Stone: A lesson in what really makes Aspen special
October 29, 2014
I really wanted to write a column this week that showed proper appreciation for Willard Clapper. Appreciation and celebration. He deserves no less.
But by the end of his memorial service Saturday in front of the fire station, I realized that everything I could have possibly said about Willard — and much, much more — had already been said.
It had been said, with more knowledge and more eloquence than I could ever muster, by those who knew and loved him best.
Willard's boyhood friend, A.O. Forbes, spoke with emotion and eloquence and, of course, humor. Willard's brothers, daughter, nieces, students and fellow firefighters stepped to the podium and contributed to a monument carved of memories and emotions.
The words, the laughter, the tears all rang out as clear, simple and true as the bell in front of the firehouse.
And as I listened, I realized that even though I had known Willard on a very friendly, big smile, "Hey, how you doing?" basis for more than 30 years, I have neither the knowledge nor the right to try to add to what those closest to him had already said.
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Which is exactly the way it should be.
And the crowd that filled the entire block of Hopkins Avenue also was exactly the way it should have been: an assembly of the people who belonged there. There were no celebrity seekers, no scandal chasers.
It was a small-town gathering; a small-town moment of enormous impact. It was sad, as it had to be, and joyous, as it should have been — and perhaps it was better still for being a perfect offseason Indian summer day: warm weather, a fierce blue sky and quiet streets.
Like Willard, those who assembled to appreciate his life were Aspen — not "ASPEN!!!"
Listening to those who spoke Saturday, I considered that it took me too many years to learn to really appreciate Willard, simply because he was just too nice, too happy, too open for a cynical big-city transplant like me.
Oh, I realized it eventually. I may be a cynic, but I'm not an idiot — and only an idiot could fail to realize how extraordinary Willard Clapper was.
He was a small-town guy with a world-class spirit, a wide-open mind and a wide-open heart.
Yes, that "small town" was Aspen.
But here's the thing about that: All of us Aspen-come-latelies like to think that somehow, everything that makes Aspen special began with us, with the newcomers who brought our special brand of sophistication and urban sensibility to this little outpost in the mountains.
At best, we think Aspen's special character began with the arrival of the sophisticated big-city Paepckes — and continued thereafter with their spiritual, intellectual descendants: Us.
But Willard gives the lie to our smug assumptions.
Or, to put it in positive terms (because I am speaking about Willard after all), Willard was evidence that there is something special about Aspen itself that doesn't require an outside infusion of grace from the big city.
Aspen is not a special place because we are here.
We are here because Aspen is a special place.
At least, we should be.
Walter Paepcke famously produced his "Aspen Idea" — the town as an Athens of the West, a place to nurture body, mind and spirit.
Put those high-flown thoughts in more real human, small-town terms and you'll find Willard Clapper: always active, always thinking, always loving.
Willard devoted his life to this community. Not with high-minded yammer (like, I know, me), but with concrete actions.
He was a volunteer fireman with 35 years of service.
It was a high calling; a call that he answered with love, humor, hard work and deep roots. Because his father was fire chief before him, because Aspen was his hometown and he wanted to protect it and because being a member of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department can be a lot of fun — particularly if you were working with Willard.
But, above all, Willard was an elementary school teacher — and I could go on about what a high calling that is, because it is, but I don't think Willard chose that career because it was a "high calling." He chose it because working with children and helping shape — and open — young minds was what he loved to do.
There is a world of difference between doing the right thing because it's "right" and doing it because it's what you love to do. It's the difference between screwing up your face as you take your medicine and gleefully diving into a hot fudge sundae.
Together, what better combination of callings could you find to nurture the body, mind and spirit of a small town than to teach its young and protect its homes and lives?
And the undeniable testimony to his brilliant success in both those fields is provided by the generations of school kids, now all grown up, who still revere him and the generations of firefighters who cherish and honor his memory.
As I said at the beginning, I cannot offer any special new insight or deep knowledge of Willard Clapper.
But what I saw Saturday at his memorial service was, again, a reminder that there still is a real Aspen.
People like me can howl that Aspen is being lost, destroyed, bought and sold — and I think we're right to do so.
But wise men like Willard Clapper, even as they see what we see, can still smile.
And his smile was a natural wonder.
It still lingers over us all.
A lesson. A blessing. A guide.
Andy Stone is the former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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