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Two 'first friends' gone too soon

Aug 13, 2013 - By Chris Peck

Kemper Sackman and Wesley Rice didn't know each other.

And they never will -- at least in this world.

Both men played memorable roles in my life. Both died this summer. Each in their early 60s. Far too soon.

Kemper Sackman was my probably my earliest childhood friend in Riverton.

When my family built a house on what is now West Main at the far edge of town in 1958, the Sackman farm was the closest place to find a kid my own age. That was Kemper.

Ten years later, when I went off to college in California at age 18, my best freshman friend was Wesley Rice. We met the first week of college in 1968 and stayed in touch for the next 45 years.

First friend in childhood. First friend in college.

Both gone in the same summer of 2013.

Kemper and Wesley live vividly in my memory.

Kemper's family farm was full of life -- all kinds of life. Sisters. Cattle. Chickens. A big garden. All kinds of exotic-to-an-8-year-old living things.

Wesley's Seattle life was equally exotic to a kid from Wyoming who drove straight to Palo Alto, Calif., in his grandmother's Plymouth Valiant in the fall of 1968.

Wesley grew up in the big city. He was a high school quarterback, a student body president. A guy who knew about girls and motorcycles.

These two friends, one from childhood, one from college, taught me a great deal.

Kemper wasn't particularly keen on college. But was he forever keen on adventure. Fishing, backpacking, climbing.

My favorite story about Kemper was the time he stole the thunder of famed Lander mountain climber Paul Petzoldt.

Petzoldt made headlines all over the world for years when he tried to lead a group to the summit of the Grand Teton on New Year's day, despite the cold, the snow and the wind.

But one year, Kemper stole the show. While Petzoldt's group was climbing on a New Year's Day, story has it that he looked over a few dozen feet away and there was Kemper Sackman, scrambling up the Grand Teton by himself.

Kemper lived live doing what he loved. He hunted. He fished. He guided people who wanted to do the same in Wyoming and Alaska, his adopted second home.

And Wesley Rice did the same. He could have been a doctor like his father but instead got the acting bug in college.

And his whole life, in Seattle, New York, and finally Los Angeles, Wesley lit up the stage with a magnetic, compelling presence.

At the end, he felt sure he was just about to break through to the big time in L.A. H moved there with his wife and daughter shortly after turning 60. He never gave up on his dream. He knew what he wanted to do and he pursued it with vigor.

The same went for Kemper. We didn't stay in touch over the years, but I knew about his adventurous life in Alaska. He knew what he wanted to do in the outdoors,and he pursued it to his dying day.

Those are two hard words -- dying day.

I hate it that my childhood first friend and my college first friend are gone.

But to them I give this eulogy.

You showed me that men can live the dreams they have when young.

You both did it til your last breaths.

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Editor's note: Riverton native Chris Peck is the retired editor of the Memphis (Tenn.) Commercial-Appeal. He lives in Memphis.

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