James L. Hagemeier, an adventurous spirit who found his life’s purpose in the mountains of the West, died Friday, April 23, 2021, in Missoula, Montana with his wife and children at his side.
Born on November 26, 1937 in Burlington, Iowa, along the Mississippi River, young Jim spent his days roaming the forests. He learned to trap small animals and fished from banks and boats. During the summers, his parents sent him to work on one of his numerous uncles’ farms.
While a landscape architecture major at Iowa State University, he attended a meeting with a U.S. Forest Service recruiter that changed his life. Jim went west to be a summer firefighter. As a handy, outdoorsy kid who could wield an axe, Jim was soon plucked from the ranks to become a smokejumper, stationed in Missoula in 1957 and 1958.
Jim then became among the first landscape architects hired by the Forest Service. It sparked a much-loved career that spanned more than three decades over five states.
In the 1960s, he lived in big cities and little towns throughout Colorado. He hunted birds, refinished furniture and collected jazz records. He learned to ski by tailing the best instructor at Buttermilk Ski Area—he could barely afford the lift ticket—who begrudgingly adopted him. Skiing became a passion, and he soon served as a landscape architect working on ski area development in Colorado. The owner of Aspen Highlands named the run Wine Ridge after the festive picnics Jim and friends threw there. He survived an avalanche at Breckenridge that was later written up in Reader’s Digest.
He and his future wife, Gretchen, crossed paths several times—at Iowa State, Vail and then finally in Taos, New Mexico, before coming together. They married in 1970.
A creative thinker willing to challenge norms and work collaboratively with communities, Jim’s skills captured attention and prompted the Forest Service to promote him throughout the years. He particularly loved being district ranger in Dillon, Colorado, where the Summit County Citizens Association named him Citizen of the Year in 1972.
Jim long wanted to return to Missoula, and he landed the regional director of planning role at the Forest Service Region 1 office in 1986. He retired in 1994 and enjoyed hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing and biking in Montana and Arizona, where the couple spent winters. He also wrote his memoir, “Saving Trappers Lake,” focused largely on his years in the Forest Service. Between the outdoors, constant house and garden projects, sporting events and time spent with friends and family, he enjoyed a rich, active life right up until his passing from a brief illness.
Jim is survived by his wife of 51 years, Gretchen; his children, who he called the “lights of his life,” Heidi (Tim Neville) and Andrew (Allison Mouch); granddaughter Evie Neville; and sisters Leah Fisher and Miriam Johnson.
Memorials can be made to the National Smokejumper Association or the National Museum of Forest Service History. A celebration of life will be held this summer.