By his friends, students, and colleagues.
North Dakotan extraordinaire, Dr. L. Ray Wheeler, passed away on November 27, 2018, in Dickinson, N.D., after a long and remarkable life.
Even his death notice was poetry:
“Brush off the snow and bang the drum, L. Ray Wheeler’s release has come. Ray passed away peacefully in his sleep early Tuesday morning November 27, 2018 at St. Benedict’s Health Center, Dickinson. A service will be held at St. John’s Episcopal Church in early Spring.”
Many of Ray’s friends and former students wanted to pay tribute, and I’ve assembled these remembrances here (I am the librarian, after all). I’m pleased to share them with you, starting with one of Ray’s oldest friends, Jean Waldera.
Please share your remembrances in the comment section.
Jean Waldera’s Remembrances
I hardly know where to begin. My thoughts about L. Ray Wheeler (the L was for Lawrence, although he never seemed to want that known, for some weird reason) are as tangled as was that man’s psyche. I do know that I am saddened profoundly by his loss, but that sense of loss occurred a number of years ago, when he was suddenly and unfairly confined to a wheelchair and coping with the impact of glaucoma. His death can only be seen as a blessed relief in my mind, especially as I recall my last visit with him in late June of 2018 at St. Ben’s in Dickinson.
My husband, Jerry, and I moved to Dickinson, N.D., to teach at Dickinson State College (as it was then) in the fall of 1967. We met Ray soon after we arrived but Jerry became friendly with him sooner than I did. I think I was established on Ray’s radar on the night that the country got the news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, April 4, 1968. My husband was hosting a poker game in the downstairs rec room of our home at 942 Ninth Avenue West when Ray and Cliff Hallam showed up, making the rounds after drowning their outrage and sorrow at the Shamrock (probably). They were looking for answers and for support for that outrage and sorrow. Jerry and his card players were busy, but I was available and I, too, was mourning for the loss of a great man and for the further proof that our innocence as a nation was in a steep decline, initiated by the killing of JFK. (RFK’s assassination in Los Angeles was yet to come and to intensify that decline.) Since I seemed genuinely sincere in my grief and outrage, Ray and Cliff must have decided that I was OK.
So, our friendship developed. Jerry and Ray often hunted together and became very close friends. Ray was part of the group of male friends who often celebrated the opening of fishing season at our lake cottage in Minnesota. Our families celebrated holidays together and, on some evenings, a group of us gathered at the home of Ev and Robin Albers, which was close to campus, to have a drink or two and watch the national news before heading home to our domestic duties. The years passed and the friendships grew. Our shared experiences and consistent companionship, with various joys and sorrows and bumps in the road, only deepened our commitments to one another.
One late summer, Ray and Jerry worked on the campaign of our mutual friend, Stan Deck, who was hoping (in vain) for the Republican nomination to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. Their efforts were for Stan rather than for the GOP, since both Jerry and Ray were staunch Democrats. Then, Ray served on Jerry’s campaign in 1982 when Jerry successfully ran for the North Dakota State Senate. Ray and I even made a trip to Fargo together to get three TV commercials made for Jerry’s campaign – including the famous Piggy Bank commercial which features Ray’s hand digging into the piggy with a knife. Those days and our tireless work together for Jerry probably cemented our devotion even more.
When Ray was going through a difficult period in his personal life, he appeared at our house every Sunday morning about 10:30 for tea and conversation. Sometimes my Jerry joined us but, frequently it was just Ray and Jean. And, it was during those sessions that the hidden Ray often emerged. Most of the time he loved to project the cynical persona with the love of the absurd and the joy of puncturing pretension. But there was the underside of Ray which was compassionate and tender and even vulnerable. Our Sunday mornings at the table in our family room cemented a very special bond.
For a couple of summers, Ray traveled with the N.D. Humanities Council’s five-state Chautauqua program, doing a re-enactment of an historical character. Our middle son, Michael, was tent master (following in the deep footsteps of Ed Sahlstrom) for the company and he and Ray became good buddies — transcending the age gap — and I like to think that Mike learned a lot from Ray. Since Mike and Ray’s son, Tim, were/are dear friends, the ties between our families were made even stronger.
I wrote on Facebook, as the many tributes from students came pouring in, a reference to The Lunar Society. But once more I will mention Ray’s scholarly paper, presented at one of the meetings on the night of a full moon, on the history of fart jokes. That seems to illustrate perfectly the satirical take on life which typified Ray Wheeler.
