The 2018 fire season has already claimed 68 firefighters’ lives as of Sept. 10, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Sixteen years ago, alumnus Craig LaBare, ’84, was among the firefighters killed in the 15,000-acre Cannon fire in Walker, California; while dropping the flame retardant, his crew’s C-130A air tanker crashed due to the model’s faulty wing structure. LaBare was 36.

Kelley Taber, ’84, who spoke at LaBare’s funeral, reflects on his life.

Q: Where did Craig go for college?

A: He went to (the University of California), Berkeley, but he didn’t finish there. He left – partly because he was a bit of an iconoclast and wasn’t concerned with traditional notions of success. When he got to Berkeley, he realized he had an adventurous spirit.

Q: Where did he go after he left?

A: After Cal he went to Kirkland, (California), and he became a firefighter in the summer. Then he ended up moving to Hawaii and took a job as a high-rise window cleaner.

He was in Honolulu cleaning lavish high-rises, and it was so expensive to live in the city that he lived in a cave outside the hills of Honolulu.

He’d clean windows and save the money to train as a pilot. While he was doing that, he flew a volunteer mail run to a leper colony in Saipan (the most populated of the Northern Mariana Islands). Eventually, he got more advanced and became an aerial firefighter and a co-pilot of C-130A.

Q: That’s the plane in which he eventually died, correct?

A: Yes, unfortunately. And he had just gotten married, bought a house – he was just embarking on a new era of his life.

But he died doing something that he loved doing; he lived life on his own terms.

In the end he ended up putting his skills toward something very important for everyone and for the state – an incredible public service.

Q: What was he like while at Country Day?

A: One thing that stood out was that he knew a lot more than just books. He came as a junior from Mira Loma (High School), so he was here for only two years.

But in that timespan, he exposed his world to the sheltered kids at Country Day. He had fun, practical skills that shook things up here.

Q: Can you give an example of when he “shook things up”?

A: It was traditional for seniors to make a movie. Our year, he hotwired the school bus so we could all film ourselves in it.

Craig knew how to hotwire, so we all met on Sunday afternoon, and then we all pushed to get the bus going.

Also, for our senior prank we wanted to relocate (former English teacher Francie) Tidey’s senior English class to the roof above the classroom, and he found a way to engineer it so that the chairs and desks were flipped and on the roof but still flexible and functional.

Q: Wow, that’s quite a prank. Outside of the clever antics, what type of man was Craig?

A: He was incredibly smart. He had an incredible sense of humor and a know-how of how to get things done.

He knew how to repair his own car and other things we didn’t. He knew and absorbed all the stuff that we knew, except he knew more – electrical work, carpentry, real-world skills.

Frankly, he was a breath of fresh air – someone who didn’t fit the mold of preppy kids. He had a “joie de vivre.” For instance, he was interested in heavy metal and other non-Country Day interests at the time.

We were both in (former history teacher) Daniel Neukom’s first AP European History class, and Craig knew more than just the Enlightenment. He wasn’t obsessed about a grade, but  he had high SAT and AP tests. He got a 5 on the AP test.

Q: What was it like to have him in AP Euro?

A: He was hilarious. In (Neukom’s) AP Euro class, we had to earn culture points – do something “cultural” and then write about it. Some people would go to a classical music concert and then write about their experience.

One day he got offended and said, “Oh, (this student) was already going to go see one regardless. If I can’t go get points to see Metallica or see Scorpions in concert, that’s not fair!”

So Neukom made a deal with him: He and I would go to a Scorpions concert and write about the experience.

That was my one and only Scorpions concert.

Q: What can we learn through him?

A: First, we need to keep his memory alive at Country Day.

There’s nobody like him there anymore and seems unlikely there will be anyone like him there again.

I wish (Country Day) were the kind of place where people like Craig could come and make a difference, where kids weren’t uptight about their grades but instead happy to learn, where students had non-academic interests and skills that were actually useful.

That’s the great thing about Craig: He didn’t care about the grades, but I know he got more out of classes than people like me. He was in it for learning’s sake, intellectually curious, not just checking a box but actually learning.

I was very focused on getting the grade and memorizing things, but the people who didn’t give a crap about the grades but who applied the information and kept it and used it thoughtfully – those people, like Craig, got more out of classes.

Q: How can we actively remember Craig’s carpe diem mentality?

A: Who you are when you’re 16 or 17 is not who you will be when you’re 30. He was not anyone who let any definitions of success define him; he, in fact, defied the traditional notions of SCDS success. He didn’t bow down to society’s ideals.

Life can be short – for him it was, incredibly so.

Follow your dreams and ignore the pressures that the school, society and your parents put on you.

—By Chardonnay Needler

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