On Saturday afternoon, just across the street from the Fremont Bridge, a few dozen adults and about a half-dozen children gathered in a parking lot to paint a memorial mural.
Kathleen Warren, the already-paint-spattered ringleader, didn’t need a preamble to tell people why they were there. She cut through the murmur of pre-work conversation around the snacks table (vegetable platter, fried chicken, chips and salsa) with one loud, declarative question: “OK! Who’s ready to paint?!”
The mural on North 34th Street would be in honor of 36-year-old Matthew Gasparich, who died in a skiing accident Feb. 23 at Stevens Pass. Zane Behnke, who’d known Matt since they played T-ball together as kids, had hiked up to the spot with some friends in mid-April. He pulled out his phone to show photos to a few of the volunteers, including the cliff Gasparich apparently fell down.
“They don’t know exactly what happened,” Matthew’s father Jim Gasparich said. “But my son was very adventurous, very outgoing — a real people person.” He and others in the parking lot said the funeral service, at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Seattle, had been overflowing. “The church had to be expanded like it was a Christmas Mass,” Gasparich said.
The mural’s outlines were already sketched onto the 75-by-25-foot wall on the east side of the Canal Building, ready for volunteers to start filling in with swaths of color: a big wooden hull (Matthew ran a company that produced maritime training videos) brimming with plants, and overhead, a dense constellation of stars.
“The stars represent all the countries he went to,” Kathleen Warren explained. “If you put a world map on top, it pinpoints all the places he visited.” Tim Ramsey, another longtime friend, pulled up the list on his phone, compiled after Matthew’s death: Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Botswana, Morocco, Croatia, Slovenia, India, dozens more.
Matthew’s father recalled the time his son traveled to a remote place in Namibia, driving through the desert to find an odd-looking spot of dark earth he’d seen on Google Earth. Matthew just wanted to see what was there.
Evidence of Matthew’s gardening had spread across the globe as well. Painter Irene Wood anchored the mural design with a large jade plant at its center — the famous old jade plant Matthew kept at home. “He’d prune it and plant the cuttings so there were little jade plants all over the house,” Warren said. “He’d take them to parties, housewarming events, whatever.”
People kept them and took them all over the continent and beyond — the jade plant’s farthest-flung heir anyone in the parking lot could recall is currently growing at the home of a friend in Denmark.
Between bursts of painting, friends recalled Matthew’s hyper-gregariousness and his ability to make fast friends, including a Maasai man who was working on an African exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo (Matthew introduced himself when he saw the man standing alone, watching people play tennis) and an older German woman he met while serving as president of the Fremont Neighborhood Council. She used to tell Matthew stories about living in Berlin during World War II — and Matthew started bringing her to parties.
“He was famous for showing up at parties with five people who weren’t technically invited,” Lauren Ramsey, Tim’s wife, recalled. “But he was always like: ‘Why wouldn’t you want five more awesome people at your party?’ ”
He was also fond of practical jokes. Kyle Beffa, Matthew’s roommate at the University of Southern California, seemed to remember the most: Matthew secretly rearranging the furniture in people’s rooms so everything (lamps, chairs, shelves) was upside-down, or pranking a friend who was studying abroad in Australia by writing fake (and increasingly strange) emails to hundreds of her acquaintances back home. One email announced she was getting engaged to a puppeteer she’d met, who was 40% one nationality, 60% another and, as Matthew’s friend Grant Feek recalled, “100% man.” (That’s when her dad got involved, Feek said, and threatened to call the police if the emails didn’t stop.)
Were people mostly delighted by his pranks? Or irritated? Or both?
“You could ask that question about pretty much everything Matt ever did,” Beffa said, smiling. “It depends on whether you thought it was funny.”
The Fremont mural, Beffa said, was a chance to leave a little enigma, in honor of Matthew, to future passersby.
“When people walk by, they won’t know what it’s for or why we did this,” he said. “We walk by things like that every day and don’t know the back story — I hope people will see it and just think it’s beautiful.”
And with that, he went to fetch some latex gloves and get back to work.