When Jerry and I retired from teaching at Dickinson State University (as it had become) in the spring of 1993, Ray helped us move permanently to our lake home in Minnesota. And a new phase of our friendship began. It was even deeper and more constant because Ray and I got into the habit of e-mailing each other every morning— without fail. Sometimes we needed to vent deep emotions and sometimes we needed to pontificate on the state of the world or sometimes we just wanted to touch base, but it became a component of our daily routine and Jerry usually asked every morning, “What did Ray have to say today?”
After the fates conspired to hit Ray with one of the cruelest set of life-changing circumstances ever, our friendship continued, but eventually,our daily correspondence could not. Glaucoma was the final insult to Ray’s quality of life and reading was impossible for him. I was able, on several occasions, to visit him in his handicapped-friendly home after he got out of St. Ben’s initially. (One time, I kidnapped Ray from St. Ben’s, got him out of the wheelchair and into the van and we went “joy riding” around Dickinson for about 45 minutes.) In the spring of 2010, on my way to the lakes from Arizona, I spent a couple of days in Dickinson and one evening I was able to fix creamed chipped beef on toast which was Ray’s request. I’m not sure why that is such a dear memory, but it is.
So, yes — my feelings about Ray are so jumbled and the characteristics I would apply to him are often contradictory. He was one of the dearest friends I could ever wish for but it took me a while to earn that friendship. Ray loved to “break chops” and was brilliant at puncturing inflated egos so skillfully that you didn’t know you’d been hit until you were suddenly flat on the floor. His sense of humor bordered on the absurd, to say the least, but his loyalty, once it was bestowed, was sincere and loving.
He could be so sweet and yet so wicked … so cynical and yet genuinely outraged at injustice. He hid his vulnerability and modesty well but, all these qualities along with his weird paranoia were part of the complexity of my dear, dear friend, Ray Wheeler.
Ray — I’m glad you no longer are suffering the situation you would have changed in a heartbeat if you could. Your children were faithful and loving support and I admire them so much. Your friends have mourned the loss of you long before Nov. 27, 2018. You will live on, of course, in the hearts of all of us who loved you and delighted in the force of your personality.
Dennis Navrat’s Remembrances
Tribute to Dr. L. Ray Wheeler, Ph.D. Emeritus Professor of English and Literature, Dickinson State University, North Dakota
June 24, 1940 – November 27, 2018
Playwright, Educator, Novelist, Poet, Humanist, Humorist, Father, Friend
(Creative Alarmist, Absurdist, Provocateur, Lovable Doubter, Imaginative Bullshitter)
In 1966 Ray became my best friend and still is. Arriving on campus, my wife Sue and I (Art) soon discovered new faculty in the Arts and Humanities who also arrived from Kansas: Ray (English/Literature) and Colleen Wheeler, and Jean Waldera (Theatre), married to Jerry Waldera (Political Science- a North Dakotan who properly led us in the ways of North Dakota civility). William Fleming (Philosophy) and Donna, also became fast friends, as each of the couples had young children and similar stress. Besides teaching, we socialized weekly and spent many holidays together for years or decades to come.
Everett Albers (Enlish/Literature) and spouse Robin, and Cliff Hallam (English/Literature) soon became friends with all of us. Most of us came from more populated areas and missed our previous cultural activities, so soon we all worked to develop more cultural activities in western North Dakota and throughout the state, aided by the newly created National Council on the Arts and Humanities and the taxpayers in support of higher education.
Ray, Ev, Bill, Cliff, Jerry, and I often met for chess matches, and conversations relating to politics and the arts and humanities, as well as forming, with other faculty, a chapter of the AAUP. All of us were committed to our professions, our specialties, teaching, and maintaining high standards in education. As a beginning teacher, I learned volumes from the dedication of Ray and all the others. In time, we (Ev, Ray, Bill, Cliff, Jerry, I, and other faculty) all team-taught Humanities to classes of three hundred students.
We all taught together during the revolutionary, exciting 1960s and beyond, helping to guide students through tumultuous national and world-wide change we scarcely comprehended ourselves.
Collectively, our educational, political, and cultural contributions form some important, lasting history for the City of Dickinson, Dickinson State University, and North Dakota. Ray helped each of us achieve our goals.
