In the end, Dan Thomasma was exactly where he wanted to be.
In fact, there was no place he’d rather be than in the cradle between the rugged granite Teton peaks and smooth buttes of the Gros Ventre Mountains that frame the Snake River valley. Here, all that he loved converged as he carved out a life that was defined by music and friends, students and family, wild lands and wonder. A place where he set the tone and pace for a still wilder, uninhibited love for community.
Thomasma died Jan. 13 at age 66 after a battle with an aggressive cancer.
Even in death, those closest to him said that his spirit keeps his passionate tempo of joy.
“Everywhere I turn, I see Dan and his impact,” said Lisa Lowenfels, a colleague and educator at the Kelly School, from which Thomasma retired after more than 35 years of not just teaching, but modeling a life well lived. “Whether it was with his music or the kids, I’m always just thinking of him and how he brought everything to Kelly that people remember. He brought so much life and joy. It will be important to make sure that we remember to bring that joy and passion into not just our teaching, but into our lives.”
Thomasma carried the mantle of his parents, Bobbi and Ken Thomasma, as a teacher whose love of life and sense of place created a magical, mythical experience at the tiny public elementary school. And it was with his own talent and time that his songs would become the community’s own songs of home in the highlands, putting to words what is often difficult to articulate.
“And the Tetons, they say, seem a stone’s throw away/You know this land fits me like a glove,” he sings in the famed “Teton Waltz” on the album “We Proceeded On.” “And the song in the wind brings me back home again to my friends and the ones that I love.”
Fellow musician Terry Yazzolino first met Thomasma through fundraising efforts to build what is today’s Teton County Library. The two were a natural fit — both public school teachers and history buffs. They started playing gigs around town, writing some of Jackson’s most iconic ballads together, and would go on to create three albums: “We Proceeded On,” “Trails Plowed Under” and “Good Medicine.”
“We were shaped by the vastness while we were there,” said Yazzolino, who now lives in California. “One thing Dan and I shared was a great love and desire to honor the landscape of the Rockies. He had a deep connection to the land, and that was what we were trying to get across in our music.”
Thomasma’s students remember other classics that may have never made the Top 10 at The Wort, but at the Kelly School, they became the soundtracks of their childhood.
Brooke Siegler spent two years, fourth and fifth grades, in Mr. Dan’s class at the Kelly School. She said she still sings the “Gros Ventre Slide/Kelly Flood” song when she and her own children head to the hills to camp on the east side of the valley.
“Mr. Dan was definitely one of my favorite teachers and someone who left a big mark on my life,” said Siegler, one of three Rice sisters who attended the Kelly School and who fondly remembers Thomasma’s care and love for students.
“He made that place one of the coolest elementary schools in the world,” Siegler said.
She remembered Thomasma as a basketball referee and coach during the school’s “March Madness” tournaments, hockey games and Little League championships. Siegler’s older sister, Nicole Davis, agreed.
“He had one of the biggest impacts on me as a child,” Davis said. “He was one of the best teachers, one of the best humans. He taught us to be imaginative and playful.”
Davis said she strives to bring that kind of joy and playfulness as a mother of two young children.
Long-time friend and fellow Hootenanny musician Hank Phibbs said Thomasma’s music was an extension of who he was in the community.
“He reached across so many platforms and touched so many people in the community,” Phibbs said. “His devotion and hard work made this community richer. Dan was an integral part of the fabric of Jackson. With his loss there is a jagged hole where music and passion and kindness had lived. His kindness, compassion and support had no bounds and no price. He gave them freely and asked nothing in return.”
Phibbs said Thomasma quietly gave to the Jackson Hole Cupboard food pantry and every Saturday would rise at the crack of dawn to set the stage for the Jackson Hole Farmers Market. It was there that Jim Darwiche would maintain his 35-year friendship with Thomasma as they created what is now a central community celebration.
“I remember this young man, this teacher sitting behind his big computer in the Kelly School, and he was putting music programs on the computer. I was very impressed to see this young man with this talent at this time,” Darwiche said of the first time he met his children’s teacher. “He really loved this place, Kelly, and he loved the kids. He got it from his parents, his love of teaching. But his love also went beyond teaching.”
As Darwiche founded the market, he said, Thomasma brought heart and a sense of levity in a town where contention can often occur, even among the fruits and vegetables.
“He was fun and open,” Darwiche said of Thomasma’s leadership. “He was fearless — fearless in his decisions, and we found success.”
Thomasma played a little more than 150 “Hoots” at the Jackson Hole Hootenanny, climbed countless Teton peaks and didn’t like spicy food, said his son, Oliver, whose favorite song, as for many others, is “Teton Waltz.”
“Because that song reminds me of home,” he said.
Thomasma was inspired by the likes of John Fogerty, Carole King and James Taylor. And when he lost his battle with cancer, he took his last breaths with his dog Max by his side, his family next to him and music playing to the beat of a heart who helped write the soundtrack to the Tetons.
“If you look to the west as the sun slowly sets, you can still catch a glimpse of that time,” Thomasma sings in the Teton Waltz. “And the new friends we met will be old friends I bet, ’cause our lives have become intertwined.”
Read the obituary provided by his family on page 17B.