An Aspen Legacy

The Chapin Wright Memorial Flatirons Scholarship tells a 40-year story of what makes growing up in Aspen unique.

By Jay Cowan February 1, 2010 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2013 issue of Aspen Sojourner

For most of the time I knew him, Chapin Wright was like a live electrical wire popping around untethered, full of fire and dangerous energy. It was never bad, it was just unfocused. And then everything seemed to come together for him in one almost suspicious burst of light in the last year of his life—the kind of thing, in retrospect, that any good dramatist would recognize as foreshadowing.

Chapin was already on the Aspen Ski Club ski team when I got there in 1967. He was two years younger than me, a little cocky-seeming with a tendency to run his mouth. Our coach, Ted Armstrong, called him Flapjaw. If it hadn’t been him, it would probably have been me, but he called me Crane Legs instead. Chapin was always much more animated than his brother Jonathan, who was in my class, or even his sister Jennifer, a year older than me. Youngest brother Philip III (everyone called him Flip) wasn’t much on the scene then. But all of the Wrights were very smart and knew it. They couldn’t know that all the sons would die young.

The whole family loved the outdoors and they were some of the first really accomplished fly-fishers in the Roaring Fork Valley. Naturally they all skied, and their mother Joan was a former racer, but of the kids only Chapin raced and was passionate about the sport. His father, Phil Jr, used to drive us to ski meets in their Checker, a boxy car with rear jump seats, made especially for service as cabs. When it was just me and the three amigos (Chapin and his best friends, Tommy Simons and Yvan Tache Jr.), those could be long trips.

Chapin was a very good racer who made the Aspen A team and got to forerun the Roch Cup downhill one year, sustaining one of his multiple injuries in the process. Listening to him describe the wreck was a great story (“I missed my pre-jump off Dago Cut Road onto Strawpile and all I saw was the sky and my skis.”) and pure Chapin. You knew the fall wasn’t amusing when it happened, but he made it entertaining and poked fun at himself. That was when I knew he was really maturing, probably a lot faster than me. And one summer night when he was 17, he sat down next to me at a “woodsy” party at Wildcat reservoir and talked for a couple of hours about his experience at an Outward Bound program at Hurricane Island in Maine earlier that summer.

To me, he seemed like a little different Chapin and I was totally impressed. So much so that I still remember it well, 40 years later. He was calmer, more grown up, more at peace with himself. He wanted to talk about his experiences and to hear what I thought. He wanted to pursue environmentalism, a fresh concept at the time and something my class had been very active in, and wanted me to know how much he had learned recently and how it had affected him.

The rigors of Outward Bound, the bonding with others in the program, and the stark and wild beauty of Maine and the North Atlantic inspired and humbled him. He kept a journal while he was there and talked about possibly wanting to be a writer. 

“Nature is that exciting part that is all—man, the earth, the sun and the sea all cooperating to survive,” he wrote in 1971. “It is hard to see it is all one, with man and his pollution, earth and its physical catastrophes. ... Nature and man are my friends. I have learned through her how many friends I have and can make. ... My friends are a true and beautiful thought. I only wish that I could do more for them all, because it is cooperating, helping, loving that will make it all work.”

I didn’t see a lot of Chapin during his senior year, but I knew he was really coming into his own. He was following in big footprints. Jennifer was a straight-A student and valedictorian for the class of 1969. Jon, who would die in an avalanche in Tibet in 1980, was an outstanding photographer working with National Geographic. Chapin could have been cowed, but he took it as a good thing to have impressive family role models, and he stepped up. He was becoming a leader amongst his peers, and he did it naturally, with real class and no attitude.

I was in Greece in the spring of 1972 when I woke up one morning and told the people I was with that I’d dreamed about Chapin, and that it seemed odd to me. About a week later we learned that Chapin had been killed when the truck he was driving went off an embankment at the Midnight Mine turnoff up Castle Creek. He had just graduated from Aspen High and was on his way to the senior party at a camping site we called Vietnam. His father believed it had been the happiest day of Chapin’s life.