Ray and I shared volumes of experiences teaching together in the arts and humanities from 1966-1989, including team-teaching photography, attending annual Writers Conferences at UND where we met and socialized with many now-famous authors, traveling and vacationing, playing chess, fishing and camping with our sons and daughters, hunting, working on construction and home remodeling projects together, partying with family and friends, and solving the problems of the world in our own minds.
For several years in the 1980s, Bill Fleming was hired by the Dickinson Recreation Department as the official SDSBA summer league softball lead umpire, who hired Ray and I as umpires. We never made a bad call (and I have 2 Horses Ass trophies to prove it). After games we continued to officiate at The Shamrock ☘ , joined by thankful, boisterous players.
Dr. L. Ray is unforgettably creative, beneficent and loving, alarming, and a wonderful friend to the ages. I will miss his presence, am thankful his pain and suffering has ended, and thank his children, Cindy and Tim, for caring for their father so well when he was helpless. And special thanks to friends Ed Sahlstrom and Dr. Keith Fernsler (and others) who were Ray’s boots on the ground for the last nine years of his paralysis. Bless you all.
Ray asked me for one of my artworks to hang in his handicap-accessible house and I brought him this image, that he admired, especially since Jack Ross (DSC Art, deceased), whose art and piano-playing Ray absolutely loved), worked with me summers in the 1980s making handmade paper artworks. Jack made the sketch of the pony that became the mold that transferred layers of various pulp colors to the HMP that create the childlike pony you see. Ray returned the artwork to me after he lost his sight.
Ray and I often talked of Death. I’m not sure if he believed in reincarnation as I do, but I know his spirit is beneficent, as it was throughout his lifetime. My good friend Dr. L. Ray Wheeler is always unforgettable. I’m happy Sue and I and our son Ryan visited with him in June in Dickinson, and cherish his creative friendship and memory.
Since he was so fearful of flying (he never once flew in an airplane), I’m wondering how he enjoyed his trip to Heaven, where he so certainly was welcomed.
RIP, my dear friend and Colleague of Life
Betsy Harris’ Remembrances
This is how I remember it:
I wrote stories. I was nineteen years old. Very little depended on a red wheelbarrow. Nothing had occurred in my life that needed to be told, but I wrote stories. On a lark, I had travelled to Peru, South America with my friend Karla. When I ran out of money and homesickness overcame the adventure, I flew back to North Dakota. I would be a teacher or a secretary. I studied English and German. I elected to enroll in a poetry class.
L. Ray Wheeler had returned to Dickinson after he had completed his Ph.D. He taught the poetry class. We read poetry—Chaucer, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams. This professor taught me the archeology of poetry. He asked me to bring him a poem for an office conference. I wrote a poem about a tin of Quaker Oat cereal I studied in the kitchen of my hosts in South America. That trademark face of William Penn smiling from an iconic American brand with Spanish letters and directions. I worked on nothing else for the week. I had a story to tell. His office was in the basement of the main building on campus–May Hall. I knocked on the door. I recall the bright light from the windows and the smell of cigarette smoke. He asked me to join his conspiracy by offering me a cigarette. I declined.
What can I do for you?
You asked me to write a poem and bring it to our conference. I did.
I wonder why I did that?
This was a ridiculous statement—he’d asked us all to write a poem.
I’m afraid I need to be some place. Could you come back in a few days?
Okay, bring it back then.
I went home. I remember my disappointment, but I sat down to work on that poem. My parents had given me a knock-off version of a Selectric typewriter with correction tape for high school graduation. My bedroom was next to theirs. I worked late. My father sternly asked me to do my homework earlier in the day, so they could sleep.
A few days later, I returned to his office but there was a note: Conferences cancelled—Wheeler.
I admit to disappointment. I went home to work on the poem a little more. I stalked his office until one day he was there. I thrust the poem at him and said, I think it’s rude to ask somebody to write something for you and then not show up to read it. I turned around and ran up the stairs.
Unfortunately, I had his class soon after. I waited until he was in the room, then walked to the back of the class and sat in a chair next to the windows. Sullenly, conspicuously, I chose not to participate. I hurried to leave the room in case he tried to speak to me. The next class I chose the same seat. On the top of the empty desk next to me was a piece of paper—the poem. He had marked it up with pencil and wrote a time for a conference on the top. I went. We talked about the story in the poem. His advised, Don’t explain. He asked me whether I’d like to contribute to a little magazine he edited.
