A legend’s last call: Vail Valley’s Jon Asper leaves a lasting legacy of love and service
Asper's celebration of life is set for Feb. 15
- Celebrate Jon Asper’s life at noon, Feb. 15 in the Eagle River Center at the Eagle County Fairgrounds.
- Make donations to the Jon Jon Asper Memorial Fund at Alpine Bank.
- Don’t buy flowers. Well, maybe a few. Jon loved fresh flowers.
Reporter’s note: We have been privileged to write about Jon Asper for years. His quotes in this story are from some of that material.
EAGLE — Jon Ross Asper, “Jon Jon” to most of us — a man so nice we named him twice — loved family, friends, firefighting and fermentation. Family, friends and firefighting were often interchangeable. Family is who you say it is. Jon Jon’s family was as big as his enormous heart and included anyone within the sound of his booming bass voice.
Jon Jon, who died on Jan. 18, is, in fact, survived by Annette Lewis, Lewis Mirelez, Jason Mirelez and the thousands of others touched by his generosity.
Jon Jon was one of the world’s most knowable enigmas. Still, we have some questions:
- How does a kid from Gunnison end up in the middle of 1960s riots in Los Angeles? (Turns out he could not really see what was happening around him, and so did not realize the situation he was in.)
- How does a legally blind guy memorize four different Marine eye charts? And how does that same blind guy memorize the way targets move on a rifle range so well that the Marines wanted to make him a sniper?
- How does he manage being the nation’s only legally blind fire chief for decades? He did it for 17 years, from 1995 to 2012. He joined the Eagle volunteer fire department in 1984.
- Why is he called Jon Jon? Lillian Clarke, one of Eagle’s matriarchs nicknamed Queenie, dubbed him Jon Jon. He worked for Queenie at a bar east of town. Another Jon worked there, and when Queenie got mad at Asper, she’d shout, “You’re a double Jon!”
- How did he wind up in Eagle? He planted his flag in town because, he said, it was the first place people made him feel wanted and welcome. Eagle was, he said, the first time he felt like he had a family.
- Was he really blind? Yes. The day his doctor informed him, the doctor cried. Jon Jon nonchalantly said, “I knew that already,” and went for a hamburger.
- And: Did he ever refuse anyone who asked anything of him? That one’s easy. No. Ask him for help and his response was automatic: “Just tell me what you need.”
Great big ‘little bitty cog’
Look around Jon Jon’s home and take in all the accolades, and understand that the plaques and letters and certificates and citations account for such a small percentage of the good he did.
Jon Jon wasn’t big on recognition. Give him a compliment, and he’d credit the fire department, his family and community.
“We function as a team — it’s not just me or the fire department,” he said. “This is just a big community circle and I’m a little bitty cog,” he said.
Still, on his office wall you’ll find a congressional citation, a proclamation from President George H.W. Bush honoring Jon Jon and the Eagle fire department with a “Daily Point of Light Award,” a citation from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation declaring him a Knight of the Bald Table, letters of thanks for helping the POTUS, FLOTUS and VPOTUS roll through the area so smoothly, a Golden Boot Award from Jerry Lewis for the department’s part in Lewis’ annual muscular dystrophy telethon, numerous firefighter of the year awards. … It’s a crowded wall. Here’s the thing, though: It’s all from helping others.
Former Rep. Scott McInnis read a long list of Asper’s accomplishments into the Congressional Record, opening with, “Mr. Speaker, to place your life in danger for the sake of others is an honorable and noble task, and that is what firefighters do regularly. Chief Jon Asper of the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District is a local legend and hero whose main goal is to serve his community.”
Jon Jon didn’t know it was happening.
“Why would you do that?” Jon Jon asked McInnis.
“Because you deserve it,” McInnis responded.
Jon Jon was speechless — but only for a second.
“It’s our entire department and community. Our community has been recognized by Congress,” he said.
As heady as honors from presidents and congressmen were, Jon Jon was more proud of the letters and cards from local kids and adults, most saying something like, “Thanks for always going above and beyond the call of duty.”
Upright man and Mason
Jon Jon is a 32nd-degree mason, the highest Masonic rank anyone can earn on this planet. Almost no one does.
He and a handful of others saved Eagle’s Masonic Lodge, Eagle County’s oldest service organization. Membership was dwindling, as it is in similar organizations nationwide. Jon Jon decided he would not let it die and willed many of his friends into the lodge. It’s doing fine.
In December his fellow Masons elected him to lead the lodge, one of his lifetime goals. It came close to the end of his lifetime, although no one knew that at the time.
Last summer he flashed a million-watt smile as he fired dozens of machine gun rounds at a local gun range. A few of his fellow Masons made it happen.
