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in memoriam: Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Ali, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Harper Lee, Pat Conroy, Gene Wilder

December 29, 2016

unknownEach year, important figures in our lives die. 2016 was no different. Often, my friend Ron Wells takes the time to reflect on the impact of these people, often musicians, actors, and writers, who, through their work on the page, the screen or the stage, speak for us: they articulate for us our experiences, our joys, and our struggles in life. I edit what he sends and add images or videos or other clips but I don’t always have time to do so. Here’s a collection of Ron’s tributes that have been published on this blog  David BowieAlan Rickman,  PrinceMuhammad Ali,  Leonard CohenLeon Russell, or are being published for the first time below: Harper Lee, Pat Conroy, and Gene Wilder. 

Nelle Harper Lee (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) by Ron Wells

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” Thus begins one of the greatest American novels ever written. Having taught To Kill A Mockingbird for decades now, my original copy is marked up, battered, underlined, and coming apart at the seams, but I will not replace it. I want to always remember the first time I read the book and convey that power and wonder to those who are reading it for their first time.

Boo Radley and Tom Robinson were the “mockingbirds” of the book’s title, for “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.” Yet people feared Boo and Tom, for reasons that had nothing to do with the men themselves, but many of Maycomb’s citizens instead were infused with the fear that came from dark, whispered, cold places in the human heart.

Harper Lee exposed those dark places and brought them into the light through Scout’s innocent eyes, and Atticus’s powerful stand for justice, even though the lawyer knew he was going to lose this particular trial in which racial prejudice was put on trial. As Miss Muadie said, “I simply want to tell you that there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them.”
The author brought these unforgettable people and places joyously, and sometimes sadly, into view for the entire world to see.

In perhaps the best version of a movie ever made from a book, Scout finally stands on the steps of Boo’s house and sees the world through Boo’s eyes. Meanwhile, Atticus sits next to Jem’s bed waiting for him to awaken. A child learns that you “never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around them.” A father thanks Arthur Radley for his childrens’ lives, and then makes sure that he, Atticus, will be the first person Jem sees when he awakens with his badly broken arm.

Atticus said that it seems “only children weep.” I believe there are more than just children weeping tonight.

Thank you for your wonderful gift, Ms. Harper Lee. Rest in Peace.


Donald Patrick “Pat” Conroy (October 26, 1945 – March 4, 2016) by Ron Wells

I saw the film Conrack before I read The Water is Wide. It inspired me not only in the ways of teaching, but to never give up on kids. What Pat Conroy did with those children on that South Carolina island is imprinted in my mind and soul. Every scene. Every child. Every wild and crazy method which Conroy used to reach children who were thought of as unreachable. Because of that book and that movie, I always kept experimenting with different methods of reaching the kids. I was never satisfied. Pat Conroy taught me how to teach. And how to fight the powers that would hold you back. I owe so much to him. He wrote other books from which other movies were made, but nothing touched me as deeply as The Water Is Wide.

From The Water Is Wide/Conrack:

““I dislike poor teachers. They are criminals to me. I’ve seen so much cruelty toward children. I’ve seen so many children not given the opportunity to live up to their potential as human beings.”

““My pre-Yamacraw theory of teaching held several sacred tenets, among these being that the teacher must always maintain an air of insanity, or of eccentricity out of control, if he is to catch and hold the attention of his students. The teacher must always be on the attack, looking for new ideas, changing worn-out tactics, and never, ever falling into patterns that lead to student ennui.”

“Pat Conroy: Gang, we’re going to learn all these records. We’re gonna look like geniuses when we know all these songs. Visitors are going to come here, expecting nothing but stupidity and poverty – I’m going to switch on this record player – you’re going to look those people right in the eye, and exclaim: “Are you perchance… familiar with the works of Rimsky-Korsakov?” We’ll knock their behinds off… Now here we got something very sweet
[begins playing record]
Pat Conroy: … Brahms’ Lullaby. You don’t need any Seconal, any Phenobarb, or any Miltown. You just drop this on, and The Sandman’s got you.

Pat Conroy: As for my kids, I don’t think I changed the quality of their lives significantly, or altered the fact that they have no share in the country that claimed them – the country that’s failed them. All I know is I felt much beauty in my time with them.