I asked him years later why he did that.
He slyly answered, I don’t know what you mean.
Another story. This is how I remember it:
He liked to set up his friends and I had become one. When I decided to write a creative thesis for my Master of Arts degree, he wrote a recommendation letter to Professor Bob Lewis, the chairman of the English Department at UND. He called his friend, Professor John Little and asked him to look out for his student. Soon after I arrived on campus, John called me to invite me to a party at Professor Jim McKenzie’s house. He arrived in his convertible with the top down—I’m not sure it could go up. It was August or September, but it was cold and wet. John opened the driver side door for me, so I had to scoot across the bench seat to the passenger side. Salt melt used on the roads during winters in Grand Forks had taken a toll on the floor boards of the car—I saw the road between my feet. A spit cup rolled across the seat beside me, spilling tobacco juice. John put his arm around my shoulders as he pulled away from the dormitory parking lot. Within minutes of arriving at the McKenzie house, I dribbled a full glass of red wine on the white carpet of the living room. In that moment, I learned to pour copious amounts of table salt on a wine spill. Before we had arrived at the house, Jim had broken the porcelain cover to the toilet in the upper bathroom. He’d been whisked away to the emergency room because he had spread the Super Glue on the broken porcelain pieces with his fingers and glued his fingers together. A surgeon cut between the fingers with a scalpel, but it was gruesome. Jim arrived much later, both hands bandaged with white gauze and a good dose of narcotics on board. John Little’s Mississippi charm and good manners emerged during the rest of the evening. He was a gentleman. Soon after, a roommate summoned me to the phone. It was Ray.
How did it go with John?
Fine. Why would you do that to me?
I don’t know what you mean?
He often seemed perplexed by my confrontations, as though he had no hand in any of it. But he did. He introduced me to people and ideas beyond my experience. I still explain. I don’t write poetry. If I did, I would write about a beatific smile or a glint behind round, horned-rim glasses or a gesture with cupped hands illustrating events that never happened.
I regret that I did not take myself to see him these last few years, but for those of you who did and who cared for him, thank you.
Dave Solheim’s Remembrances
I met Ray in the spring of 1974 at the University of North Dakota Writers’ Conference of the Beat Poets. Ray was on sabbatical from Dickinson State at the time to complete his Ph.D. at UND. He did so writing what might have been the first creative dissertation in the English Program there: “Buffalo Alice: A Novel,” which is accessible at the State Library in Bismarck. Ray joined the Dickinson State faculty in 1965 and retired due to ill health in May 2010.
We became better acquainted in the summer of 1978, when we were both involved with the N.D. Humanities Council-sponsored Chautauqua Program, which featured 12 weekly presentations of Ray’s farcical children’s play “Miss Hunkerbutt’s Country School” and Ray’s own lecture/reading on North Dakota Writers.
In 2013, the Buffalo Commons Press published an anthology of Ray’s short fiction, “Bar Talk and Tall Tales.” I quote the biographical notes on the author from that publication:
“Having retired from more than forty years of teaching at Dickinson State University, L. Ray Wheeler is an Emeritus Professor at Dickinson State University and chaired the Department of Language and Literature for several years.
The founding editor of “The Dickinson Review,” he received a Jerome Foundation Fellowship for study at the Minneapolis Playwrights’ Center and a Remele Foundation Fellowship from the North Dakota Humanities Council.
Wheeler has published poems and short stories, and written novels and five plays, most of which have been staged by college and university theatre programs. This [“Bar Talk and Tale Tales”] is his first published collection of short fiction.
Wheeler has also presented many public humanities programs including dramatic characterizations of historic persons. He holds degrees from the University of Kansas, Pittsburg State University (KS), and the University of North Dakota. He has been an avid gardener and bird watcher and was a charter member of the Lunar Society.”
His book is available at Buffalo Commons Press. Four of Ray’s plays, “Prairie Humouresque,” Dakota III,” “Adagio West” and “Buffalo Alyce” had their world premieres at Dickinson State, and the North Dakota Humanities Council taped a version of “Buffalo Alyce,” which should be available from the renamed office Humanities North Dakota. The Buffalo Commons Press hopes to publish an anthology of all five plays, but the details and timing are still uncertain.
