By Mary Alice Murphy
At the John Kavchar memorial, people spoke of their love and respect for him, as well as remembering his jokester self.
Frank Merritt served as the moderator for the speakers, after the about 100 people who attended had their fill of food and drink.
"This will give us a chance to share our stories about John," Merritt said. "I've heard a lot of stories already being shared one-on-one during the meal. We have people here from out-of-state and out-of country."
He thanked all those who brought food and flowers, Kyle Johnson for the public address system, and Kavchar's fiancé Teresa Beall's handling of logistics for the past 10 days.
Merritt said about a month ago, he had heard a quotation from Albert Einsten, which he felt fit John Kavchar. "In your life, strive not to be a success, rather strive to be a value."
"I think the person whose life we are celebrating found not only success, but a value," Merritt continued. "It takes great skills to be worthy of a good friend. This turnout is a testament that he had the qualities to be a value."
He said, because he had known Kavchar for only 10 months, "to me he was still an incomplete puzzle. I ask you to share a story or remembrance about John, selfishly for myself to fill in the pieces of the puzzle."
Jean Stelzer, lookout at Black Mountain, said she started as a lookout the same year as Kavchar, in 2000. "I live in T or C, so most of our communication was by phone calls and emails. Last year, we started an email conversation, which we called Netflix©, because we both love movies and books. We wrote 40 pages of emails last summer. I was questioning whether I should be doing more with my life."
John's reply to Jean was jokingly urging her to solve all the biggest problems in the world like world hunger, goals that would be near impossible for a single person to do. He was urging Jean just to be who she was, a woman sitting in a fire lookout contemplating life and doing the best she could.
"Honoring John's life should be by your enjoying life," Stelzer said. "I now pay more attention to people in a grocery line, as he did, just to make those moments of life a bit better for that person."
Anna Tosso, Miquette Magnusson's cousin, spoke next. "Miquette was the wife to whom John was married until she passed away in 2002. Like all of you, I felt like John was my best friend, too. I read Phil Connors' great tribute to John. It was so lovely. My daughter is right now on the Pacific Crest Trail. She was very excited to hear about the suggestion to contribute to the Continental Divide Trail in lieu of flowers at John's memorial since she has been the recipient of many kind gestures from 'trail angels' on the Pacific Crest trail, such as iced water in the desert, treats left for her and other hikers along the trail. Our son is also traveling. My uncle Ray, who was also a huge John fan, sent me this essay, which I will read." She read: "What is dying?"
Phillip Connors said he is also a lookout in the Gila, since 2002. "I first encountered John over the radio. He said he planned to hike up Hillsboro and come see me. He came the weekend I wasn't there. Next time I talked to him, he, making a joke at my expense, said: 'Phil, it was great to meet you.' He was also good at making jokes of himself."
"He had impeccable manners," Connors continued. "He didn't like for anyone to start up the tower, without asking first. He would come out on the catwalk and say to the interloper: 'I'm in the middle of a bunch of paperwork. I'll be with you in about 15 to 20 minutes.' He would go back inside the tower and laugh uproariously, and three minutes later he would invite the person or group to come up to the tower.
"I would let him know when through hikers on the Continental Divide Trail were coming his way," Connors said. "He would make elaborate nachos for them. We were unexpected trail angels for the hikers. I would give them tequila and he nachos, for a true New Mexico experience.
"The fastest I've ever been, other than in an airplane, was in that thing over there," he pointed to Kavchar's GT 40 racecar. "Going 135 miles per hour on that straightaway beyond San Lorenzo made you feel alive.
"I thought it was telling, in a sad and beautiful way, that on the last day of John's life, the family of Bart Mortenson, who had been a Signal Peak lookout, came to the tower to have a memorial for Bart. They held the memorial below the tower and spread Bart's ashes and sang hymns together. John conversed with them after the memorial.
When Kavchar would spot a fire, he would give it a name. "He asked if the fire that broke out that day could be called the Bart Fire. Six hours later, he died himself in a beautiful place he knew better than anyone else."
"All of us lookouts who shared time with him," Connors concluded, "we will miss him like a limb."
Merritt acknowledged Connors' obituary for Kavchar.
"It was my laptop and my fingers, but the tribute was written by several of us, sitting around together," Connors said.
Mike Sheerer said he met Kavchar six years ago at the tower. "I relied on him for humor in my life. When once we sat around having a drink at Diane's, he mentioned his time as a deputy sheriff in Telluride, where the phrase: 'better us than the real guys' was the office byline, and how to get someone in line."
Russ Ward, Silver City District ranger, said: "Lookouts are a unique bunch. John took his job very seriously and he wanted the latest gadget and app for the tower. He designed a solar system to charge his gadgets. He often reminded us that we weren't paying him enough. He was very mischievous in wanting to pull the wool over our eyes. When he called in the Signal Fire, we told him to park his Jeep on the helipad and to get off the mountain. When we went back after the fire, and I saw him in the office, I asked him if he had good car insurance. He said: 'the best—USDA.' His Jeep was fine."
Cindy Preisinger of Phoenix spoke next. "I knew John through my sister Sue Lee, who met John eight or nine years ago. She said he looks like the guy from Transformers. Our daughter called him Uncle John. He said he didn't want the name, but he learned to love it. He supported me when my husband had cancer, because he had been through it. He would make me feel more relaxed. And yes, my husband is better. John became the brother I never had. I was in the military and worked on jets. Now I teach guys how to fly F-16s. He would tell me I was the best mom. We kept in touch, and I can't believe he's gone."
