen.
Geraldine Graham said her son wouldn’t want a slideshow featuring highlights of his life. He was too private and shy for that type of attention, she said.
Geraldine and her husband, Billy, are leaving Aspen this week to spend time with her mother and other grieving family members in South Carolina.
Geraldine and Billy Graham’s sorrow over losing a child has been compounded over the past 12 days by the inability to locate and recover their son Will’s body because of high water in the Roaring Fork River.
Will Graham, 31, disappeared in the Devil’s Punchbowl area east of Aspen on June 4 and is presumed drowned. Water levels must drop before authorities can bring him back and bring closure for his family and friends.
While the passing of a few days hasn’t lessened the grief, it has spurred a lot of reminiscing about the adventurous life and often troubled times of an Aspen free spirit.
Geraldine said her son was a unique soul who could be incredibly endearing and loving but also someone who faced plenty of trouble, often fueled by alcohol.
“Don’t make him out to be a saint. People would know it’s not true,” Geraldine said.
The outpouring of letters and emails to the family and comments on social media show how loved he was, she said.
A recurring theme among the people who knew him best was how loyal Will was to his friends and family. His younger brother Wes said Will was always there for others.
“He had your back, no matter if you were right or wrong,” Geraldine said.
“He was probably the most loyal person I know,” said Liam Kiernan, a friend of Will since kindergarten. “He never would have turned his back on anybody.”
Will was an adventuresome child and natural athlete who gained a passion for hockey at a young age and excelled at it.
“Will could watch a sport and do it,” Geraldine said. “He would hunker down and skate like the wind.”
Will was a star on the Aspen High School hockey team during his junior year when it played Liberty High School for the Colorado championship in 2001. He fired what could have been the winning shot but saw it glance off the post with a resounding “ding.” Less than an inch prevented Will from bringing the title home to Aspen with his teammates.
But Will was doing what he loved with people he loved and for the town he loved. He just fell a bit short despite his best effort.
“It’s sort of a metaphor for how things worked out for him,” said Andy Popinchalk, an educator at the Aspen School District for 35 years and Will’s English teacher his senior year.
Will was a very likable young man who battled academic struggles and other issues and was grateful for the help he received, according to Popinchalk. He said he saw Will within the last month at the Aspen Meadows, where Will worked, and was greeted warmly. Will wanted to know about both him and his wife. Popinchalk said Will’s interest was sincere.
Nice kid next door
Patti Clapper’s family moved next to the Graham residence in Smuggler Trailer Court when Will was 2 years old. She will always remember him as the endearing neighbor boy who later found it easier to hop over the fence separating their yards than walking around to play with the Clapper children. Will was a big brother who looked after Clapper’s daughter, Traci, and played with her son, Trevor.
Clapper and Geraldine would take turns keeping an eye on the children during evenings to give one another a chance to prepare dinner.
“Will was always the noisiest on the Big Wheels,” Clapper said. “He always had that Will Graham smile.”
Will also was outgoing, Clapper said, and was “always on the edge of getting into trouble — mischievous boy trouble.”
“He lived life. There was never a dull moment with Will,” Kiernan said.
They spent a lot of time playing sports, exploring the mountains and watching movies in the Grahams’ living room. “He liked Vietnam-era war movies,” Kiernan said. “Platoon” was one of his favorites.
Will picked up on his dad’s love of the Oakland Raiders football team despite living where the Denver Broncos reign supreme. Billy crew up in California and has backed the Raiders since its inaugural year in 1960.
Billy said Will was telling him recently all about the new receivers the Raiders picked up this offseason and how that helped their prospects for the coming season.
Kiernan said no one gave Will any grief about being a Raiders fan while they were growing up.
“He’s just Will. He’s not going to back down,” Kiernan said.
‘Gave a lot of love’
In big groups he could be shy, but among friends and family he was very outgoing, according to Kiernan and others. Even though he could be a hell-raiser at school, he also crafted bonds with some teachers.
“He was just fun to be around,” Popinchalk said.
Will’s primary motivation in school was to get good enough grades to stay eligible for hockey.
“He loved and lived for hockey,” Popinchalk said.
He also was an intelligent student but one who couldn’t always apply himself to studies for whatever reason, Popinchalk said.
“He was a remarkable challenge to teachers and other people,” he said.
The English teacher promised Geraldine that he would work with Will on his studies. They often met after class for tutoring. Popinchalk insisted that Will read his work out loud before he turned it in to make sure it was up to snuff. That helped.
Sometimes his schoolwork clicked, and Will felt the satisfaction of achieving a goal. Other times he disengaged and let a teacher know when he was disgusted.
“I think he loved his life, hard as it was,“ Popinchalk said. Will graduated in 2002.
Karen Angus, a longtime former counselor at Aspen High School and family friend of the Grahams, said anyone who knew Will remembers the “sparkling eyes, a smile and arms outstretched in a hug.”
“He gave a lot of people love,” Angus said.
While loyalty was one of his traits, Will was particularly close to his mom, as is Wes.
“No matter what, she stood up for them,” Kiernan said. Any time he got in trouble, he was worried how it would affect his mom, he said.
That intense loyalty sometimes got him in trouble. Women’s alpine skiing star Lindsey Vonn was allegedly dissing Aspen once while hanging out in the Red Onion, according to Geraldine. Will didn’t like what he heard and let Vonn know it with a verbal barrage.