Ray was a highly intelligent, well-read and lively colleague. He was quick-witted and satiric, even about himself, at various times claiming that he not only wrote fiction but also lived it; and that he was the only person to write a novel about a highway sign (Buffalo Alice interchange on Interstate 94 about 30 miles west of Fargo). He taught composition, creative writing, American literature and poetry, and philosophy at DSU. He was also a fine photographer and enjoyed music. He was a campus leader in several ways at different times in his career, being president of the Faculty Senate and leading the opposition to the demeaning team designation of “Savages” at DSU which was changed to Blue Hawks in the early 1970s.
A Native American acquaintance compared him to Iktoumi, the Lakota trickster, and Ray styled himself a gadfly in the Socratic philosophic tradition.
Ray had secrets and some unknowns such as what the initial L stood for, but in addition to his significant accomplishments summarized above, his most lasting tribute is in the memories of his many students for the lessons they learned from him and the esteem they hold for their old teacher.
Remembrances by the late Ev Albers, one of Ray’s Dickinson State colleagues, later the first director of the North Dakota Humanities Council, from Albers’ online journal, which is now hosted by Humanities North Dakota.
Many of you will recall the short 1933 piece by W. Somerset Maugham, “Appointment in Samarra,” sent to me by my old friend L. Ray Wheeler, who teaches writing over at Dickinson State.
Ray is a playwright, poet, short-story writer and one of the best damned liars I’ve ever listened to. Back some 30 years ago, I followed Ray around some of Dickinson’s watering holes in an effort to keep him from being confronted by one of those rare humans who didn’t appreciate Ray’s stretching what those fellows considered in the realm of human possibility. The object was to avoid confrontation at all costs — in short, to run like hell at the first sign of potential violence.
Ray came over to Bismarck from Dickinson the other night to sit around and reconstruct the past — this round included a claim that it was I, his old pal Ev Albers, who led him astray. In fact, Ray Wheeler stood in my kitchen and said with the total conviction of one who actually believes what he makes up about the way it was, “You know, I never went into a public place where alcohol was sold until you took me there, Ev.”
Ray also sent me along a wonderful piece of short fiction that I wish he would share with the world as soon as possible. The one I had never read that brightened my life yesterday Ray calls “Just a Prairie, Not a Rose.” There’s a talking buffalo. That’s all I’m going to tell you, except to say that it’s set in North Dakota and the North Dakotans who meet the buffalo are having coffee this afternoon on a ranch or a small-town cafe at this very minute, and it’s a hell of a commentary on this place — a moral tale, if you will, except you don’t realize that isn’t happening to you. Ray Wheeler is a treasure, and I urge you to tap his stuff immediately, especially if you are in search of a great theatre script. A few years ago the North Dakota Humanities Council commissioned a production of Ray’s play, “Buffalo-Alyce,” an exploration of the big topic, dying with dignity, told with humor and a style that for me, at least, says “Move over Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, cause Ray Wheeler is on the scene.” One of these days I’ll dig out the videotape made of that event and post a bit — and tell you where to get it. But we were speaking of “Appointment in Samarra.”
As “retold” by Maugham, here’s the story:
“There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provision, and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.
“Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he came to Death and said. ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?’ ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ Death said. ‘It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.'”
Thirty years ago, when I first taught this short piece to freshmen students, there was a good deal of pretty-good discussion about the whole notion of fate — and about how, by very definition of the word and the prevailing sense of more than 6,000 years of artistic presentation of the concept — “We cannot change our fate.” Ho-hum. Ah, but wait a moment:
Wait just a moment — the servant runs because he’s “jostled by death” who makes what the servant thinks is a “threatening gesture.” In short, a “jostle with death” may be as great a surprise to death as it is to the one who runs off half-cocked, spurs to the flanks, full-speed to as far away as he/she can get.
Jostled by death, we immediately jump to the conclusion that the appointment is now, not later. As Ray Wheeler wrote a week or so ago, “It’s not a matter of whether, it’s when.”
Of course, I know there are all kinds of questions — what if the servant hadn’t gone to Samarra (not possible, but why?)?
This much I know — a man is most fortunate to have such a friend, a kola, who would send me this bit of Maugham, knowing it would be read and received with a feeling of great peace. Thank you, Raymond, thank you.
