Geoffrey Ward

Geoffrey Ward Freethey—a friend, mentor, builder, designer, scientist, outdoor enthusiast and a quiet leader with a “less talk, more action” spirit—died 18 days after being diagnosed with cancer throughout his body. The short time he suffered was a blessing, but very hard on his wife Sandy and his friends.

As many of you know, Geoff was quite a guy! He had such a variety of interests and talents. He was born in Denver, Colorado, on Nov. 22, 1945, and grew up in Barr Lake, a rural area near Brighton, Colorado, with his parents, Frank and Alice; his sister, Leora; and his brother, Dick.

Geoff’s varied skillset started as a teenager, with his first jobs: helping feed and milk thousands of cows next door at his friends’ dairy before a brief stint laying rails on the railroad.

Geoff’s parents decided to homestead in Alaska near Talkeetna, so off they went on a big adventure, building a cabin and clearing the land to “prove up” the homestead. Geoff attended the University of Alaska in Fairbanks but received his master’s degree in groundwater hydrology at Colorado State University. This is when Geoff met Sandy who was taking a Geology 101 class taught by Geoff’s roommate. Geoff and Sandy were married in 1970 on top of Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, Colorado, with guests eating Geoff’s favorite cherry pie instead of wedding cake.

The Vietnam War Draft Board wanted Geoff, but he was able to finish his degree before going to Officer Training School and joining the chemical corps. You may be thinking Agent Orange, but no, as a first lieutenant at Fort Beale in California, Geoff was in charge of designing a building to destroy and incinerate Russian wheat rust—a secret mission during the period when the Soviet Union and the U.S. had agreed to diminish chemical warfare. While living in Marysville, Geoff and Sandy explored a lot of northern California. After two years of service, they headed to Lincoln, where Geoff had a job doing water studies at the University of Nebraska. While living there, they found a passion for attending estate auctions collecting and refinishing our antique furniture.

After leaving Nebraska, Geoff began his life-long career with the U.S. Geological Survey–Water Resources Division, first doing groundwater hydrologic studies in Anchorage, Alaska. He and Sandy commuted 1.5 hours to a remote site near Palmer, Alaska, to try and build a house. First, the couple lived in a 10’x10’ shed, then built a two-story garage with electricity but no plumbing. They got their water from the local fire department water station, enjoying the Northern Lights while filling up a 55-gallon tank. They learned that one should keep your toilet seat warm inside the house, taking it with you to go to the outhouse in the winter. They took baths in a galvanized tub. It was quite an adventure for the young couple: however, Sandy wasn’t fond of this lifestyle and the house never got built.

The couple moved from the cold, grey skies of Alaska to the frying pan of Tucson, Arizona. After exploring lots of Arizona and New Mexico, they started coming to Moab and Cedar Mesa on vacations and moved to Salt Lake City, where they lived for 18 years. Geoff was an important mentor to many of the young guys joining the USGS, and in his profession and in all facets of life, he was well respected.

In Salt Lake City, Geoff and Sandy completely remodeled an old Victorian house—training they needed to later build their dream house in Moab once Geoff retired. The pair were very active rafters, floating most of the rivers in Colorado and Utah and many of the big rivers in the West: the Salmon, Rogue, Klamath, Owyhee, Selway and the Grand Canyon. Vying for river permits every year got old, so they switched to using little 6-foot Sea Eagle rubber rafts and ran small rivers like the Escalante, the Muddy, San Rafael and the Price. Along with rafting, there were many hikes into the desert searching for rock art and ruins; on all these trips they were joined by many friends. Geoff started mountain biking while living in Salt Lake and brought his USGS friends to Moab to do the standard runs: White Rim, Slickrock, Kokopelli, Gold Bar Rim and Porcupine.

In 2001 Geoff retired, they moved to Moab and built their dream house. In 2008, they joined “Trail Mix,” later the Grand County Non-Motorized Trails Committee, and were part of a great group who conceived, scouted, and built 150 miles of singletrack mountain bike trails working with friends at the Bureau of Land Management for trail approval. Many locals know that Geoff did most of the computer work to design the “You Are Here” map signs that you see on every trail, even going out and installing them himself.

Geoff and Sandy enjoyed many road trips and jeep trips exploring the far reaches of the United States and traveled many parts of the world during their 51-year marriage with no kids, various cats, and lots of good times. They have always been surrounded by friends and family and have had a great life.

Sandy confides: “I am in a state of shock, not believing that Geoff, my partner, my love is gone from my life and from this community. We learned of Geoff’s cancer diagnosis 18 days before his death. But that is a really short time to endure the ravages of cancer.”

A celebration of Geoff’s life may be planned for a future date.