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A Life: Doug Chase was ‘astonishingly humble and egoless’

  • Doug Chase with his three sisters Pam, Becky and Jen in a 2007 photograph. (Family photograph)

  • Doug Chase plays guitar at his cabin in Bethel, Vt., in an undated photograph. (Family photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/17/2019 9:59:54 PM
Modified: 11/17/2019 9:59:52 PM

SOUTH ROYALTON — Not long after a mutual friend died in 2018, Doug Chase wound up talking about mortality with Bow Thayer.

“Somehow the subject came up of ‘How would you want to be sent off?’ ” Thayer, a roots musician living in Stockbridge, Vt., recalled recently. “Doug liked the idea of one of those Viking funerals. Something like, ‘I want to be put in a boat full of hay in (Barnard’s) Silver Lake and have somebody shoot a flaming arrow into it, burn it to the waterline.’

“It was classic Doug. No way it would be allowed, but he loved the idea of defying the authorities in death, after he’s gone: ‘Nothing normal, please.’ ”

While Chase’s family resisted granting his fiery wish, after the artisan died of a heart attack on June 21, they did throw a party in the gymnasium of White River Valley High School in South Royalton nine days later. Some 200 people came to celebrate how much he fit into his 54 years — especially the last 21 in the White River Valley.

“When we would come up here in the summer to stay at my parents’ place, he used to swim in the river after farm chores, especially Parker’s Hole in Gaysville,” said Chase’s father Stuart, who retired to the family home in Bethel in 2007. “And after he settled here, he’d still be the one, at 50 years old, diving from the top of the cliff.”

Those summer visits of his childhood and adolescence, as well as winter school vacations full of skiing, stuck with Doug Chase while he wandered during his 20s, much of that time on the West Coast.

“He got the Vermont blood in him,” Stuart Chase said. “When he finished college, even though he took a lot of detours, this was where he was heading.”

Arriving in the late 1990s with his wife and the first of their two sons, “we lived in a cabin on the family property in Bethel,” Peg Chase said recently. The first year or so, while Peg stayed home with Ciaran and then Caleb, Doug worked for his cousin’s landscaping business before deciding to switch roles with his wife.

“The sadness he felt from being away from them all day was so deep that we realized he should be staying at home with them,” Peg Chase said. “From then on, their daily life was an adventure. Whether they were chopping wood or fixing the house, discussing supernovas or doing experiments, they did it together and they had fun. When we finally settled at the home we have been in for 13 winters — that’s how Doug defined the circle around the sun in Vermont — he would end as many days as possible on sled runs down our driveway.”

After moving from the Bethel cabin into South Royalton village, Chase wasted little time winning friends and influencing people between outings with the boys.

“He was larger than life, or totally within his life, but astonishingly humble and egoless,” Bethel resident Victoria Weber said. “And so kind. He gave people the gift of his time and attention. We loved it whenever he stopped to visit with (Weber and husband Davis Dimock), as there was always a deep positivity about him. We always felt better after a visit from Doug.”

So did neighbor Frank Lamson when the family lived in the village.

The stay-at-home dad, Lamson recalls, had “a nurturing nature” and an avid “interest in the discussion of philosophy, poetry, human relations. He was always willing to forward his opinion, but always ended his sentences with ‘and what do you think?’ ”

Many of the discussions, Lamson added, unfurled in the garage where Doug kept “a vast assortment of tools, welders, wood and metal lathes, parts of odd mechanical devices, and a unique looking bicycle propelled by pushing pedals up and down instead of around.”

In that garage, between visits to friends and family and adventurous outings with his boys, Chase carried on his lifelong affair with tinkering and inventing.

“His carpentry skills, and his interest in creating things, went back to when he was 10 years old,” Stuart Chase recalled, noting that his father-in-law — Doug’s maternal grandfather — “was an absolutely great mechanic.”

“Dad would bring him to his garage and show him how to do things with tools,” Penny added, at which point Stuart chimed in, “By junior high school, he would build bikes and fix things.”

During his 10 years in California, Doug applied those skills to a collaboration with Tour de France champion Greg LeMond in developing carbon-fiber racing bikes.

“What he learned there,” Stuart said, “at some point he decided, ‘There must be some way we can roll this into guitars.’ ”

Chase fine-tuned his carbon-fiber craftsmanship while working with master guitar maker Ken Parker, a part of his background that caught Bow Thayer’s attention while Doug helped build Thayer’s studio in Stockbridge. The musician soon commissioned Chase to fix the neck of an upright bass banjo, then collaborated on the construction of another.

“They looked like these Franken-instruments, but they sounded amazing,” Thayer said. “Insanely resonant.”

And their creator brought a Zen approach to making them so.

“He was one of the few people I could get into a serious conversation with about music,” Thayer said. “He was on another plane when it came to the metaphysics of music. He was a hands-on guy, but was also up there in the ether. He understood vibration, tone and frequencies.”

Back on Earth, few with whom he crossed paths failed to appreciate his good vibrations — from the mothers of Ciaran’s and Caleb’s schoolmates, and older people whose flat tires he would stop to change, to the homeless people to whom he would give the last dollar in his pocket.

And woe betide Ciaran and Caleb, if someone made eye contact with their father during an outing to the South Royalton Co-op.

“The boys would sit in the car rolling their eyes,” Peg Chase said, “and when they got home, they would say in that dramatic-kid way, ‘Dad talks to EVERYone.’ There was never an empty ‘how are you?’ from Doug. If he asked, he meant it, and people picked up on that.”

Somehow, among his hands-on projects and his outings with the boys and his wooing of new friends and schmoozing with old ones, Chase also made time to craft books and furniture.

“In recent years, he wrote two novels and was building beautiful wooden stools and tables,” Peg Chase said. “His hope was to build and sell these in order to make money doing something he loved: creating beauty.”

For his next onstage performance, Bow Thayer will play a tribute concert to Doug Chase on Dec. 14 at 5 p.m. at First Branch Coffee in South Royalton as a benefit for the fund to help Chase’s family — and as a reminder of one of the many things Thayer will miss about his friend.

“If Doug showed up to one of my shows, I knew at least one person was intensely listening,” Thayer said. “You always had his full attention. He would absorb every note. When he showed up, I played better. It was, like, oh, Doug’s here. Better step it up.”

David Corriveau can be reached at or 603-727-3304.

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