Vail Valley community celebrates teen’s life
EDWARDS, Colorado – The picture says it all. Taft Conlin is jumping into the blue Colorado sky wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt with his arms stretched wide. You need an odometer to measure his smile. His knees are skinned, as they often were.
More than 1,000 people packed the Edwards Interfaith Chapel for a celebration of life that really, truly was.
“God says live!” said Father Brooks Keith. “Throw your arms out, jump high and let your heart explode, ‘Here I am!'”
Taft was a Vail Mountain School seventh-grader killed in an avalanche last Sunday on Vail Mountain. He was with four friends with the avalanche hit and his father, Steve Conlin, lasered to the heart of the matter when he said the only thing worse for their family would have been to lose one of them as well.
Kids handled much of the celebration, speaking and singing with grace and eloquence. Hundreds of friends showed up.
Kids in lacrosse jerseys. Kids in pink shirts and blue jeans. Kids in suits and ties and dresses. Kids whispering hello. Kids trying to understand goodbye.
Taft is 13 and always will be. That’s not long to gather this many friends, but listening to some of those friends talk it’s easy to understand how he did it.
Fun attracts friends. It’s a fact of Taft’s life.
“When no one else wanted to try something, Taft would step up and say, ‘Why not?!?'” said friends who spoke.
• There was the rope swing over a river. Taft climbed to the top of a tree to string it up, and when no one else would test it, he took the plunge – literally.
• There was the zipline the crew made by stringing a rope they found in the back yard. It needed improvement, but how? Of course! It had to be steeper and faster!
• He was great company on the chairlift because he always told funny jokes.
• He and some lacrosse teammates were killing time between games at a tournament by trying to get a lacrosse ball stuck in a chain link fence. Taft threw it so hard it went through the fence and hit a car on the other side.
• He scrawled “TAFT” in his family’s new slippers one Christmas.
• And the science fair project about putting out grease fires is the stuff of legend. He and his dad learned that Red Bull doesn’t work. Dr. Pepper isn’t all that effective either.
Maddi, his sister, lovingly ratted him out. When their parents got calls from school, it was usually because he was having too much fun, she said.
One night she badgered him to tell what girl he liked. He finally did, then spent the rest of the night begging her not to tell. She didn’t.
“His personality was amazing and you couldn’t forget him if you wanted to, so don’t,” she said.
“Taft was our boy, too, and he was most definitely all boy, all the time, equal parts sweetness and mischief,” said his uncle “Scuba” Dave Conlin.
The shrine at the front of the chapel was perfect for someone who lived his life like a Taftathlon: Lacrosse gear, telemark ski gear. The sign is brilliant – a blue and black ski trail sign with the double-black diamond insignia reading “Taft’s Cornice.” Hunting, fishing, kayaking, cliff jumping, hockey. Taft did it all, had a great time doing it and made sure others had a great time too.
Tony Gulizia opened the service with “Amazing Grace.” Avery Hynes joined with her angelic voice.
“I wish you were not here,” said Father Brooks Keith. “I want to thank you for being here for one simple reason. We get to experience this together, as a family, as a community.”
Maddi picked the Dylan Thomas poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” His aunt Nina Ingalls read it.
His aunt Mackenzie Conlin read Ecclesiastes 3:1, “To everything there is a season under the heavens. A time to be born … “
When she reached the line about “a time to die,” if there was a dry eye in the house, they were lying eyes.
“To the boys, we want you to know that you didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t ski out of bounds,” said uncle Dave. “The medical evidence indicates that there’s nothing, absolutely nothing you could have done.”
While visiting the family, Brooks Keith spotted a sticker behind Taft’s bookcase that says, “Ski like your butt is on fire.”
The Episcopal priest looked straight at those hundreds of kids and implored them to do the same, “Be safe, but rip. Maybe you can have those moments for yourselves and Taft.”
“Lead with your heart and have fun. Be your greatest self,” said Taft’s uncle David Ingalls. “It came natural to Taft and he will forever be an inspiration to us all.”
They thanked the ski patrollers, the hospital, the paramedics. Everyone did everything they could.
Taft’s family closed the celebration.
“We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support in this valley,” Steve said. “He died quickly, doing what he loved with friends he wanted to be with.”
His mother, Louise Ingalls, explained their family tradition of lighting a Candle of Intention. After dinner, they say something good they want to happen, then light the candle. Taft’s candle intentions intended for his sister’s health and snow, she said.
Then Taft’s father, mother and sister stepped up and lit Friday’s Candle of Intention. The candle’s three flames flickered above that shrine and the place fell silent – a Taft-sized hole where the fourth flame should have been.
The only sounds were the occasional sniffle and wiping of tears.
Quickly, though, the crying quieted, replaced by smiles and soon laughter as food was rolled out and a party started, and you knew Taft was there, those blue eyes smiling and laughing with you.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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