Saying goodbye to Jon Asper, a larger than life Eagle character
Blind fire chief, Master Mason, notoriously big hearted man — Eagle really has lost a legend
EAGLE — Small towns breed big characters, larger than life figures who everyone knows on a first-name basis.
Jon Ross Asper — known far and wide as Jon Jon — was one of Eagle’s most famed characters. His booming voice, his badgering nature, his series of Rottweiler canine companions, his generous heart — everything about Asper was big.
It was only fitting that a big community ceremony was held Saturday to bid him a final farewell.
Asper packed a lot of living into his 71 years. He passed away Jan. 18.
Before he even hit Eagle, Asper had served as a U.S. Marine and competed as a rodeo cowboy. His local story began with him serving drinks at the now-defunct Berniece’s Place in Eagle where his long-time friend Buddy Doll recalled how “he ruled his kingdom with an iron fist and a big head of fuzzy hair.”
He lost his sight at a young age, but Asper always managed to see people and situations with remarkable clarity. Doll maintained he could tell the difference between a $10 bill and a $20 when it hit his bar counter.
Asper would eventually open his own restaurant and bar which brought him to a role that defined his life. He offered to work on a fundraiser for the Eagle Volunteer Fire Department and the Firemen’s Barbecue and Barn Dance was born. But Asper was a go-big-or-go-home kind of guy so before long, he started as a fire department volunteer. Shortly thereafter he was elected as an officer and then became the department’s first paid employee. Looking back, it was inevitable that once Asper became interested in the fire department he would eventually take over as the department’s leader. That’s how a blind man became Eagle’s Fire Chief.
So many stories
During his memorial service Saturday, former Greater Eagle Fire Protection District member Chris Blankenship noted, “Everyone in the audience today has a story to share about Jon Ross Asper.”
Speakers at the ceremony talked about his salty language and his relentless drive.
“This is the last chance we will we have to get in the last word, without any challenges or verbal abuse, and we are going to take advantage of it,” said Asper’s friend and fellow Mason Matt Solomon.
Eight of his comrades, representing various causes and organizations Asper held dear, shared personal recollections. It was their way of saying thanks on behalf of the larger community.
“When Jon Jon found out about them, problems got solved,” said Luke Causey, past master of Castle Lodge No. 122.
For families who were struggling, that meant Asper organized a massive Christmas toy drive. When the Saint Baldrick’s organization wanted to launch an Eagle fundraiser, Asper turned the Eagle Fire Station into a hair-cutting carnival. Over his years as fire chief, he worked with dozens of young firefighters who returned to town last weekend to pay homage to their mentor.
Michele Ziccardi, of the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District, ended up as an emergency services public information officer because of Asper. She described his leadership style as “intense but insightful.”
“He believed, truly, in the gift of helping,” she said.
Chris Montera, of Eagle Count Paramedic Services, likened Asper to a hard-shelled candy that is all gooey inside.
“You always knew where you stood with that man,” Montera said.
“The first time I met Jon, he was acting shy and, generally, the words ‘Jon Jon’ and ‘shy’ aren’t said in the same sentence,” said ReNae Anderson, president of the Mountains and Plains At Large chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.
“We talked about what a challenge it is to live in a sighted world and let me tell you, it isn’t easy,” Anderson said.
It isn’t really accurate to say Asper transcended his blindness. It was a challenge that he grappled with every day of his life. But he didn’t let that one part of his life define his whole person.
“He wanted to make a difference and he wanted it to be something for others,” Anderson said. “Jon Jon never once asked for help, only for himself. But he asked many times for other people.”
“It was a community effort these last few months to care for Jon Jon,” Solomon said. He noted that a lot of that burden fell on Asper’s step-son Louis, who he thanked on behalf of Asper’s many friends and colleagues.
In the end, Solomon noted it was impossible to sum up Asper’s life, noting that he inspired so many people and organizations.
Anderson may have offered the most fitting epitaph when she presented a memorial coin from the National Federation for the Blind to Louis, a posthumous honor for Asper.
The coin’s inscription reads “Live the life you want.”
Jon Jon did that.