BELLOWS FALLS — The sun was shining and the Bellows Falls Union High School auditorium was filled with thousands of people on Saturday afternoon, all to honor Justin Beebe, who died fighting a wildfire in Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada.
The 26-year-old was remembered as someone who lived life to the fullest and encouraged others to live by the motto "don't hold back." Some didn't have a list of adjectives to describe this young man's life, but all of the stories shared by several speakers – including two high school athletic coaches, a chaplain, a fellow Lolo Hotshot, a longtime best friend, his fiancé, his aunt, mother and sister – revealed how deeply loved and appreciated he was, no matter where he went or who he met.
The U.S. Forest Service firefighter died around 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 13, after a dead tree fell on him as he was fighting the Strawberry Fire at Great Basin National Park, about 300 miles northeast of Las Vegas. He was a member of the Lolo Hotshots, based in Missoula, Montana.
While Beebe grew up in Windham County, a Terrier graduate of Bellows Falls Union High School, the last chapter of his life was spent as a Hotshot, what some refer to as the top of the top in the firefighter world. Beebe's assistant superintendent of the Lolo Hotshot, Shawn Faiella, recalled how impressed he was with Beebe when interviewing him for the job.
"He's pretty motivated, he's pretty peaceful and he's got a sparkle to him, a drive in this heart, and I'm picking up on this in just 45 minutes," said Faiella.
He continued the story of when he first met Beebe and noted when this applicant threw him off guard by presenting a gift, something straight from Beebe's "roots" – a can of Vermont maple syrup. The crowd laughed as Faiella told the story.
"He shakes my hand and says, 'I'm travelling the country, just me and my lady, and I really want to be a Hotshot, and I'm giving this little can of syrup to every person that takes the time to talk to me,'" Faiella reminisced.
The memorial attendees were brought to tears and laughter throughout Faiella's speech. He noted that the experience of losing someone like Beebe has not been easy, but little "signs" like a reappearing bumble bee, remind him of Beebe, something he feels is a way of Beebe reaching out to let everyone know it's going to be OK. Faiella also mentioned that when he arrived in Vermont he purchased a "Vermont Strong" license plate and contemplated its meaning one night as he was driving through Bellows Falls.
"I tried to just immerse myself, I'm like what does Vermont Strong mean? So I'm watching people, I'm driving through town and I go to breakfast this morning, and to me, I don't know if this is right or wrong, but I think it's the sense of community, that we're in this together, and that's a beautiful thing. I changed it to we're really 'Beebe strong.'" Faiella said, received a standing ovation after his honoring speech.
While many news articles and people have referenced Beebe for his work and love for being a Hotshot, others remembered him for his athletics, like Larry Slason, who was Beebe's high school soccer coach. Beebe was a two-time soccer captain and an All Marble Valley League and All State soccer player. Slason shared a memory of when Beebe scored a winning goal that landed in the top left corner of the net. But even though his athletic achievement wowed Slason and many others, Slason noticed something more remarkable about Beebe throughout his soccer career.
"More importantly than that winning goal, was Justin's message, 'don't hold back,'" said Slason. "That's the way Justin lived his life, Justin did not hold back on his dreams to become a member of the Hotshot firefighters."
Slason noted Beebe went out West in 2012 as a member of the New Hampshire forest fighting crew, and over the next four years, dedicated himself to "master the skills" needed to qualify as a Hotshot.
"Those three simple words (don't hold back), there's a profound message. If there's something you aspire to do, that's meaningful to your life, don't hold back, go for it. If there's a special person in your life, tell that person what they mean to you," said Slason. "This auditorium is filled today in honor of Justin and the way he lived his life. We honor Justin's courage, we honor his personal sacrifice and Justin represents all that is good and decent in our lives, we will never forget Justin Beebe."
Bob Lockerby, Beebe's high school baseball coach and a friend to his family, spoke in honor of Beebe as well. Lockerby noted Beebe had a learning disability but was an example of the success that can come about through hard work.
"You're in there setting the greatest example and thinking nothing of it, you're letting kids know you have trouble learning and it's not a big deal, all you got to do is try as hard as you can to be successful," said Lockerby, retelling something he had said to Beebe before a baseball practice in high school.
Lockerby, while charismatic, became choked up as he retold many of the memories he had of Beebe.
"We're talking about one of the most humble, team oriented, selfless, fully supportive of his teammates guy I've ever known," said Lockerby.
Further, Lockerby noted that over the years he had earned the reputation of yelling at everyone, but he said there was a reason Beebe was never yelled at.
"How am I going to yell at a guy who's minimum is 100 percent? And further more, how am I going to yell at him when by the time I say 'get your glove and get to the field,' all I can see is his back in centerfield, he's already there," said Lockerby.
After Lockerby spoke, Matt Tomberg got on stage and said to the audience, "I'm here to help you remember my friend." Tomberg retold many memories the two shared together in Westminster West at the family camp, some of the moments in which he referred to themselves as a couple of "nimrods." He retold some of the pranks they played on each other, the messes they made.
"I've heard countless times over the weeks that he died doing what he loved, and he did, no doubt about that, but have you guys ever seen this kid hit a rock to the driveway with a baseball bat for hours?" Tomberg asked.
He went on to say that Beebe was always there for his friends whether someone had lost a loved one, was grumpy about work or was just plain grumpy, or need physical help.
Those in the auditorium braced themselves as Beebe's fiancé, Jennifer Zaso, approached the stage and she maybe surprised some with what she said.
"So many people think I have it the hardest, and in some ways I'm sure that I do, but I can't help but feel the luckiest," said Zaso. "Justin and I have been on so many adventures, we've shared so many special moments, and together we planned our future that was everything from romantic and exciting to extremely silly."
Zaso said she has all the moments to cherish forever.
"My life will never be the same, but I will also never lose the pieces of me that became so much better because I had Justin in my life," said Zaso.
She further noted the things she learning from him: "always be ready for an adventure, get outside and connect with nature, try something new, be a good and genuine person, ask for help when you need it, know it's never too late to follow your big dreams and yes, unfortunately, life is way too short, don't wait to make yourself a better person, know that sometimes loving yourself is the most important thing you could do because you can only love and support others as much as you do yourself."
After Zaso spoke, Beebe's aunt, Mildred Barry, read an anonymous quote that she said Beebe's mother, Betsy Beebe, always put in a card for someone when they were mourning a loss.
"When somebody dies, a cloud turns into an angel, and flies up to tell God to put another flower on a pillow," the poem began.
Barry made it through the entire poem, wiping tears from her eyes, but did her best to smile at the beginning of the poem and at the end.
"And when they sing wind-songs, they whisper to us, don't miss me too much. The view is nice and I'm doing just fine," the last two lines of the poem read.
When Beebe's mother came to the stage, she first had the audience take two big deep breaths in and out. She noted her speech would be short as it has been a difficult time for her in her family.
"The thing that I wanted both my children to have, that I grew up with, was a loving community and that is the one thing that I've tried to teach my children, when you go out into this world, make it a better place," said Betsy, who received a standing ovation.
Beebe's sister, Jessica, then closed with a poem that she felt was fitting for her brother – "Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening" by Robert Frost.
The memorial closed with live peaceful music and a slideshow of photos of Beebe's life.
The LoLo Hotshots