For five days, the coverage of the death of Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss, a member of the Blue Angels has focused on his life as a pilot. But for La Plata County residents, the Durango native was the kid they watched grow up in a deeply rooted local family.
“We want the world to know who he was. He was way more than a pilot,” his mother, Janet Kuss, said from Pensacola, Florida, in a phone interview Tuesday. “He was humble, humorous and handsome. He made everyone feel like he was their best friend. We learned so much from him.”
Jeff Kuss died Thursday when his plane crashed shortly after takeoff for a Blue Angels practice session for an airshow in Tennessee.
His personality and commitment are what his family will most remember.
“He was such a positive guy, the positive kid who worked hard,” Janet Kuss said. “It didn’t come easy, he worked hard for all his goals, and he took it very, very seriously.”
In addition to his mother, wife, Christina, and children Calvin, 4, and Sloane, 1, Jeff Kuss’ father, Michael Kuss, and brother, Eric Kuss, are in Pensacola. When they bring Jeff Kuss’ body back to Durango on Friday, it will truly be a return home.
“We were a Sunnyside family,” Janet Kuss said. “He had the best teachers and support group at Sunnyside Elementary School.”
Everything started, she said, when her son attended Sunnyside Farms Preschool.
“Ginny Benton didn’t just start his love of flying and jets, she was an important character builder, taught him manners, really groomed him to be what he grew into,” Janet Kuss said.
His mother doesn’t have many memories of Jeff Kuss’ time at Escalante Middle School – those are years parents just try to get through, she said.
“But he played the violin through middle school and high school,” she said. “And at the time of his death, he had become quite an accomplished guitar player. One of his favorite things was playing to his kids in the evening.”
While Jeff Kuss’ involvement with the Durango High School tennis team has been recounted, his most beloved sport was soccer, Janet Kuss said, and Jeff Kuss played on the DHS varsity soccer team.
“He started when the kids were young,” Janet Kuss said, “and at first I was his coach, and then Michael was his coach.”
One of the family’s favorite memories is climbing all 54 of Colorado’s Fourteeners with the Kent and Becky Wigton family over a period of many summers. They finished when Jeff Kuss was a student at Fort Lewis College.
“That was a big deal,” Janet Kuss said. “Everyone has to pull their weight, learn how to set camp, climb and be safe. There’s a lot of camaraderie.”
Jeff Kuss graduated from Durango High School in 2002 and from Fort Lewis College in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in economics.
His wife, Christina Ferrarese, who also grew up in Durango, also graduated from DHS in 2002 and earned a bachelor’s degree from FLC. The couple married circa 2009, Janet Kuss said.
Jeff Kuss talked about his philosophy of life in an interview with a Durango Herald reporter at the end of January as he prepared to fly over the Super Bowl.
“We’re excited to represent the men and women in our military and just show people a brief glimpse of the discipline and the focus we have in our formation and our flight demonstration and hopefully pique some interest in the crowd about serving our country either in the military or just public service of some sort,” he said. “Our goal is just to inspire and have kids and youth strive for excellence and just try to be good people. So if you want to go out and be a doctor or plumber or lawyer or a fighter pilot – whatever you want to do – you just go out and work your hardest and be a good person and make those around you better.”
His Durango roots always mattered to him.
“It’s an honor for me coming from Durango,” Jeff Kuss said in January, “and now being here and looking back and saying, ‘Gosh, if I were 7-year-old me and looking at what I was able to do, it would be pretty cool.’ I’m pretty proud to be from Durango.”
In PensacolaBefore Jeff Kuss comes home, his adopted home of Pensacola, where the Blue Angels are stationed, will mourn him. After a full military memorial service in the morning, a public candlelight vigil will be held from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Veterans Park in Pensacola on Thursday.
His family’s time in Pensacola has been overwhelming, Janet Kuss said.
“The whole town of Pensacola has been unbelievably kind to us,” Janet Kuss said, “but every turn here reminds you of him.”
On Tuesday, the Blue Angels announced cancellations at two more air shows, one in Syracuse, New York, and another in Ohio, in addition to last weekend’s scheduled event in Smyrna, Tennessee, where the crash occurred.
Jeff Kuss’ commanding officer released a statement:
“Jeff absolutely loved our Sunday evening arrivals,” Cmdr. Ryan J. Bernacchi said. “Flying in over downtown, ‘smokin’ the beach’ from Pensacola to Perdido (Key), and then the hitting the Delta Pitch Up Break at sunset into Naval Air Station Pensacola. The smile I would see radiating from under that gold visor was truly spectacular. It emanated the pride, passion and pure joy that he felt representing the Navy and Marine Corps, flying Blue Angel 6 ... As Jeff’s family and the Blue Angels have navigated this immensely difficult time, a constant gift has been the unwavering support from our hometown of Pensacola and from all across this great nation. This great city, and also this great nation, have lost a Blue Angel. We are all grieving this tremendous loss and inspired by the life he lived so incredibly well.”