September 26, 2003
If ever Billy Tatro threw a party, it was the one Thursday afternoon at the Riverwalk Center.
Almost 500 people showed up to celebrate Tatro's life. The Breckenridge man died Saturday after a 15-year battle with multiple sclerosis.
Tatro was an Eagle Scout, Navy helicopter pilot, fraternity brother, business owner, hunter, scuba diver, skier, father, husband and socialite - all in 56 years of life.
Born in Providence, R.I., Tatro attended college, served in the Navy and fell in love with skiing in Summit County 33 years ago. Family members, however, have more detailed memories that they shared at a ceremony at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge on Thursday.
His brother, Jeff, compared Tatro's personality - strong, determined, courageous, energetic and astute - to that of Meriwether Lewis, who explored the western United States.
His sister, Meredith - "the middle child, stuck between the maniac and the brainiac" - remembers being his personal slave, his guinea pig and his scapegoat.
The two related tales of their brother spending the night in the woods, accidentally squashing in a car door a turtle they'd found on vacation, making a mess of the kitchen while making blueberry pie, "teaching" Meredith how to drive a manual transmission.
"We went around the block," she said. "He said, "This is first, this is second, third, fourth - see you on Monday!' This was in Providence, a city of hills."
Jeff told tales of places only children know - The Lot, Pig's Hill - where snapping turtles live, fireworks are shot and baseball and hockey games beg to be played. Tatro's Boy Scout skills came in handy when he and his Navy cohorts were deposited in a swamp on a practice survival mission. His friends chose to starve for three days as Tatro "merrily found bugs and frogs and snakes to make into a tasty stew," Jeff said.
Friends and family related stories about Tatro showing co-Navy pilot students how to avoid inspections without getting caught. They talked about his hunting prowess, his scuba-diving treks, his archery skills and his disdain for authority.
Eric Franzen related a tale about his and Tatro's adventure to Europe, where they believed they could see the continent by moped - and how they were stranded by a flat tire in the Black Forest, but rescued by a group of partying locals.
Arguably the most prophetic story was one Jeff told of a family vacation, when Tatro's parents had been warning Bill about his grades as they drove by a group of garbage men. Jeff told his brother that if he didn't start doing better in school, he'd end up as a garbage man later in life.
As fate would have it, Tatro founded Snowbridge, a septic-system pumping, pipe-thawing, ice-melting, Dumpster company his wife, Cheryl, helped him build.
Breckenridge local Russ Paul Rahn related the stories of the "Rhode Island Cowboy," who could find septic tank lids by dowsing, using two metal rods to find the source of water.
Others related tales of tree-cutting, his jobs at the Bergenhof Restaurant, the numerous times Tatro would sit outside a house in a remote part of town, a pit fire at his feet, working on a frozen pipe.
Tatro was a tinkerer, many said, taking things apart to figure out how they fit back together. Such was the case when he brought friends to his home on Peak 7 - a house that had been vacant for months and that was frozen solid. On the way home from the airport in Denver, he purchased the parts he needed to do the repairs, and spent the whole weekend in the crawl space "using a lot of adult words," Jeff said.
Tatro's enthusiasm for life didn't end when his doctor diagnosed him with multiple sclerosis in 1988.
"If you didn't get a lesson from Billy School, you couldn't miss it once MS came to town," Jeff said. "He bought new skis and boots; said it wasn't going to get him down. He went scuba diving in Micronesia, took his boys on a wilderness horseback trip when he couldn't even stay on the horse. You can't begrudge MS because he didn't. It was just another challenge to be defied, to thumb his nose at."
Tatro told many that he never regretted a moment of his life.
"His message was to grab every minute and squeeze it tight," Jeff said.
"There are ... more tomorrows, but sooner or later, you run out of them.
Do the outrageous as often as possible, don't let "I can't' pollute your
mind. And keep laughing all the way."
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