Anyone who was near the Imperial chair at Breckenridge Ski Resort on the morning of March 19 this year would have seen an unusual sight — a man wrapped in a bright red tie-dyed straitjacket swiftly skiing down the slope without poles.
That was longtime local Jay DeBaggis, taking on a challenge for a cause. The challenge — ski 10 laps in less than an hour. The cause — Mountain Mentors, a local nonprofit that pairs adult mentors with children and for which DeBaggis has volunteered for two years. The stunt was a success, raising more than $3,000 for the group’s scholarship funds.
“It was just an idea that I hatched in my crazy mind,” DeBaggis said of skiing while in a straitjacket. “Ideas are useless unless put into action. … It was a blast.”
DeBaggis, 54, who has been skiing without poles for years, claims to have excellent balance. The trickiest part of the entire thing was procuring a straitjacket, which he did with a little help from Breckenridge seamstress Holly Robb, who transformed two jackets into a cross-sleeved restraint. Then it was just a matter of getting on the lift and staying upright.
“I got off the chair and just crossed my arms and started skiing,” DeBaggis said. “I thought to myself, ‘I can do this.’”
Drawn to mountains
DeBaggis grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in between four brothers and a sister. He attended Cleveland State University, taking his time before graduating with a bachelor’s in psychology. Skiing was always his passion, and he followed it to Colorado. He moved to Denver in 1978 for a year, returned to Cleveland and then was lured to Summit County by a friend in the mid-’80s. He hasn’t left since. He admits that at one time he considered living in Hawaii, but “I don’t think the skiing’s very good there.”
Skiing is not only the reason he’s in Summit, but it’s one of the main reasons he’s anywhere at all, he said. “I have a passion for it; that’s why I’m on the planet. I’m here to ski.”
His goal is to ski about six days a week, 130 days a year, which he usually manages to reach. But it’s more than just clocking in days on the slopes. For 15 years DeBaggis coached young skiers for Team Breckenridge and other children’s skiing programs.
He does it “just so I can share my passion for skiing with young people, and it was really rewarding,” he said. “I think it’s infectious, so you lead by example and share your love with them and if they’re open to it, they have a love, too.”
Though he knew almost no one when he arrived, DeBaggis has since built friendships with those around him, most importantly with his wife, Leslie.
“My lovely wife is my best friend,” he said with a smile. When asked how long they have been together, he immediately rattles off the exact amount — 20 years, eight months, 18 days.
According to those who know him, it’s not hard to make friends.
“He just is one of those goofy fun guys that always has a smile and a laugh and a joke and a hug, and he just is an amazing genuine person,” said Robb, who lived near DeBaggis for a time in Blue River. “You run into him and you’re just happy as soon as you see him.”
DeBaggis enjoys making people laugh, and estimates he has memorized about 157 jokes that he can rattle off at a moment’s notice.
“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” he said.
Matt Fackler, owner of Relish in Breckenridge, where DeBaggis works as a waiter, said he met him in October 1996 and is still impressed by his positivity.
“Above and beyond, probably one of the most positive people on the face of the earth,” he said, when asked to describe DeBaggis. “In one word, he’s enthusiastic, for sure. He is 100 percent fired up all the time.”
As a waiter, DeBaggis interacts with people all day. He’s done the job for three decades and says it suits him just fine.
“I love doing it. It’s easy and I can meet people from all over the world,” he said. Since he’s moved to Summit County, he’s watched it change.
“It’s obviously grown, because it’s a desirable place to live. How can I fault people that want to live here? Because I want to live here, too. I try to welcome them and embrace them, too, because they’re going to be part of the community,” he said. “I try to look on the bright side, always. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.”
While he works to attain his passion daily, DeBaggis also follows the deeper codes of his personal philosophy.
“I’m just a guy striving for firmness of body, serenity of intellect and benevolence of spirit,” he said, smiling.
The words come with the loving, steady cadence of a mantra, with a practiced conviction that clearly shows he’s said it many times before, internally and aloud. It’s the phrase that guides him whether he’s visiting with old friends, meeting new ones, teaching someone to ski or skiing on his own.
And he’s happy to share it with anyone.