Jim Fuglie’s Remembrances
I spent the years 1972-1975 in Dickinson, sporadically attending classes at DSC and regularly working at The Dickinson Press. In my off hours from The Press, I occasionally walked across the alley to the Shamrock, ostensibly to see my friend, Ken Rogers, the bartender there, and visit with friends. Ray was about as regular as I was, and if he happened to come in when no one he knew was hanging out, he usually sat down at the second stool from the door, not wanting to waste any drinking time wandering all the way down to the end of the bar. I often sat beside him on the third stool.
I moved away late in 1975 and was gone almost 30 years, moving back to Dickinson in 2004. The first time I walked into the Shamrock (It had since changed its name to The Rock, to be hip, I guess) about 5 p.m. on a day in the spring of 2004, Ray was sitting on the same stool. I said, “Ray, the last time I was here 30 years ago you were sitting on that stool. Have you been sitting there all this time?” He responded, “Pretty much.”
Jim McWilliams’ Remembrances
A Few Words about Ray Wheeler in December 2013
A few years ago, when I asked Human Resources for the most recent curriculum vitae for Professor Ray Wheeler, I received a document that lists Ray as being in his 20th year of service at DSU. That document was from 1985.
As most of you know, Ray became ill in fall 2009 and then officially retired in May 2010. If you’re quicker at math than I am, you’ve already done the subtraction and realized that Ray Wheeler taught at DSU for 44 years.
Ray and Carl Larson had a longstanding dispute about which of them was the senior faculty member at DSU. If I remember correctly, this dispute turned on the fact that Carl, who started at DSU in 1963, left for a year to complete his doctorate. So, consequently, Carl had one more year of “total years of service,” but Ray, who started at DSU in 1965, had more years “consecutive years of service,” which, to him, was the most important fact. However, since Ray, most assuredly, did not want to carry the mace at commencement, he was happy to cede ground and allow Carl the title of “senior professor” at DSU.
Of course, all this became moot when Carl retired, so, soon enough, Ray was senior in both “total years of service” and in “consecutive years of service.” Ray wasn’t happy, but he faithfully carried the mace for a couple of years until his retirement.
On his vitae, Ray lists his many presentations, lectures, and performances for the North Dakota Humanities Council and other state and regional organizations. Ray had a bit of a reputation as a Midwest playwright in the 1970s and 1980s, and he also published poems and the occasional short story in both regional and national journals. He also edited a literary magazine, “The Dickinson Review,” which published fiction and poetry, as well as interviews with important writers such as Miller Williams.
On his vitae, Ray lists the various offices and positions he held at DSU through the years, including professor of English, chair of the Department of Language and Literature, and “social worker, laboratory technician, and general factotum.”
Also, on his vitae, Ray states that he is the “international president” of the Lunar Society.
I’m not sure what that means, but I suspect it’s a reference to a number of “mooning” incidents that, allegedly, occurred here on campus in the late 1960s. I could never pin him down on the details, and he never told the story the same way twice, but I strongly suspect that Ray might have been involved.
I’m surprised, however, that Ray didn’t list on his vitae that he was the president of the Dickinson Poets’ Club, which met every Thursday evening, during the academic year, down at the Rock. Admission to the club was easy: You had to be able to drink some beer and shoot the shit.
I miss those Thursdays at the Rock with Ray, just as I miss him being in the office next door to mine. For my first nine years at DSU, I could count on Ray stopping by every morning, along about 7, to gossip and chat. Most of what I learned about DSU, I learned from Ray, either at the Rock at on that first floor of Stickney Hall.
So, the next time you’re having a beer, or shooting the shit, stop for a minute to remember Ray Wheeler and his many contributions to Dickinson State University.
Stories to Pass the Long Winter Nights:
A Review of “Bar Talk and Tall Tales” by Jim McWilliams
For years I’d heard stories about the stories of Ray Wheeler, so I was very happy to get a copy of “Bar Talk and Tall Tales,” a collection of eight of his originals, recently published by Buffalo Commons Press, so I could see for myself if the hype matches the reality. I can say, without reservation, that it does.
Ray’s narrative voice, whether he’s speaking or writing, has an absurdist quality to it that captures very well the absurdity of living in western North Dakota, where winter temperatures can plunge, seemingly within minutes, to -24 and you can freeze to death if you get lost in the sudden whiteout of a blizzard. Where the wind blows so hard that it seems like you should be able to “retract” your legs and then “ride a wave of it to another country.” Where talking bison — perhaps imaginary, perhaps not — wander through open spaces and suggest quietly that you let the prairie revert back to a “buffalo commons.
