The importance of family |

The importance of family

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It was the year 1979, the year my great-aunt Clarice Greener Vagneur died. If memory serves, she was the last of that generation to pass from this Earth.

It was my blunder for not visiting her with a tape recorder — she went back to the original pioneers of Aspen and was willing to talk. I threatened to do it — just never did. She fed me a lot of great food and generally kept up with my life, but she was the matriarch of the Vagneur Ranch in Woody Creek and had not only history to think about, but the future, as well.

During her funeral service at the Aspen Community Church, I was struck by the similarity of her five sons, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the pew in front of me. From the back they looked almost identical, from their haircuts to the folds in their neck muscles above fully buttoned dress shirts. Had their deceased father been sitting beside them, he would have been almost indistinguishable from his sons. It’s a small point of recognition, I know, but outside the realm of DNA and genetics, it brings forth, at least to me, the importance of family. Fight it if you must, but we are our family, or at least products of it.

Just taking the paternal line, there are a lot of us in the Vagneur tree, and most — if we haven’t already died — are still mucking around the valley, helping keep the wheels of commerce moving. We are not exactly close, and never have been, not since the second generation in this country hit the ground running, but for those of us remaining, we’re mostly on speaking terms.

Sometime in the early 1980s I asked my cousin Wayne, who was then operating the Vagneur Ranch, if maybe we shouldn’t celebrate the 100th anniversary of our arrival in Woody Creek with a festivity of sorts. With a serious face and guaranteed Vagneur chuckle, he replied, “Tony, we’d have to hire armed security to keep the peace. Let’s just let it go.”

We are reminded of the importance of family when one member passes away. Just last week, we celebrated the life of one of our own with the death of Jean Clausen Vagneur. Jeanie, a beautiful woman who could sing strong and delightful soprano over her own accompaniment on the piano. Her daughter, Catie, played some celebrated classical music at the service in recognition of her mother’s musical talent.

We admired Jeanie for being married to Curtis, a man whom many of you know, a man who danced to a different drumbeat for much of his interesting life and who always had a propensity for jumping in with both feet. With Jeanie, Curtis became a dedicated family man and we sometimes wondered how Jeanie (and their daughter Catie) managed to keep Curtis in line. Jeanie’s family spoke very highly of Curtis, a double blessing in the lives of two people who were clearly very much in love from the beginning.

As we shook hands, hugged and re-established personal connections with small talk, waiting for the service to begin, my cousin Wayne arrived, sitting in a wheelchair from a recent fall. He’s the last of my father’s generation, the last of those five sons mentioned in the beginning of this column. He is 86 years old and still has the grip of a high school kid. His face, forever young, still looks as though he’s somewhere in his 30s, as it has for the past 50 years, and his eyes still sparkle with anticipation at whoever speaks to him. We’d often ride the Red Canyon cattle range together, and that’s where we had the conversations about what’s important in life. He might have sworn off, but I’d sure like to take one more ride with him.

My daughter sat with me, cradling her 3-month old daughter, and as I listened to a professional recording of Jeanie’s strong voice and piano coming over the speakers (and other musical performers during the service ringing throughout the church), I could hear the cooing of my granddaughter, mesmerized for brief moments in her young world, and tears couldn’t be held back, giving honor to the ultimate sacrifice that had just been paid and to those of us who still remain, family to the end.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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