Their Generation: Willard Clapper’s heart is home in Aspen

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Willard Clapper, right, and his father, the late Willard Charles Clapper, were fixtures as the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department. They served a combined 60 years.
Asepn Times file photo |

When he graduated from college with a degree in education in 1973, Willard Clapper had the brains and charisma to pursue a career in teaching wherever he wanted. He chose to come home to Aspen.

Despite witnessing a slow transformation in Aspen while growing up the 1950s and ’60s, and seismic changes after returning following his graduation from Western State College in Gunnison in 1973, Clapper has always loved what his hometown offered.

Besides, it’s where his roots are. Clapper ended up in Aspen thanks to his grandparents Jimmy and Ida Maddalone. As a young man, Clapper’s grandfather moved from Italy to Colorado and met and married Clapper’s grandma in Leadville. People of that era “were much more fluid than people think,” Clapper said.

Jimmy Maddalone was a miner who followed the work. That took them from Leadville to the burg of Granite, near Twin Lakes, and later to Glenwood Springs and Aspen.

“Mostly they lived here,” Clapper said, referring to Aspen.

The Clapper side of the family scrapped a living as farmers in Colorado’s Eastern Plains. Eventually, Clapper’s paternal grandfather migrated to Leadville and opened Hap’s Trading Post.

Clapper’s dad, Willard Charles Clapper, married Mary Maddalone, an Aspen girl, and they settled in Leadville. The elder Clapper had a good job working the conveyor belts at the molybdenum mines. Thanks to his stubborn streak, they landed in Aspen.

“They wanted him to go underground” in the mines, the younger Clapper said. “He said, ‘No way.’”

The elder Clapper shared a passion for fly-fishing with Jimmy Maddalone well before it became so popular. The Clappers would load their 1949 Willy’s Jeep for trips over Independence Pass for a visit. After the abrupt halt in the elder Clapper’s mining career, he and his wife loaded up young Willard and his two siblings, who had been born by then, and came over the pass for good. They moved into the Maddalones’ home, which stood in what is now open space on the road to Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ headquarters at Hallam Lake. The area was known as Little Italy, hearkening back to an era when Aspenites of shared ethnic backgrounds huddled in the same sections of town.

The younger Clapper was 6 or 7 years old when they made the move. He remembers living in the house without running water or plumbing and thinking nothing of it. They used an outhouse and well. His grandmother used a cook stove to bake cinnamon rolls “that were as big as my head,” Clapper said.

They lived there for about a year in 1957 until his dad was hired by the water company and the family got on its feet.

“We moved into the highly elite Riverside Trailer Court,” Clapper said.

The trailer park is long gone. It was situated near where the Aspen Eagles building is now located at 700 E. Bleeker St. The neighborhood was on a hillside overlooking the Roaring Fork River.

“It was the greatest place,” Clapper said.

He lived to roam the outdoors with his brothers, Dale and Tommy, and his friends, among them A.O. Forbes. They had the Big Rock Island swimming hole in the Roaring Fork River. Fifteen feet out the back doors were the woods. And especially appealing to Clapper, they had lots of mines and mining-camp ruins to play in.

“The whole town was full of stuff,” he said. Some blocks had only two or three buildings, and all but one was often abandoned, he recalled. He found piles of keys, colored glassware and old editions of The Aspen Times in miners’ shacks.

There was an “amazing amount of big metal” such as boilers and gears remaining outside the mines.

“All you had to do is step right outside of town,” he said.

“I was a scavenger,” Clapper said. His most coveted prizes were crucibles, containers used to test silver content.

“We used to crawl around the mines, the Smuggler in particular,” Clapper said. “We’d go way back until there was too much water.” One of his playmates found a case of dynamite on one adventure.

Clapper’s mom has two key rules: Come home for lunch and dinner — otherwise he was free to play. The Clappers had so many extended family members in Aspen that help was never far away.

“The cool thing about being in Aspen — you know the old saying ‘It takes a village’? — that’s the way it was,” Clapper said. “You knew everybody, and everybody knew you.”

He went to elementary school in the Red Brick Building. There were about 20 kids in his grade. Clapper initially had a greater interest in ice skating than skiing. There was a rink where the Yellow Brick School Building was eventually constructed and, later, another one where the Aspen Square is located near the base of Aspen Mountain. Clapper could skate home from the rinks because the streets outside the city core weren’t plowed.

He gained an interest in skiing in fourth or fifth grade when his dad was hired at Aspen Highlands and became “the No. 2 guy out there. He didn’t even ski!” Clapper said.

Clapper found his first skis and buckle boots in the trash bins. They were better than anything he could afford to purchase. He painted the wooden skis black in the style of Head, the cool ski of the day. He called them “Hicks,” short for old hickory skis.

As tourism started to blossom in Aspen, Clapper and his friends loved to play tricks on the visitors.

“We’d do the old wallet trick” where a billfold would be connected to a fishing line and yanked down the sidewalk when someone would lean down to pick it up, he said. “Tourists were a source of fun for us.”

Clapper graduated from Aspen High School in 1969 and went on to play baseball and football at Western State College. He realized after attending college for a while that teaching was his passion, so he sought a major in elementary education. He graduated in 1973 and had several great teaching prospects. He jumped at the chance to teach third and fourth grade at Aspen Elementary School and coach high school football and baseball.

He said he had no hesitation about returning to where he grew up after graduating from college. By then, he had traveled enough to know that he came from somewhere special.

“It was the Aspen of the ’60s and ’70s. That’s really all you have to say,” Clapper said.

He started his teaching career at the Yellow Brick Building. After a new middle school was constructed, he transferred to teach fifth- and sixth-graders. He particularly enjoyed a system where he kept the same students for two years. It allowed the class to pursue bigger projects, he said, and he got to know the students and parents better. Clapper retired from full-time teaching in 2001. He and lifelong friend A.O. Forbes, an educator at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, continue to run the Tomorrow’s Voices program. They look at compelling issues with eager students, work out ethical decisions and act on them.

Clapper is also retiring this year as a member of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department. He has served in every position except chaplain in his 35 years with the department.

Clapper lives in Emma with his wife, Anne Austin-Clapper.

“Even in high school, I knew I would live downvalley,” he said. He was always fine with that because he liked downvalley.

While he wishes he could preserve the Aspen of his youth, he’s willing to accept the town he loves despite the changes.

Pick any era, he said, and Aspen is a magical place for the people who see it for the first time. It’s been that way for decades.

“If you do it in 20 years, you’ll probably say the same thing,” he said.

“My viewpoint of it has changed over the years,” Clapper said. “Aspen is going to be what it’s going to be.”