He had just received the Flatirons Scholarship that had first been awarded to someone in my class two years earlier. Chuck and Sue Hall originated the scholarship in Boulder for graduate students at the University of Colorado and transferred it to Aspen when they moved here. Tage Pedersen, a longtime U.S. Ski Team trainer at the Aspen Meadows who also worked with the Aspen ski team, presented Chapin, who was “like a son” to him, with the scholarship, and gave a speech at his memorial two days later.

“I am sure that one of the characteristics that stand out was his natural leadership abilities,” said Pedersen. “... He was a very enthusiastic young man. He never waited around for someone to tell him what to do—he somehow sensed where he had to be and what he had to do at the right time. ... He had an unusual sense of responsibility for his age. You always knew that you could depend on him to do what had to be done.”

The four-year scholarship was soon renamed in Chapin’s honor and has had a distinguished history since, worthy of its namesake and the young people who have been honored with it for “demonstrating qualities of leadership in athletics, academia and within the high school community.” Kristine Crandall received it in 1982 and wrote about it in her Aspen Daily News column in 2007. “It was a big deal and honor then, and as I look back at the importance that higher education has made in my life, it carries even more weight now. Although I never knew Chapin, I can only hope, and perhaps other Flatirons Scholarship recipients feel similarly, to carry even a tiny flicker on behalf of Chapin’s large persona and the values he embodied.”

In 2001, Kristin Wright, Chapin’s niece by his brother Phil, a talented cabinetmaker who died in 2004, and Phil’s wife Aslaug Skaeringson Wright, also received the Flatirons. “I never thought I would get the scholarship,” she says. “There were people in my class who were both better athletes and students than me. But I think what’s important about the scholarship is that it’s not just excelling at something, but there is something about someone’s spirit. It’s not just being good at something, but the struggle to be good.”

Aspen, and the people who have made their homes in this valley, have been a huge influence in all the Flatirons recipients’ lives. “I think the fact that Aspen promotes the notion that mind and body work together is very important,” observes Kristin. “Also I think that you can’t help but be humbled by our environment. Just waking up every day to the mountains, I’m reminded of how small I am. Aspen fostered an enthusiasm for life but humility about my place in the world.” At 19, “struggling emotionally,” Kristin took a shorter version of Chapin’s Outward Bound program in Maine, carrying a copy of Chapin’s journal. “I read it when I was on my solo,” she says. “I really felt like Chapin was with me when I was there.”

When the 2009 Flatirons went to Bo Welden, it seemed like some kind of circle had been completed. Bo’s father Todd grew up in Aspen, graduated from Aspen High in 1971 and was at the graduation party the day Chapin died. “The shock was at once immediate and intimate,” he recalls. “It happened to the collective consciousness of all of us who knew him.” Todd and his wife Deborah hoped Bo would get any scholarship award, but especially the Flatirons. “Some moments before it was awarded I was gripped by a quickening that was again immediate and intimate. When they announced Bo’s name I was overwhelmed by Chapin’s presence, shining down. I will always remember his kindness.”

Tage Pedersen’s daughter Lorna, who graduated from Aspen High in 1975, is on the Flatirons Scholarship committee. She presented the award to Kristin as “the niece he never knew,” and last year helped select Bo as a recipient. “To me it felt like Todd had brought his son up with Chapin’s gifts and strength,” she says. “Bo fits the mold so perfectly.”

After graduation, Bo signed up for a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) trip, similar to Chapin’s Outward Bound program, and his father gave him a copy of Chapin’s journal. “It was a unique experience reading his journals as I wrote in my own,” says Bo, who echoes so many others by adding, “I felt sometimes like Chapin was on my trip, reading his journals every night. I found them inspiring and thought-provoking, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to read them.”

For Bo, as for all of us fortunate enough to have grown up here, whether 40 years ago or today, we will always have in our lives a powerful sense of place and home. “The people, the knowledge and experience here are endless,” as Bo notes. “Examples are everywhere—the Aspen Music Festival, the Aspen Institute, our wonderful schools, the Ideas Festival, and so on. Some of the world’s greatest minds gather in our town, and something like that is very rare for young people to experience on a daily basis.” I can hear Chapin agreeing. Enthusiastically.


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