Her daughter said when she was in fifth grade, "John put me in charge of painting the helipad. Just last summer, he asked me to come back and repaint it. It sucks that I didn't get around to it."
Sarah Doehring, a smokejumper, said every year a group of smokejumpers came down to the Gila. "I've been coming since 2003. We would set up camp. I would fly as a spotter and often talked to John on the radio, but I had never seen him. He told me, when he heard a Twin Otter fly over, he knew it was fire season. John wrote the nicest letter to the jumpers. Things will be a little different on the Gila now."
Gabe Partido said he met Kavchar at Christmas 2003. "I asked him if I could take a Boy Scout troop to the tower the next summer. He said: 'Sure.' The group started up the catwalk, and John gave them the paperwork excuse. Then he took the boys up and let them do sample calls, and explained everything to them. Later, one day, he came into my office, and I told him I had to complete paperwork first. The world on the Gila will be a lot dimmer without John."
Leo Trujillo said: "John gave out jokes, but he took them, too. He and Miquette got the tower the way it is fixed up now. He wanted to replace the cabinets, so he rigged up a pulley to get the new cabinets up to the tower. He had them special made, and Randy and I were bringing them up to the tower. Five minutes before we got there, I had the radio on, and I said: 'Stop. Something fell out.' When we got there, he and Miquette were not in the tower, but were standing there with arms folded. He was happy to see the cabinets were fine. He was happy and liked kidding around, but when it came to his job, he took it seriously."
Hedy Holmberg, Kavchar's sister, her husband Mark and their son Michael were at the memorial.
"Thank you for sharing your stories," Hedy said. "He loved and was loved. He taught us by the way of his passion. He will form the framework for the rest of my life. God will say to John: 'Well done, my loving and faithful servant.'"
Mark Holmberg remembered a story about Kavchar traveling through Mexico on his motorcycle. "He was having a drink with a man along the way. When the man said he had no place to spend the night, John invited him to share his room. The next morning, the man had already left, when John got up. He went to pay the bill and had no money in his wallet. But he said he figured the other man needed it more than he did."
Elaine Power of British Columbia, said she met John in Telluride, when she and Miquette went there to be ski bums. "Several years later, she and Miquette were going to travel, but I got a job and pulled out. Miquette had already given up her rental, and John said he had a place to share, and the rest is history. All of us have big successes and little ones. They lived on Sunshine Mesa. John often led us cross-country skiing. We all loved to read, and each of us appreciated our quiet times. I remember one fall day, it was quiet, and the late golden light was on the peaks. All three of us were reading on a beat-up couch on the deck. It started to get cold, so we pulled up a sleeping bag on top of us. Flakes of snow began hitting us, and it was nothing but the sound of the flakes and of turning pages. It was a golden moment in my life."
Mark Johnson, relief lookout for Kavchar, said: "John was a pretty good golfer. He was a better lookout. Keith Matthes, John and I played a lot of golf together. John was persistent. Keith had bought a new set of clubs, and broke his driver. Ever after, Keith decided to shoot with his 5-iron. John would tell Keith he had to use a driver. John also had a GPS unit, and wherever the ball landed, he knew how far it was to the hole. He would tell me my ball was 83 yards from the hole, which was not too helpful. We had a great time golfing." Johnson broke down in tears and had to control his voice before he could conclude with: "I'll really miss John. I loved that guy."
Jerelyn, John's sister-in-law, Miquette's sister, said she traveled with John to take Miquette back home. "We stopped in many places, some desolate desert vistas. To watch him take care of Miquette, to keep her as pain-free as possible, we became close. When he would see an older couple, hand-in-hand or sitting close together on a bench, he would break down, because he knew he would miss that. I was so grateful he again found love."
Raz Majean said she went to Signal Peak one time when Kavchar and Miquette were going to Mayo Clinic. "I can't tell who I loved the most. They both saw people and talked to people heart-to-heart. I'm back on Mogollon Baldy. When Miquette passed, it was a huge part of his heart that went."
"I would go to Faywood Hot Springs," Raz said. "I love hot water. It's like amniotic fluid. I suggested John go to Faywood and figure out his next step. We would sit in the hot water, naked, and philosophize about everything. We knew all the answers. I think waters are healing. My experience was: in hot water, it was making the world right. I think his energy was about making things right. John understood on a cellular level about tragedy and loss. He gave me words to get me through. His heart was there. I do not want to buy the fact that John is gone. John's car is coming in somewhere. He's in our hearts."
Sue Lee said she felt she has been lost in the middle of all this. She broke down in tears throughout what she said. "I was John's lover and friend for between seven and eight years. I went to the tower with my horses one day, and figured out he was the husband of the lookout that had died. I didn't want to intrude. Two-and-a-half years later, I met him again at the Millie & Billy Ball. That was the beginning. We lived together for those six years. We had wonderful times and hard times. In the end, we couldn't reconcile. I know we loved each other very much, and I miss him very much."
Teresa Beall was the last to speak. "I'm the next act. Thanks to Sue Lee for the landscaping at our house, the tower. She did a beautiful job and has a very green thumb. I, too, worked as a lookout 30 years, among other jobs. John, too, wore many hats. I've known John well for only a year. I met John and Miquette, when they first started working as lookouts. I was on Bearwallow lookout and gave them a brief training on the radio after I discovered that the forest service had minimally trained them for their job by pointing out the direction where north was and suggesting that they look through the small end of the binoculars. I was happy as a single girl. Later I met this guy, John. I thought he had a wife or girlfriend, but I was hiking up to the tower. We both wanted love before we left this life, and he got the love he wanted. I love him."
The final word was spoken loudly by John Rohovec to everyone: "Be like John."