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ON THE SCENE: Another death too soon

December 6, 2013
NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

The last time someone was killed was patrolman Richard Pelky, according to Horace Pratt, former chief of the Lake Placid Police Department.

"I think that was in 1954," he said.

"It has been a long time," said Dale Daby, a former member of the force. "This is out of character for our community. The last one they had in Saranac was eight or 10 years ago."

Article Photos

Ward Wilbur's high school yearbook photo

Ward Guy Wilber, of Lake Placid, died violently in Saranac Lake on Monday, Nov. 28. According to Franklin County Coroner Ron Keough, Wilber died of stab wounds. His death shocked the community of Lake Placid, especially many of the old families of which he was a part.

His memorial service was filled with people from families like Torrance, Wescott, Daby, Sears, Preston, Alford, Raymond, Nugent, Hare, Grady, Seney and Whitney, people connected by blood, marriage and school. Ward and my brother, Gerret, were classmates and good friends. We lived in a neighborhood that stretched from the Mill Hill traffic light out to the Wilmington Road. Of the kids in our neighborhood, at least five have died young: Matt Devlin, Mike Rand, Reg Benham, Georgie Winchell and now Ward.

"And there is probably more if we thought about it," said Ward's brother, Arti Torrance.

We were kids of the 1950s and '60s. The economy was tough then, far tougher than now, yet Placid was a great place to be a kid.

"Our parents didn't worry about us," said Bob Whitney. "Back then, everybody was very family-oriented and very close-knit. It was nothing to knock on the door of the house of the kids we grew up with and for them to say come on in and have dinner with us. You spent the whole day with them and you became best friends. It was like having an extra family. It has changed now. It is not a bad change, but it is different."

"Ward and I skied a lot. That was our big entertainment," said my brother, Gerret. "We were on the ski team. We did two days at Whiteface and three days cross-country skiing. Skiing meant a lot to Ward. It was something that he enjoyed doing and he was good at.

"We both were members of the chess club. We would draw the grid of a chessboard on a piece of paper and draw in the different pieces. Each time we made a move, we'd draw our piece in its new spot erasing where it had been, passing the paper back and forth between us while we were in class. The paper got pretty ragged towards the end of the chess game being erased so many times."

"Ward either likes you or he doesn't," said a friend. "Once he likes you and he cares about you, he never gives up on you. His last girlfriend, everybody gave up on her because she was such an alcoholic. He refused to give up on her. Ward dug deep and supported her to the bitter end. He is, he was, an amazing creative man that walked that edge all the time, falling into the world of creativity and being lost in thought. He was a poet. He was a photographer. He was a talented man."

Ward stood by people because his mother, his stepfather Loren, his brothers, sisters, and his friends never gave up on him. After his parents' divorce, Ward came to Lake Placid. His childhood in Rochester before moving here was very difficult. Here his mother and stepfather had a dairy located where the Sunoco service station now stands. His mother worked as a night operator at the Lake Placid Club, and his stepdad, when not working the dairy and delivering milk, was a leader in the Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department, a person who held nearly every position from driver to fire chief. He was a fireman's fireman, a mentor to people like Bob Whitney, Karen Fountain and so many others.

Among Ward's challenges was being an urban kid adjusting to small-town life. It made him a bit of a loner. At the same time, he had mentors like his stepfather who gave more than 40 years of evenings, weekends and, when the unexpected call came, watching out for others.

The initial challenge for so many young people when Ward was young was alcohol. Eighteen was the legal age for drinking. Far too many adult role models drank and partied hard, which included the many tourists and seasonal residents here on vacation to relax, often with a drink in hand.

"Our father said that people in Placid tend to be ahead of the curve because of the huge influence of urban tourists from Montreal and New York," said Gerret.

While we were all going through high school and shifting to college the wave of grass, hash, acid, peyote and other drugs hit with few guidelines or role models to help us through. Many talented people never reached their potential. Many were lost along the way. The lives of some can be described as collateral damage.

What all this has to do with Ward is not for me to speculate or say, but to notice that too many gifted young people who grew up then have died way too young. I can say Ward had a big heart, a kind heart. He was very smart and very talented. He liked an unstructured life, but of course, for most of us the ability to shift from one task to another and do a variety of things well was and remains a necessity of survival, as is helping others. Our village would not have survived as well as it has without the many who have dedicated years of their time to the fire departments, social service clubs or organizing so many sporting and cultural events.

Sometimes, though, a drowning person can pull down and drown the person who comes to rescue them, a challenge that lifeguards face all the time. A difficulty can be learning to care for oneself so one can be in a strong position to care for others. As people have said, Ward would not give up on people just as others never gave up on him, and just as his stepfather gave decades to the fire department. His vulnerability was his not being able to make his own health and wellness a priority. As airline flight attendants tell us, in case of an emergency, put the oxygen mask over your own head before seeking to help others.

"We can't keep the world out. It's here," said Karen Fountain. "We are lucky because people here really work at keeping that small town atmosphere, but there is only so much that we can do. We do not expect that kind of tragedy to happen to us here. We just don't. We try hard not to let it, but it can and did happen."

The tragedy here is one is dead, another is facing life in jail and many hearts are broken. The greater tragedy will be if we do not stop, talk to each other and seek to find a better collective way forward. My wish for Ward, and for others who have left us far too soon, is that we living seek to be more mindful of how our actions and words influence the young, we give more time and treasure to those agencies working hard to make this community safe for its children, we take time to listen and we ask for help when it is needed.



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