Willard Clapper, of Aspen, passes away | AspenTimes.com

Willard Clapper, of Aspen, passes away

A shrine honoring Willard Clapper was set up in front of the Aspen Valley Fire Department in Aspen on Friday. Clapper died Thursday night.
Rick Carroll/The Aspen Times |

Rest in Peace, Mr. C

The following passage was written by one of Willard Clapper’s longtime friends, AO Forbes.

It is a beautiful clear night, and Willard, or Little Chip as his mother so lovingly called him, has just passed away, so peacefully and with such dignity and grace. At 11:20 p.m on October 16th, 2014, with his wife Anne sleeping next to him with her hand on his chest, and his daughter Ashley caring for him, Willard took a very quiet last breath. There was no agitation, just a classy gracious moving into the magnificent starry, starry night, a night as uniquely a part of this valley as Willard is. We all share this contagious sense of reverence for such a wonderful human being who has lived life with such abundant generosity, relentless commitment to finding all that is good in life, always bringing out and tenderly holding on to the best in all of us. We have heard rumors that there is a huge welcoming delegation gathering just past Orion’s belt made up of Yellow Labradors and friends and students who have led the way.

Your loving friend, AO Forbes

Willard Clapper was sleeping Wednesday morning when his wife woke him up. A group of visitors, nine in all, were at the door of the Clapper couple’s Emma home. They were there not just to pay a visit to their ailing friend and mentor but to honor him, as well.

“I said, ‘Honey, you need to wake up,’ and he sat up anxiously,” said his wife, Anne Austin-Clapper. She told him to put on his pin recognizing his service with the Aspen Valley Fire Department.

“He said, ‘Why am I wearing this?’” Austin-Clapper recalled.

He’d find out soon enough, when the firefighters entered the house.

“He had a huge smile on his face,” she said. “They saluted him and called him chief.”

It was a surprise retirement party for Clapper — who had served as chief and every other position at the department except chaplain — and the group presented him with one of the last silver belt buckles made by silversmith Jim Hayes, who died in 2012. The buckle was emblazoned with the traditional aspen leaf on its front, and it also included a few personal touches. Clapper’s initials were on the front, and on the buckle’s back were engraved words of thanks for his “22” years of service with the Fire Department. Never mind that Clapper served 35 years — Hayes made the belt ahead of its time. Clapper’s wife said they’ll simply scratch out the “22” — he also was a teacher, and that’s what teachers are known to do —and replace it with “35.”

“It was such a wonderful ceremony and such a wonderful honor for him,” Austin-Clapper said.

Late Thursday night, Clapper died at his home after a battle with lymphoma, with his wife and daughter Ashley Austin by his side. He was 63.

“Willard went downhill so fast, and it was really, really so special to him to have this special moment,” Austin-Clapper said. “He went so fast.”

Ashley Austin said, “We were with him, and the way he went, it was really beautiful.”

At the Aspen Valley Fire Department on Friday morning, the flag was raised at half-staff, and a bell was rung in his honor.

“Willard was what we would call one of the ‘Old Boys,’” said Fire Department Chief and CEO Rick Balentine, who gathered with other firefighters Friday morning to pay homage to Clapper. “He was part of the fabric of this department. Losing him is like losing a part of our history. … He fought a long and hard battle.”

A shrine, complete with a firefighter hat, boots and clothing, along with Clapper’s photo and flowers, was set up. Firefighters and friends dropped by the station, some taking photos of the shrine, others sharing hugs. His badge, No. 64, also was retired.

Just last month, Pitkin County honored Clapper with the Greg Mace Award, named after a longtime volunteer member of Mountain Rescue Aspen who died from a fall during a training climb on the Maroon Bells in 1986.

“Willard is well-known and loved in this community,” county spokeswoman Pat Bingham said at the time. “Ask any local about Willard, and they’ll smile when they hear his name.”

Clapper was a native Aspenite, and his story was recounted in an Aspen Times article in July. He and his father, Willard Charles Clapper, served the Fire Department for a combined 60 years. The younger Clapper recalled his time growing up in Aspen and his affinity for the tight-knit community.

“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.”

Clapper also was an elementary and middle school teacher for 29 years.

He graduated from Aspen High School in 1969 and went on to play baseball and football at Western State College. He graduated in 1973 and later taught third and fourth grade at Aspen Elementary School. He also coached high school football and baseball.

Services are pending. Balentine said the Fire Department plans to hold a block party to celebrate his life.


Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.