It is an honor for me to write about my brother Michael Willford. He was born on January 14, 1962, in Jackson, Wyoming. He passed away on April 27, 2019, in Jackson. This was a place he loved living his life and the only place in the world he would want to be when his life was over. To Colleen and I he was our little brother. To Connie, he was her big brother.
We grew up on the East side of Jackson where the Senior Center stands and where Wayne May's property is the only familiar spot from those days. As you walked down Nelson Drive, you would find one of Mike's best friends on the corner, Brad Byrne, and across the field behind our house, that we were all afraid to walk through because we’d be chased by the Beesley’s horses, lived Mike’s other best friend, Steve Beesley.
Mike was known for his long curly red hair, sparkling eyes and mischievous smile. Each passing day hanging out with Brad or Steve defined that mischievous grin. Brad remembers how he and Mike went to the building where the county stored their vehicles and hot-wired a front end loader. Two young boys plowed down the hill, through the corral at the side of our property, crashing through the fence and heading straight for our house. The boys knew how to start the loader but didn't know how to stop it. Our father jumped on in time and shut down their transportation before they crashed into the house. Brad told me that they got "chewed out really good." When Mike would remember this story, he just talked about how much fun it was.
It was probably as much fun as the time Brad and Mike, while visiting Brad’s grandfather Ed Lloyd on his ranch, decided to light the field on fire. Ed came out and asked the boys what they were doing. I can only imagine what their faces looked liked when they responded, “Nothing.” A short time later the fire department showed up. We have yet to hear the rest of the story.
We have a picture of Mike and Brad dressed as cowboys, standing next to our horse Lucky posing with their BB gun rifles and sneering at the camera. They could have headed down to the Town Square and join the shoot-out gang but, as Mike told it, he was scared to death of Clover the Killer who would growl at Mike when he walked past him. Clover would chuckle and Mike would run.
When Mike was nine years old, he walked into the Jackson Hole Playhouse and asked Jon "Dirty Jack" Stainbrook for a job. There was something about this tiny, big-eyed kid that made Jon hire him. It wasn't just because Mike was the only person small enough to crawl under the stage to pull wiring through as they prepared the theatre that would soon be Dirty Jack’s; he liked him and took this scrawny boy under his wing and made him feel important. They became life long friends.
Mike was soon promoted to an even greater responsibility: that of caretaker to Butch the Mule who appeared nightly in the show. Mike’s job was to feed him, comb him and walk him from the Stainbrook’s house on Broadway to the theatre. When the show was over, he repeated the process and walked him home.
I was reminded of something Mike shared about his first experiences at the theatre. He wrote: “The first time I saw Nancy Stainbrook was in 1971. I was 9 and just starting to like girls. I fell in love on the spot! Sadly, I spent most of my time with Butch the Mule.”
Mike eventually learned about lighting and sound and designed both for Dirty Jack’s. You could find him every night in the light booth. When the theatre took the show to Palm Springs one Fall, Mike, a freshman in high school, went as the official light and sound man.
It wasn’t easy growing up with 3 sisters but Mike had his own unique relationship with each of us. To Connie he was her exercise buddy. They would hold competitions to see who could run the fastest or do the most pushups. They kept track of their success in their exercise notebook. He cherished the songs Connie wrote and played them often throughout his life. He shared his love of Dirty Jack’s and humor with me. I watched him from our kitchen window once playing with a snake he found in the back yard. He held it up and grinned at me when he saw me watching. A few minutes later I heard the door open and turned just as Mike tossed the snake toward me. I screamed while he laughed at the long black bicycle inner tube that landed on the kitchen floor. He was Colleen’s ski partner taking many trips down Snow King and sharing with her his love for the sport.
Mike had a tender heart and had a tremendous amount of affection for those who influenced his life. Each Memorial weekend he would go to Aspen Cemetery and clean off the grave of his brother Kurt who died in infancy. Mike had a special connection with his baby brother. He also had great affection for many who passed before him. He would clean Kurt’s grave then head over to Jim Coonce’s family plot and make sure their graves were tidy. Jim Coonce was Mike’s favorite teacher. I hope Jim knew of the great affection Mike had for him. He would move on to the Stainbrook graves and then to his dear friend, Kevin Larson. Mike would spend days cleaning up the burial sites of many old-timers who no longer had family in the valley. He took great pride in calling and filling me in on those he “visited” that day.
His tender heart also drew him to animals. Cats, who were homeless and without love would gravitate to him. He once wrote, ”There is a lot to be said about love. Four legs and a tail can bring so much love. If you find you are seeking a friend that you can’t find, then reach out to a critter with four legs and a smile. There is a lot to be said about love.” He was the proud friend of many cats over the years. He loved them and from them received unconditional love.
Mike wrote: "On September 21, 2009, I lost my best friend, Mr. Kramer. He lived a good but hard life for a cat. With only one eye and no teeth he was always happy and had nice things to live for. He was very thoughtful for a male cat because when I was sad, he would rub my leg until I smiled.”
In 2003, Mike married Ruth Corcoran in Gillette. They moved to Victor and when the marriage ended Mike returned to Jackson working for Jackson Lumber. Our family would like to express our gratitude to Blake and Dennis for giving him the opportunity to work.
Life was not easy for Mike. He lost his way these past years struggling with addictions. He didn’t want to rely on others. He was a tough Wyoming man who gave his word and did everything in his power to fulfill it. He was determined to find his way through his struggles. He was a good man. He was an honest, hardworking man and would gladly help anyone in need.
Mike is survived by his mother, Dory Lindstrom; his father Larry Willford and step-mother Peggy Willford. His sisters, Colleen (Jerry) Hillman, Rhonda (Carl) Eberst, Connie (Dan) Moyer. Several nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles, loads of cousins, Ruth Corcoran and his four-legged loves, Klaira, Kassy and Klawdia.
He was proceeded in death by his brother Kurt, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, dear friends including Butch the mule and his beloved one-eyed cat, Mr. Kramer.
Mike Willford was smarter than he thought. He was braver than he thought. Mike mattered to this world more than he knew. He was clever and kind. He was a tremendous writer and photographer because he wrote and photographed from his heart. He was fun and funny. He was a good man.
Shortly before Mike passed away, I tried to reach him. He wasn't very good about answering his phone or sending timely texts. In the past, if I didn't hear from him after a week or so, he would send a reassuring message: "I'm still alive."
This last time, I texted and called every day figuring he would grow tired of me and eventually answer the phone. I sent a text reminiscent of what he would send me: "Please tell me you are still alive." Word came shortly after my message that he had passed away. I read the final text I sent him over and over and find comfort in knowing that he is alive. He is more alive and at peace than he has been in for a very long time.
On June 8, 2019 from 11-2, at Valley Mortuary, our family will welcome friends to remember Mike. A private family burial will follow at Aspen Cemetery where Mike will be laid to rest with his brother Kurt. He will be surrounded by all of the people he watched over on Memorial Day.
Mike’s own word sum up how he felt about the valley, the experiences he had and the friends he loved. “Every now and then I find myself in a place called Rolling Waters. It’s a special place where few have ever traveled. I know, because I was a part of creating this place. It was a place where friendship would live forever. A place where we could land after the hardships we found in our lives. It was a place full of sound and wonder. A place to simply understand the true meaning of friendship; a place to help each other learn why we felt the way we did. My memories will always be a part of my being. Ripples over the little rocks formed our friendship and have released my tears.”
We love you, Mike.