It was a day of teary laughter in Durango, as residents and visitors alike mourned and honored native son Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss.
Blue and yellow ribbons hung from posts, trees and awnings along Main Avenue on Saturday as the town gathered to honor the Blue Angels pilot who died when his plane crashed June 2 during a practice for an air show in Tennessee.
People of all ages held flags of all sizes, and flags on public buildings were lowered to half-staff in honor of Kuss.
The motorcade, which included more than 40 vehicles and was escorted by law enforcement from five agencies, began about 11 a.m. and took Kuss’ remains to Greenmount Cemetery for a private service. It was capped by a rifle volley and a flyover by Navy and Marine fleet aviators that Kuss served with before he joined the Blue Angels flight demonstration team in September 2014.
“This is part of the history of our community, and I wanted to be part of it,” Roberta Eichman said. “And I think there’s room for more recognition of honor and valor in our country.”
Community also mattered to Tom Gray, who has known both the Kuss and Stransky families for years. Kuss’ mother, Janet, is a Stransky.
“They’re supporting one of their own,” he said, “and they’re asking the community to acknowledge it, which I think is important. I don’t think you see that quite as much, and it kinda hits home.”
A Durango native, Kuss, 32, graduated from Durango High School in 2002 and Fort Lewis College in 2006. Christina Ferrarese Kuss, his wife and also a Durango native and FLC graduate, waved to onlookers as the motorcade drove through town.
“I just completely feel for them,” said Kathy Mousner, who knows the Kuss family. “No one deserves it, of course, but these families are just wonderful.”
Mousner’s son and daughter-in-law are both serving in the Air Force, so Kuss’ death felt close to home for her, she said.
Several thousand residents lined the motorcade route, from 32nd Street down Main Avenue to College Drive and then along Camino del Rio to the Ninth Street bridge, to laud Kuss and his family.
“He was a pilot before he could drive,” said Eric Hassel, who attended DHS with Kuss. “We all wanted to be pilots, but he actually did it. We have a friend in Salt Lake City who said Jeff lived the life that everybody dreamed about.”
It wasn’t only locals who turned out. Lawrence Mount from Amarillo, Texas, paid homage to the Blue Angels because his father is a Navy pilot. Debbie Goltz from Brea, California, had dressed in red, white and blue and made a sign for Kuss.
“I’m here visiting my brother,” she said, “and I told him, ‘Let’s do some honors.’”
Many headed to The Rim at Fort Lewis College to watch the flyby, which included the Missing Man formation, in which one jet pulled away from the others to show that the brotherhood of pilots has lost one of its own.
Durango’s public safety officials either escorted the motorcade or joined the community along the route to remember Kuss.
“I think the thing that stands out in my mind is what a shame it is that we don’t take the occasion to honor the heroes of this town before we have a tragedy,” said Hal Doughty, chief of the Durango Fire Protection District. “But on the other side of that, I’m pretty proud of our community and the people that came out to show respect.”
Mahlon Wigton, one of Kuss’ best friends from childhood, drove in the procession.
“We started, and I was thinking it was just going to be a motorcade,” Wigton said. “I had no idea it was going to turn into a parade and what felt like the whole town was there. It’s a real Durango son that’s gone, and you can see it in the community. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
In the afternoon, it was a constant parade of well-wishers and longtime friends at a reception at Fort Lewis College, as several hundred people came to offer the family their condolences in person. Most of the members of the military in town stopped by the reception before heading to Steamworks Brewing Co., which was closed for the afternoon and evening for their private gathering.
None of the military officers contacted wanted to be quoted, but one said, “I’m here because Jeff would be here.”
Kuss’ parents greeted their friends, his friends, their daughter-in-law’s friends and members of the community who wanted to honor their son and recognize the family’s loss.
“All these hugs are filling up some of the empty places in my heart,” Kuss’ father, Michael, said, joking, “I’m going to wear out my new shirt.”
The family had asked that friends donate to the Jeff Kuss Memorial Scholarship created at FLC or the GoFundMe site raising money for Kuss’ wife and two children, Calvin, 4, and Sloane, 1, if they want to give something. But many still felt the need to bring flowers, which generally had a theme of red, white and blue, or yellow and blue – the colors of both the Blue Angels and FLC.
And then it was time for the memories, which were flowing as people gathered.
Wigton recalled when their two families climbed all of Colorado’s Fourteeners as they were growing up. As they headed up Little Bear in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the ground began to tremble.
“All of a sudden, you feel like there’s an earthquake happening,” he said. “You’ve got one hand and one foot in front of the other, and you’re like, ‘Is the mountain falling apart here?’”
The trembling was caused by two jets buzzing the mountains in the valley 2,000 to 3,000 feet below the two boys, who were in their early teenage years at the time.
“I knew he was already in love with flying,” Wigton said. “It’s been this thing he had talked about, and you could just see when those jets were going by. I mean, his eyes, his everything, his whole energy was just focused on that, and he was like, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’”
Another childhood friend, Tyler Glynn, remembered being the new kid in town.
“I met Jeff when I moved from New York in 1995,” Glynn said. “We were in sixth grade. I didn’t have a desk assigned yet, so I had to sit next to Jeff. He was stand-up. He was charismatic, goofy and genuine.”
Nancy and Bob Conrad remembered Kuss as a soccer player who grew up with their son, Kyle Fredrick. Just as Janet Kuss said earlier in the week, Nancy Conrad said she’d remember him for his personality.
“He was always the sweetest, most caring kid, and he was really fun, too,” she said. “He was always taking care of his little brother, Eric. I remember him blowing up a ducky in the living room, and our dog, Mud, swimming after him in the (Animas) River. He was so concerned about the dog.”
For Bob Conrad, it was a moment in time when Fredrick and Kuss were 14 and staying with him in Denver for a soccer game.
“I can see it now,” he said. “I was holding the gate in my backyard open, and I asked Jeff what he wanted to be. He said, ‘I’m going to fly.’”
Dene Thomas, president of FLC, talked about the scholarship to the college in his name, which has received several donations. It will be used to help veterans working toward a degree.
“We are honored to join with the family in this commemoration of Jeff,” she said. “And we’re all grieving because we are all family.”
Herald staff writers Jessica Pace and Luke Perkins contributed to this story. This article has been updated to correct information about the rifle volley. It was incorrectly called a 21-gun salute in an earlier version.