Ray might originally be from Kansas City, but he’s been in western North Dakota long enough (going on 50 years) that he’s seen the oil booms and busts come and go. In one of his stories, “A Kind of Texas,” he spins the tale of Eddie and Lee, two locals who spend most of their time at a bar lamenting the influx of Texans into their community during the latest boom. These Texans, the only folks able to afford the skyrocketing rents, steal their women and cheat them at pool. Eddie, however, is something of a poet (like Ray himself), and so he gets his revenge with a bit of filthy doggerel, but then he pays the price, both in physical and in existential pain.
In fact, in many of these stories there is a price to be paid. In one of my favorites, “How They Spend the Cold Nights Up There,” a writer of western fiction, talking with a washed-up cowboy, Shorty, on a winter’s night at the bar, silently prays that a woman — any woman, so long as she has a warm body and most of her real teeth — will come into the bar. A kind-hearted God answers his prayer, and a woman with luscious lips, calling herself “Belle Starr,” strides into the bar and says that she wants a shot of Scotch and a story. Unfortunately, though, she loses interest in the writer, and in his story about a heroic cowboy named “Dallas Gates,” when she gets drunk and thinks that Shorty, bow legs and all, is the real Dallas Gates. At closing time, she leaves the bar with Shorty, and the writer, whose story doesn’t have an ending, finds himself without an ending, too, as he walks home through the early morning arctic air.
Ray had a bit of a reputation as a playwright back in the 1980s, and if you ask him, he’ll tell you that he greatly admires the work of Sam Shepard. One of the stories in this collection, “The Dakota Kid,” reminds me of Shepard’s plays, such as “True West,” in that we have a narrative, composed mostly of laconic dialogue, about two desperados who stop off at a bar in Amidon, population 14, to swap their getaway car for a clean car. Adding a note of gothic absurdity to this suspense is the bar owner’s retarded son, who perches on a stool, eating sunflower seeds (as efficiently as a chickadee) and saying nothing except “The world is everything there is.” Nothing good can come from a situation such as this one, and nothing does.
I certainly hope that you’ll pick up this collection of stories, for I think that you’ll find reading them the next best thing to actually drinking some beer with Ray at the local watering hole as he tells stories that will make you laugh until you cry.
Remembrances and a Poem by Rick Watson
Last Week .… one of my writing teachers died last night — loved Jefferson Airplane, The King James Bible, Beatles, Nabokov and others — heavily encouraged my writing of poetry and songs — we went through rough spots too — in the end, we were friends and he was amazingly supportive of what I wrote — trite to say I felt the disturbance in the force, but I did last night, early morning — dreamed someone was dying, a fire went out, and I kicked the Dark One in the ass, in the dream — woke up and thought, WHO DIED? — time to WAKE UP RAY — your day of vindication is here — God with God — so Advent begins—
The last time I saw him, I had a band of wild Bone Town gypsies with me playing deep-cut folk rock songs at some huge Humanities Gathering for the State of N.D. We had talked and goofed around: he sat at a table at a loud reception in the Taube Art Museum while “The Cracked Pot Prophets” and I played our set. He gave me the rolling evil eye, the gawking arm wave and seemed to be having fun.
When he left, he came over, pushed up his glasses, grinned and said something about “the good things never get lost … I like the Dylan covers … Good shit …”, and I got a hug. I suppose he will find the Kingdom bemusing to say the least; if they speak the King James English, he will adapt quickly. What a woman named Gerda The Dane once said about me, I say about Ray: “He is not profane; he loves words; he is earthy.”
From “Springfield Avenue Under The Hill,” a poem by Rick Watson:
Breakfast With The Congregation of Two —for Ray Wheeler, of course; ala CS Lewis
you say you cannot understand bust
that vein in the palm of your hand
hammer hit, the nail missed
a nail should have hit your wrist
martyrdom and suicide
really do not coincide
you picked your cross up and you tried
to keep old Jesus at your side
but there’s something we all missed
you and me and the Judas kiss
we are not the sacred face
what we are is all God’s Grace
you found your own meridian,
edged out to the West
tickled gospel barroom keys
and sang hymns with the best
the cynic and the child meet
We have been them, both
you never claimed the sacred face
what you are is all God’s Grace
Remembrances by Keith Fernsler
We never live up to our baby pictures or obituaries.