Some of his many books:

The Water is Wide
The Great Santini
The Lords of Discipline
The Prince of Tides
Beach Music
My Reading Life

In his own words:

“It’s an article of faith that the novels I’ve loved will live inside me forever.”

“My father’s violence is the central fact of my art and my life.”

“Writing is more about imagination than anything else. I fell in love with words. I fell in love with storytelling.”

“I mark the reading of ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ as one of the pivotal events of my life. It starts off with the single greatest, knock-your-socks-off first page I have ever come across in my careful reading of world literature.”

“Without music, life is a journey through a desert.”

“The most powerful words in English are ‘Tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself.”

“I still get weepy when I see a father being nice to his child. It so affects me.”

“A novel is a great act of passion and intellect, carpentry and largess. From the very beginning, I wrote to explain my own life to myself, and I invited readers who chose to make the journey with me to join me on the high wire.”
To a man who led so many to cross the high wire of life with passion and intellect, Rest in Peace, Pat Conroy.


Jerome Silberman (Gene Wilder) June 11, 1933 – August 28, 2016 by Ron Wells

Sometimes while channel surfing, a film comes on that you’ve seen a million times and yet you can’t turn the channel because you have to watch that movie yet again. This has happened to me many times when I came upon Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles or many other Gene Wilder films. You needed a laugh, and he was there in some wonderfully absurd role. Edward Kean said “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Gene Wilder was one of those few who made comedy look easy.

Some of his many films:

Bonnie and Clyde
The Producers
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Blazing Saddles
Young Frankenstein
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
Silver Streak
Stir Crazy
The Frisco Kid

From Young Frankenstein:

Igor: Dr. Frankenstein…
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: “Fronkensteen.”
Igor: You’re putting me on.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: No, it’s pronounced “Fronkensteen.”
Igor: Do you also say “Froaderick”?
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: No… “Frederick.”
Igor: Well, why isn’t it “Froaderick Fronkensteen”?
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: It isn’t; it’s “Frederick Fronkensteen.”
Igor: I see.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: You must be Igor.
[He pronounces it ee-gor]
Igor: No, it’s pronounced “eye-gor.”
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: But they told me it was “ee-gor.”
Igor: Well, they were wrong then, weren’t they?
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Love is the only thing that can save this poor creature, and I am going to convince him that he is loved even at the cost of my own life. No matter what you hear in there, no matter how cruelly I beg you, no matter how terribly I may scream, do not open this door or you will undo everything I have worked for. Do you understand? Do not open this door.
Inga: Yes, Doctor.
Igor: Nice working with ya.
[Dr. Frederick Frankenstein goes into the room with The Monster. The Monster wakes up]
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Let me out. Let me out of here. Get me the hell out of here. What’s the matter with you people? I was joking! Don’t you know a joke when you hear one? HA-HA-HA-HA. Jesus Christ, get me out of here! Open this goddamn door or I’ll kick your rotten heads in! Mommy!
From Blazing Saddles:

Jim: Well, it got so that every piss-ant prairie punk who thought he could shoot a gun would ride into town to try out the Waco Kid. I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille. It got pretty gritty. I started to hear the word “draw” in my sleep. Then one day, I was just walking down the street when I heard a voice behind me say, “Reach for it, mister!” I spun around… and there I was, face to face with a six-year old kid. Well, I just threw my guns down and walked away. Little bastard shot me in the ass. So I limped to the nearest saloon, crawled inside a whiskey bottle… and I’ve been there ever since.
Bart: Are we awake?
Jim: We’re not sure. Are we… black?
Bart: Yes, we are.
Jim: Then we’re awake… but we’re very puzzled.

In his own words:

My favorite author is Anton Chekhov, not so much for the plays but for his short stories, and I think he was really my tutor.

My mother was suffering every day of her life, and what right did I have to be happy if she was suffering? So whenever I got happy about something, I felt the need to cut it off, and the only way to cut it off was to pray. ‘Forgive me Lord.’ For what, I didn’t know.

I don’t mean to sound – I don’t want it to come out funny, but I don’t like show business. I love – I love acting in films. I love it.

A lot of comic actors derive their main force from childish behavior. Most great comics are doing such silly things; you’d say, ‘That’s what a child would do

I’m not so funny. Gilda was funny. I’m funny on camera sometimes. In life, once in a while.


To a man who loved acting and made us laugh at the same time, Rest in Peace, Gene Wilder




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