Steamboat Springs Family and friends of Willard Anderson are still waiting to learn why he died April 24 while in the midst of a three-day mountain bike trip.
Willard, the longtime director of the physical plant at the Alpine Campus of Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs would have celebrated his 45th birthday today. Instead, the people closest to him are planning his memorial service Sunday at Olympian Hall at Howelsen Hill.
Willard died while riding his bicycle alone, although his and several other families were taking the trip together. The group of 11 was traversing the White Rim Trail in the Islands in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park.
The common practice on the White Rim Trail is for some members of the group to drive one or more vehicles in support of the cyclists. At the end of the day, the camping equipment and food are waiting at the camp site. While the cyclists begin dinner preparations, the drivers are set free to go on a short ride.
That's what Willard was doing when he died, his wife, Lisa Godbolt said. It was the fourth time she and Willard and their children, Luke, 8, and Annamarie, 11, had visited the area.
"It will be a sacred place, I think, for our family," Lisa said. "Luke is already talking about going back."
Lisa recalls that it had been a perfect day for bicycle riding on the day her husband died. Willard planned to drive his truck that day, while another man drove a second pickup truck. But Willard didn't want to miss out entirely on the ride up Murphy's Hogback, so he went early ahead of the group, then rode back down to pick up the truck.
"He said, 'Wow, I can't believe I did that," Lisa recalled. "He was feeling in better shape than he thought he would. He hadn't really ridden his bicycle this spring."
Normally, a group of several riders would have gone out on the shorter evening ride, but this time, he was on his own. He never returned.
It was a boy in the party that found Willard. Eric Thayer, a veteran member of the Steamboat Ski Patrol, rushed to his side, but his extensive experience in first aid was of no use Willard had been dead for some time. Aside from an abrasion on one side of his face, Willard didn't appear injured he was just gone.
Later, in Salt Lake City, the Utah state medical examiner told the family that despite the fact that Willard's bicycle helmet had been broken in his fall from the bike, he had ruled out the possibility that Willard had died from impact with the ground or with a nearby boulder. He had also ruled out the possibility of a heart attack, but he couldn't immediately determine the cause of death and hasn't yet. In fact, Lisa said he told her, there's a chance they'll never know for certain.
The news of their son's death has been understandably tough on Willard's parents, Gilbert and Lucille Anderson. Gilbert, or Gib, sat in Lisa and Willard's bright kitchen in the Fairview neighborhood this week, and as finches hopped on the bird feeder outside the window, he reflected on his son's childhood.
From the fifth grade through ninth grade, the family lived in Geneva, Switzerland, and that's how Willard first learned to ski.
"On Saturday, you still go to school but you load up your skis and ski all over the Alps," Gib recalled.
Willard also gained a love of soccer while in Switzerland, and when the family moved to Mount Lebanon, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, he formed the first high school soccer team in the history of the Mount Lebanon Blue Devils.
During his senior year, Willard went to school early so he could squeeze classes at a technical school in with his academic studies.
It was at technical school that he formed a lifelong friendship with Rick Denney. Willard studied carpentry and Denney studied electronics. It was a quirky thing that 25 years later they would both be living in Steamboat Springs performing essentially the same job for different school districts. Denney is in charge of the physical plant at the Steamboat Springs School District, just as Willard supervised the physical plant at CMC. But the two men's friendship was really based on their shared love of telemark skiing, mountain biking and elk hunting.
"We've been telemark skiing since before telemark skis had metal edges," Denney said.
Denney said it's still hard for him to conceive of the possibility that Willard died of a physical infirmity, simply because he exhibited such vigor and strength.
"The guy was just an animal," Denney said. "We hunted in places where people shouldn't go deep in the dark timber, because that's where the elk were. There were times we drug our elk out at night with burned out headlamps, stumbling in the dark."
Dan Chovan and Willard met on a chairlift, but their bond of friendship formed on area trout streams like the Green in Utah, and the North Platte on the Colorado/Wyoming border. They made an annual fall pilgrimage to the Platte near Saratoga, Wyo. (the town Willard's dog is named after) where they knew they could cast dry flies to large fish without any crowds.
Their last fishing trip was to the Green near Dutch John, Utah, the Friday and Saturday before Easter.
"We fished some holes side by side because it was pretty crowded," Chovan recalled, but they caught plenty of fish. "He was pretty much dialed in, I have to say. Willard and I have been camping and fishing together for 20 years. Nothing ever bothered him. He was a real relaxing fishing companion."
Lisa laughs and admits that yes, it's true, that Willard never really got enough fishing time. Gib points out that an entire room of the house was devoted to his fly-tying bench and the door was kept locked so the children and the dog couldn't upset his materials and tools. His love of rivers was demonstrated by the many stream-improvement projects he contributed to through his involvement in the Yampa Valley FlyFishers.
It wouldn't be right to give the impression that Willard put fishing ahead of his family. Lisa makes it clear he was very devoted to his wife and children. Willard was taking immense pride in Luke and Annamarie's accomplishments in competitive skiing with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sport Club. Luke is beginning to excel as a nordic combined skier, and Annamarie has been traveling the state to compete in alpine racing.
Lisa recalls that Willard admired local architect Robert Ralston because he routinely volunteers to help with ski jumping at Howelsen Hill, even though he doesn't have children in the program.
"He envisioned himself being like that in retirement," Lisa said.
While the Anderson family is left trying to adapt to the loss of a husband, father, son and brother, Willard's fishing and skiing buddies are trying to figure out how to make their weekend outdoor adventures complete without him.
Chovan has it in mind to build a picnic table with a a tribute to Willard etched into it. He'll leave it at a special spot close to the restless Platte.
Denney sounds like he hasn't quite figured out yet how to carry on.
"Have you ever had a friend that you could just call up and go do anything?" he asked. "We ended up being friends forever we thought it was forever. It's a rude awakening, finding out that it could be any of us at any time."