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  • Jill Lawson

Ode to Billy Joe

I wrote this for my dear dad, a one-of-a-kind human, who passed away last year. I offer much gratitude to the Four Corners Free Press for publishing his story.




They say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to mourn the loss of a community member. Billy Joe Moffat, photographer and ten-year veteran DJ at KSJD as the voice of Choctaw Ridge, passed away in December of 2018. As a long-time resident of Paradise Hot Springs, Billy’s death rattled the West Fork. “This valley will never be the same,” said a neighbor on Dolores County Road 38.


Billy’s interest in music stretched back to his teenage years. While learning to play the tenor saxophone, he developed an affinity for jazz. After graduating from high school, he auditioned for the US Army Band. Playing music and traveling opened his eyes to the deeper nuances of jazz music. To hear more about his Army days, visit KSJD.org. Listen to his entertaining story labeled Billy Moffat-Montezuma Mixed Tapes, parts one and two.


Upon completion of his Army duties, he continued to play tenor sax in various jazz clubs around Chicago. He played in a mixed-race band, and because of segregation, his band was only allowed to play in the African-American clubs. While frequenting the otherwise forbidden corners of the city, he met many jazz greats and amassed quite a collection of records. 


At his disapproving father’s insistence, Billy set the saxophone down and pounded the pavement to find a real job. He was hired as a janitor and errand boy at a bond trading firm in the heart of the financial district.


He soon realized there must be more to life than delivering lunches and dry-cleaned suits.


One day Billy asked a broker if he could share what his day to day job was like. The broker gave him a study guide for the bond trader’s exam. Billy was granted an opportunity to take the test. He scored higher than anyone else in the company’s history; without a college education or formal training on the subject. The firm's errand boy soon became a bond trader. Six years later he was transferred to a partner company in New York City and given the title of senior vice president.


Billy is in the back row, far right

Many have heard him say, “Life doesn’t have to be bad in order for it to get better.” It certainly was that way for him. One day he got a call from a colleague asking if he wanted to buy an old ghost town in southwest Colorado.


“Sure” he said. “Why not?” He wrote a check and became part-owner of Dunton Hot Springs, sight unseen.


Crossing the bridge into Dunton for the first time changed his perspective. Horses, outhouses, and hot springs seduced him into thinking there now must be more to life than making money. Each passing summer spent in Dunton fueled Billy’s yearning to break free from the life he had in New York.


Dunton, Colorado circa 1975

During one fortuitous visit, Billy met Roy Shepard. Roy divided his time between Paradise Hot Springs, and the town of McPhee. Roy was not initially interested in selling his ranch. But, because life doesn’t have to be bad in order for it to get better, Billy was the only person Roy considered selling to.


Unexpectedly, Roy’s health began to fail. After a brief phone call, he and Billy made the deal. In the summer of 1979, Billy became the new owner of Paradise Hot Springs. Soon after, at the age of 45, Billy retired from his firm in New York. He made one last trade; he traded money for time.


Billy and Roy

Just as quickly as his former career escalated, he acclimated to a new life on the West Fork.


He once said, “The art of adaptation is born out of the force of humility and its reward is abundance. That which replaces what was given up quite often is accompanied by something of a much greater value.”


He never regretted his decision to leave his successful livelihood. “There is more value to be found in the things money can’t buy.”


People from his high-society life in New York didn’t understand why he moved to a rickety log cabin without running water. They all thought he gave up. His comment to them? “I didn’t drop out. I dropped in.”


Paradise

Billy’s was engaged in his community, serving one term as County Commissioner for Dolores County. And, prior to his involvement with KSJD, he shared his expertise in business and music with KOTO radio in Telluride. For years, listeners enjoyed his weekly "Best in Jazz" show and his stints emceeing at the Telluride Jazz Festival.


In addition to his radio and political roles, he developed a talent for photography. From his Facebook feeds to the walls of celebrities, his photographs have circled the globe.


For nearly 40 years, he chopped wood and carried water. While some would find his lifestyle troublesome, Billy understood the tradeoff. Daily life, void of plumbing or a heater, brought him simple pleasures. "I always let joy find me" he'd say.


When Billy found out he had terminal cancer, it wasn’t long before people gathered be with him. He had all the support one could ask for in the months leading up to his death. While his absence leaves a hole in the community, Billy has filled in the missing pieces of many a heart here at home.


It does take a village to mourn a community member, as Billy’s timeless advice, classic aphorisms, and shared love of music and art will be remembered by all, for many years to come.


"See ya when I see ya" Billy Joe Moffat 1937-2018

 

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