Matthew Hafner Phifer
Jun 24, 1982 - May 13, 2008
On June 24, 1982, Matthew Hafner Phifer was born to Valerie & Sky Phifer at Bishop Randall
Hospital in Lander, Wyoming. His older sister by 21 months, Mary, was being watched by
neighbors Patti Ramsey and her parents, Ross & Judy Ramsey. He was a great baby - happy,
healthy, and he always slept through the night, from Day One home from the hospital. When
he was 2 1/2, he and his sister were joined by their brother, Alex. The three children were
close in every way throughout their childhood and continued to mature in their friendship and
became nurturing confidants entering into adulthood. Matt was an active boy, the kind who
kept his parents busy taking him to the doctor (with broken arms from falling out of trees,
teeth knocked out from crashing into living room furniture, and squirrel bites from “saving”
wildlife while in the backyard teahouse) or entertained as a pirate, a trapper, or the “good” or
“bad” guy in one of the countless childhood “shootouts” with his brother Alex.
Matt was a prolific reader, devouring books from an early age and often reading during his
formative years under the covers with a flashlight long after bedtime. His latest book was
No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. Having read several other books by
McCarthy, he was anxious to read the book before seeing the movie. When Matt was
twelve, his parents divorced. His mother later married Steve Thomas and, since April 2007,
they have lived in Sheridan; his father subsequently married Jan Takenouchi, and they
reside in Lander. The divorce was very hard on Matt, and it took several years for him to
accept it. Despite, marrying into Matt’s teenage years, his stepparents embraced Matt,
and the relationships developed into one of mutual respect and love.
From age four through high school, Matt was active in the sports of soccer and swimming.
He quickly added football, basketball, tennis, golf, rock climbing, biking, hiking, and jogging
to his athletic pursuits. Matt was an especially accomplished swimmer. Under the direction
of Bruce Gresly, Matt won many state trophies with the Lander Swim Club. Matt went on in
high school to win the individual State Championship three years in a row in the backstroke.
He still holds the Lander school record in the 100 yard backstroke. Even after high school
Matt stayed physically active with jogging, swimming, biking, and hiking. He participated in
several triathalons (swimming, biking, running) and even ran a 26-mile marathon in California
in 2006. Matt was an accomplished violinist, starting at age four under the tutelage of
Becky Murdoch. The contrast was stark between the sight of Matt as a 165 pound middle
defensive lineman on Friday night and then as a violin soloist performing on Sunday with
such emotion as to bring tears to one’s eyes. He played throughout high school, with the
Fremont County Orchestra and later with the Symphonic Orchestra while studying at
college in Durango, Colorado.
Matthew was very bright. He had a natural ability to intensely focus, at least short-term-
usually about the length of a sport’s season. This made school easy, but long-term
planning more difficult, as his focus was constantly shifting due to his love of (and ability in)
ALL subjects! His father called him the “Flavor of the Month Kid.” His indecisiveness and
confusion was exacerbated by his alcohol and then drug abuse beginning in high school,
despite his many healthier pursuits. After graduation from Lander Valley High School in
2001 and intending to major in history, he attended one year of college at Ft. Lewis College
in Durango, Colorado. Matt then moved to Missoula, Montana where he began peeling logs
to support himself in hopes of transferring to the University there once he had established
residency. Within 6 months of moving to Montana, however, he was involved in a serious
alcohol-related accident, having by then developed all the signs and symptoms of
full-fledged drug and alcohol addiction. As a direct result of this accident, Matt attended
drug and alcohol treatment at Rimrock in Billings which helped change the focus of his life.
Matt had always been searching, spiritually. After attending treatment at Rimrock and upon
his return to Missoula, Matt began determinedly to study Buddhism and the Christian
teachings of Thomas Merton, to practice daily meditation, to attend Native American sweats,
and to learn to live the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. All of these forces for good thus
began the process which so profoundly transformed his life.
Matt was especially devoted to AA and continuously expressed his gratitude for that
program’s spiritual teachings and advisors. Matt chaired many AA meetings over the years,
sponsored others as he was helped, and generally adhered to one of AA’s main tenants-
that of the selfless devotion to the welfare of others. In July, he would have celebrated five
years of continuous sobriety.
Matt’s desire to serve others led him into nursing and Spanish as his primary fields of study
and, after several preparatory semesters of study at the University of Montana in Missoula,
he returned to Fremont County to attend nursing school at Central Wyoming College in
In the summer of 2006 Matt spent three months in Peru immersing himself in the Spanish
language and culture. The experience of hiking in the Andes, living and sharing with the
locals, and being on his own helped complete his sought-after transformation. With the
encouragement of those who understood him best, he resumed his studies in nursing at
Central Wyoming College and graduated with a Registered Nursing degree in 2007. His
nursing classmates remember Matt as the student standing in the back of the class,
going out for a walk or to get a drink before coming back to class.
The intensity of hour upon hour in a classroom, on one who cherished the outdoors,
was difficult for Matt. On the other hand, those same classmates talk about how easily he
grasped the most complex of subjects, his value in study groups, and his willingness to
advocate on behalf of his nursing classmates to the Dean of Nursing on more than one
occasion. He went to work at Lander Valley Medical Center shortly after graduation.
Except for the fact it was not outside and physical, nursing suited Matt. Practicing his
nursing there allowed him to focus on caring for others (12-14 hour shifts: six days on, with
eight days off), yet gave him time to pursue his many other activities during his periods of
extended days off. Because nursing was a profession in such demand, Matt was constantly
looking at other localities and considering whether or not to become a traveling nurse, join
“NursesWithout Borders,” or perhaps use his degree as a stepping stone towards becoming
a physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner, an acupuncturist, or else a doctor of Chinese
medicine. In December of 2007,Matt lost his ability to shift focus. He fell in love with Mei Ratz.
Instead of grabbing the other end of the next board during the remodeling of his newly-
purchased home, “the man-who-detested-cell phones” could be found text-messaging Mei
or taking her call. She was a perfect match forMatt: physically active, an accomplished
swimmer, fun with a great sense of humor, intellectually compatible withMatt, and truly his
spiritual soul-mate. Matt’s new dream with Mei bloomed from an inner feeling to “be” with
the world. He dreamt of a spiritual trip to Nepal to study and volunteer in a clinic with his love,
Mei. If it hadn’t been for other dreams, he could have been on his way to the Far East last
week. Through Matt’s hard work he attained a balance in life few achieve. He exercised
regularly, ate healthily, enjoyed and was good at his work. He took time to recreate, to take
care of himself spiritually, to spend time with family and friends, and to live with intention
and integrity. His capacity for living and loving life reached its zenith upon falling in love
with Mei Ratz. He had achieved an inner peace that reached out and touched all who
knew him with his gentle spirit. On May 13, 2008,Matt went to Lyons Valley to bike before
getting ready for his 7:00 p.m. shift at the hospital. Driving home, apparently blinded by the
setting sun, he pulled his pickup onto Highway 789 in front of a van, was struck and died.
A memorial has been established at Davis Funeral Home to accept donations to Nurses
Without Borders. Parents always hope that their children will surpass them. At age 25,
Matt had already accomplished that and much more.
Rest in peace, Matthew Hafner Phifer.