“Did I hit anything?” Asper asked. When it came to a lifetime of service, he hit everything.
Blind man with a big vision
For a blind man, he had exceptional vision.
“I’m not helpless. I’m just blind,” he was fond of saying.
He started losing his sight in the fourth grade with what used to be called “lazy eye.” It wasn’t. Nothing about Jon Jon was lazy.
“It’s not your fault: Being blind is the card you were dealt,” he said.
Juanita and Earl Asper, his great aunt and uncle, raised him on a ranch in Gunnison and gave him their last name. He said she probably spent $150,000 trying to get his eyes fixed.
She died when he was a teenager and he was on his own. So he went to work in the Somerset coal mine near Paonia. His failing vision cost him that job, a twist of fate that likely saved his life. His mining crew was sent to South America and was hundreds of feet underground when an accident killed them.
He determined early to walk in harm’s way to serve others. He tried the military and was positively giddy when the Marines let him join in 1968. The Battle of Khe Sanh was raging in Vietnam, and he wanted to fight.
While everyone else on the plane headed for basic training was dressed in regular Marine uniforms, Jon Jon had donned a serape and a huge peace sign.
“I was the happiest guy on the plane. Everyone else was whimpering and crying,” he said.
As the plane was preparing to land, he snuck into the lavatory and changed into his jeans, boots and cowboy clothes.
“They thought they’d lost someone. They were looking for the hippie,” he said laughing.
To pass the physical, he memorized four eye charts because he knew the medics rotated the chart every dozen guys or so. Standing in line waiting for his turn, he whispered to the man in front of him, asking which eye chart was being used. That way he knew which one he’d get.
On the shooting range during basic training, Asper memorized how the targets moved. His marksmanship was so good the Marines considered sending him to sniper school. Finally, though, the Marines figured out that he couldn’t see and instead of sending him to sniper school, they sent him home.
He landed in Eagle County, driving bulldozers and other heavy machinery for the crews building Interstate 70 through Eagle County. At night he worked as a bartender and bouncer at Bernice’s Place in Eagle and started a restaurant called Winterhawk. He joined the Eagle volunteer fire department and served for nearly 34 years, half of it as chief.
“Most people didn’t know I was going blind when I was fire chief. I look people in the eye when I speak to them. I hear where they are,” Asper said.
‘The Spirit of Bear’
In a frame with a photo of his beloved dog Bear, there’s a poem titled “Paw Prints Left By You.” Hanging next to Bear’s photo is a fire helmet with “Jon Jon” across the back. A badge bearing Bear’s paw print and extolling “The Spirit of Bear” is emblazoned on the helmet beside Jon Jon. Fitting, because Bear spent his life beside Jon Jon.
Bear might be one of the only dogs in our spiral arm of the universe with his own trading card. Bear even has a tower truck named for him.
About that truck: Jon Jon started the annual firehouse barbecue and barn dance, first to raise money for a compressor to fill air tanks, and eventually new trucks, specifically the department’s Spirit of Bear tower truck that local firefighters still proudly use. Because the good folks of Eagle love barbecue and their fire department, they ate barbecue by the truckload and downed adult beverages by the tank load … because everyone knows barbecue and beer make you a better barn dancer.
Lewis and Jason Mirelez, Asper’s stepsons, and some others were ordered to stand watch overnight to make sure creatures did not get into the barbecued beef … because there was this one time that an actual bear ate it.
Eagle firefighters earned their tower truck one brisket at a time.
They traveled to the factory to watch it being built and recommend modifications — “recommend” being an understatement in Jon Jon’s case. They even modified the firehouse to accommodate it.
To make sure they’d always have enough money, Jon Jon pushed through an impact fee for the fire department. He had to convince Eagle’s Body Politic that the fire department’s impact fees were good, but everyone else’s fees were not as good.
Anyway, when that Spirit of Bear tower truck arrived, every single firefighter, their families and many others watched that truck pull into the firehouse parking lot. Enough tears of joy were shed to put out a fire.
Jon Jon’s dog these days is Jaycee, another Rottweiler, about 140 pounds. Like Jon Jon, Jaycee has a big bark and a bigger heart.
Jon Jon’s bunker coat hangs in his office closet, ready to roll, right beside his tool belt from his days as a utility company lineman, also ready to roll. A couple of old school metal thermos jugs carry some dents and scars, as we all do — like Jon Jon did.
You might not be a fire chief or a 32nd-degree mason. You might not go to the trouble of memorizing four Marine eye charts, but Jon Jon set the bar for what it means to be a friend. Our instructions are not complicated: Try to measure up.
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