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Feb 27, 2017 11:35 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Christopher Anthony Pilaro Dies February 16 in Idaho

Mar 7, 2017 1:35 PM

Christopher Anthony Pilaro, father, friend, filmmaker, philanthropist and fierce independent spirit, died Thursday, February 16, 2017, at his home in Hailey, Idaho. He was 44.

Mr. Pilaro was born in Paris, France, on July 6, 1972, and lived in Hong Kong; Southampton; Prescott, Arizona; Crested Butte and Ridgeway, Colorado; and Oakland, California, before settling in the Wood River Valley in June 2002.

His independence and clarity of spirit showed from an early age. He was the boy who declared his deep love for the plants and flowers in his school’s garden, the teenager who used an alias (Chris Garcia) at his summer job so coworkers wouldn’t know he was the boss’s son, and a man whose generosity ultimately impacted hundreds of lives, survivors said.

He always liked a physical challenge. In high school at Choate Rosemary Hall, he was a varsity lacrosse goalie and champion wrestler. As a college student, he trekked 30 days in Alaska’s St. Elias Mountains (his professor said he learned more from Mr. Pilaro in that month than he taught him in three years of class). After college he climbed Mount Logan (19,551 feet), the largest mountain massif in the world and Canada’s highest peak.

He was an expert skier, snowboarder, surfer, telemark skier, climber, and skateboarder. This “Renaissance man,” as Hailey friend Joe St. Onge calls him, was passionate about sharing the joys and teaching the skills of adventure. As an Outward Bound mountaineering and rock-climbing instructor, he led dozens of trips around the West with a focus on at-risk youth.

In 1999, he traveled to Glacier Bay with friend and Hailey resident Geoff Gardner to climb Mount Fairweather, one of the highest peaks in Alaska’s coastal range. Following a seven-day approach by kayak, they hauled climbing gear by ski-sled for two weeks up vast glaciers. They reached the summit, descended by skis, and dodged at least one grizzly on the rocky waterfront.

But this mountain man was also a guide through the interior landscapes of compassion and love. He was a curious explorer of the human condition, eager to discuss anything life brings our way. Selfless friendship was his practice. What he had, he gave, and what he knew, he shared. Mr. Pilaro was the friend you turned to, the one who could talk easily about any difficult thing.

He also believed in challenging the system. Through his work on several award-winning documentary films, he was a champion of the underdog and an advocate against injustice. While still a student at Prescott, he co-produced “Children in America’s Schools with Bill Moyers” (PBS 1996), an expose on inequalities in the school system. “Blue Vinyl” (HBO 2002) studied the effects of toxic chemicals in home construction and was a Sundance Film Festival award-winner. In 2007, “Everything’s Cool,” also a Sundance winner, studied the politics of climate change. Most recently, he was director and co-producer of “The Greater Good” (2011 Current TV), an investigation of one of the most contentious public health issues in America—vaccine safety. The film featured children injured by vaccine side-effects and challenged viewers to see complexity and nuance in an issue typically presented in polarized political hype.

Mr. Pilaro believed deeply in the power of education. He served for 20 years as the chair of the National Selection Committee for the Ron Brown Scholar Program, which has provided college grants to nearly 400 African-American high school students from around the country. He interviewed hundreds of applicants, remained in close contact with many of the young scholars, and in 2006 co-produced a book about their stories, “I Have Risen.”

He worked for education in his own community as well. He and his former wife, Phoebe Pilaro, helped establish Hailey’s Syringa Mountain School in 2014. They also donated land and built Jimmy’s Garden, a children’s park named after the former property owner. Though he never broadcast or boasted, he also helped several individual students pursue their educations.

Mr. Pilaro applied himself to these causes with serious intent, but never fell into the trap of taking himself too seriously, survivors said. More comfortable in a wild costume than a suit, he preferred silly over serious. Following his 2012 diagnosis with a rare deadly cancer, he elevated his favorite motto—“It’s only weird if you make it weird”—into a life philosophy.

In 2015, he recruited friends to climb and ski the “Terminal Cancer Couloir” in northern Nevada’s Ruby Mountains. “I’ve got terminal cancer,” he said. “Let’s go ski it.” That September on the Main Salmon River, he may not have been the first person to run the Class IV Vinegar rapids on a stand-up paddle board, but he was certainly the first to do it wearing a dress. When friends threw a party to celebrate his life last fall, Mr. Pilaro showed up dressed as an angel (with long blonde hair).

Throughout his life, he lived as if there was no guarantee of tomorrow, survivors said. He was devoted to his two sons. He loved teaching them how to master the Hailey skatepark, ski on Baldy, fly-fish on the Big Wood, mountain bike out Croy Canyon, and travel the world.

The way he lived—compassionate, open, fierce and fearless—is also the way he chose to die. When friends called to check in on him as his health declined, he only wanted to talk about their lives. In his final days, the energy that he spent a lifetime sending into the world circled back and surrounded him.

Mr. Pilaro is survived by his sons, Logan Fischer Pilaro (12) and Zeppelin Anthony Pilaro (9) of Hailey; his former wife, Phoebe Izard Pilaro of Hailey, his mother, Linda Pilaro of New York City; father Tony Pilaro of Seoul, Korea; a brother, Andrew; and sister-in-law, Fairley; and nephews Keeling (18), Chris (16), Finn (16) and Boo (12) Pilaro of Southampton. He also leaves his rescue dog, Shonipup.

A memorial service will take place after the snow melts at Galena Lodge.

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