He also was patriotic. “He loved his country — love it or leave it — like a total redneck type,” Geraldine said.
While Geraldine said the family doesn’t want Will’s life “whitewashed” and Billy said Will was no saint, they also want to make sure he is remembered for all his good traits. An earlier Aspen Times article portrayed a one-sided view of Will through his legal troubles, the family said. The police and court records cited in the article provided an incomplete picture of his legal issues, they said, and in some cases, they contend the information is inaccurate or conjecture.
The Grahams and Will’s girlfriend for 1½ years, Meghan Tarr, said many of his problems centered on alcohol. He was typically able to turn his drinking on and off, Tarr said.
“Sometimes he couldn’t turn it off. That’s when he got in trouble,” she said.
Didn’t seek credit for military service
After he graduated from Aspen High School, Will went to culinary school in Miami, but changed direction after one semester. He joined the 82nd Airborne Division in 2004. Popinchalk said people were proud of him for making that decision. Clapper said it was viewed as a wise move to help Will find direction.
“I think that structure was good for him,” she said.
Will helped provide aid in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He was at the Superdome, where an evacuation center was located, and helped with door-to-door searches. Will got out of the military in 2007. Some of his friends went on to serve and give their lives in combat in the Middle East, according to the family. That may have led to survivor’s guilt, Geraldine said.
Geraldine and Billy said Will didn’t like it while he was in the service and in uniform when people would come up and thank him for his service and call him a hero. After he got out, he didn’t like to take credit for serving.
“He would say, ‘Just because you’re in uniform doesn’t mean you’re a hero,’” Billy said.
After his military service, Will spent time in San Diego and a handful of other places before returning to Aspen in 2011. He was most recently working at the Aspen Meadows as a bellman. He met Tarr at the Meadows, where she works as a bartender. Tarr quickly found the endearing traits of Will.
“He was just amazing and sweet and caring,” she said.
Like to hear about the ‘old days’
Billy Graham was a hard-playing, hard-partying surfer in La Jolla, California, in the 1950s. He came to Aspen in 1960 to visit a friend and never left.
Geraldine came to Aspen in the 1970s and worked at some of the legendary old bars. The two met at The Pub, a rough-and-tumble joint in the basement of the Wheeler Opera House.
Will liked to pump Billy for information about the early surfing scene in California and he liked to hear stories from both of his parents from Aspen’s wild 1960s and ’70s.
“He had some wild shoes to fill — and he did a good job of it,” Geraldine said. Will liked to fist fight, and his friends acknowledged he could “start a scene.” But he had his soft side. He competed with Wes to some degree for Geraldine’s attention, according to Tarr.
Kiernan said the party atmosphere that youngsters are exposed to in Aspen makes an impression.
“You see it from a young age. It’s hard,” he said.
He recalled that as teenagers, they used to hike up Smuggler Mountain with beer and watch the sunset.
“He had such fond memories, when things got hard, he turned back to it again,” Kiernan said.
Waiting for Will to come home
Geraldine said getting pregnant with Will was the best thing to happen to her because it got her out of the party scene.
“I always say Will saved my life,” Geraldine said. “He saved my life and now he’s trying to kill me.”
The grief over not finding Will’s body is nearly unbearable. The family needs closure. They haven’t been able to return to their home. The memories are too raw.
Will headed up to the Punchbowl sometime after 2 p.m. June 4 on a warm Thursday afternoon. He left a message for Tarr asking her to meet him up there and had invited other friends. Police reports said an employee at City Market in Aspen called authorities in the early afternoon of June 4 with a report of a potentially drunken driver leaving the establishment. The Grahams and Tarr said it is conjecture as to whether he had been drinking. They said Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies later found 13 unopened beers at his car parked at the Grottos parking site near the Punchbowl. What happened that afternoon is unknown. It’s clear that Will was intimately familiar with the Punchbowl.
Kiernan estimated that he, Will and other friends visited the Punchbowl hundreds of times while growing up. They would sometimes travel up before the winter closure gate on Highway 82 was opened. They would jump in the water when snow still lined the banks, despite the frigid temperatures. They didn’t shy away from high water. This year, the flows in the upper Roaring Fork River are the highest since the late 1990s, though they drop somewhat during the day and increase at night, when the runoff makes it off the mountains.
“With his confidence and athletic ability, he always thought he could do it,” Kiernan said of jumping into the Punchbowl and getting out. “He was a hell of an athlete.”
Tarr agrees that her boyfriend jumped in the water with every intention of getting out.
“If he jumped in there, he was happy,” she said.
Tarr and the Grahams don’t believe Will was trying to commit suicide or that he staged a disappearance to start a new chapter in his life.
“He adored me and was always worried about me,” Geraldine said.
He was in the process of meeting obligations to clear up prior criminal proceedings against him, they noted. Geraldine said her son told Tarr he was trying to find his passion and direction in life.
“He was confused because he couldn’t figure out what to do,” she said.
The Grahams think with Tarr’s influence, Will was heading in the right direction.
“He was figuring all that out. He was taking steps,” Geraldine said.
Now, they just want Will to be found.
“That’s what we’re all wanting, for Will to come home,” Clapper said.
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