No one tried my patience more than Ray Wheeler. I can’t deny it. Once, when he attacked the very foundations of my discipline, we didn’t speak for a year. We made up, and Ray gave me my greatest laugh ever in a radio play he wrote about the life of Jimmy Foley and Foley’s poem, “Chums.” Only a few of us got the satire, so much did it warm the hearts of Jimmy Foley fans. Like a lot of Ray’s work, the true meaning was never obvious. Sometimes Ray could be cruel, but he could also make me laugh and cry more deeply about life than almost anyone else, often at the same time. That is the brilliance of Ray’s plays and essays, his teaching, and his friendship.
In recent years, Ray suffered more losses than any of us could bear, especially his athletic prowess and his independence. Most of all, his ability to speak and write with seemingly effortless ease faded away. Such a transformation separated Ray from what he loved most, his full embrace of his friends and family. Too often, I would sit with him, impatiently waiting for him to say something that would bring back the Ray I knew and needed to be, once more, in my life.
Ray surely tried my patience. I lost most of him long before he died. On the other hand, with all the experiences I find it increasingly difficult to recall, my memories of Ray are still vivid.
The real Ray Wheeler is not found in his baby pictures or his obituary. Ray is a part of all of us who knew him, were challenged by him, who got angrier at him and laughed louder with him than with most of the people we meet on our life paths. Safe journey, my friend.
Remembrances by Lillian Crook
My first encounter with Dr. Wheeler was in the autumn of 1977, when I was a newly enrolled Dickinson State College student, in his American Literature survey course, never imagining that I would accumulate more than 40 years of memories with him. Something of a nerdy Slope County novice, I left that class enthralled that I was going to be able to spend my days in classes with the likes of Dr. Wheeler, Bill Fleming and Dr. Carl Larson, and my evenings reading their assignments along with time in the library, reading whatever I wished.
In Dr. Wheeler’s classes, I learned of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. To this day, I can still hear his voice reciting Williams’ poem with glee:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
Occasionally, he would climb up onto the wooden desk in the May Hall classrooms and sit perched there like a Buddha. At the end of the quarter, he arrived in the classroom with our final exam. The last page had an essay requirement and his instructions included the phrase: “Be succinct.” Someone had to ask him with some embarrassment what the meaning of “succinct” was. Oh, the myriad dullards he had to endure in his forty year career, to not mention all those freshman composition students!
Our paths would often cross in Stoxen Library. One day he told me that he had just finished an excellent novel, “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” Naturally, I read it at the first opportunity. Another time, I saw him at the old downtown Dickinson movie theater, where the film “Coming Home” was playing. Afterward, we talked about how we were both gobsmacked by the film.
In my sophomore year, as an English major, I enrolled in Advanced Composition. There were only three students in this course so he held it seminar style in his Stickney Hall office, two evenings a week, and in those nights there were enlightening and wide-ranging discussions of a variety of topics. One thing that remains with me is that, at the time, Dr. Wheeler was watching Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” on public television — he found the program enchanting. Living in the dorm, I had neither a TV nor the time, but, no matter — I experienced the program vicariously through him.
It was always unnerving to write assignments for him, but, to this day, I call upon what he taught me when I write, his patient tutoring a frequent and silent reminder. He often sent us to the library to peruse articles in “The Explicator,” to help us better understand works of literature and prepare us to compose our own criticisms. It was for him that I spent a weekend in the badlands slogging my way through Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.”
Shortly after I graduated, I was hired at Stoxen Library and was hence a colleague of Ray’s, where one of my responsibilities was the interlibrary loan department. By professional standards and the strict adherence to patron’s privacy rights, I never revealed Ray’s research topics, but I can now recount that one was his fascination with Native American trickster legends. Rightly so that he was felt by many to be a trickster in his own right. He was a first-rate imp with a wicked sense of humor. I can see him now, standing in my office, wringing his hands with that sly grin on his face, he with his inimitable turn of phrase.
In the “old days,” when the library had cards in pockets, Ray took some delight in roaming the stacks, snooping through the books to see who had checked out certain titles. Although he generally embraced technology, he did mildly object when we eliminated the card & pocket checkout system during computerization, thus squashing his fun. He also objected to having to present his barcoded ID at the checkout desk. After all, everyone knew who he was!
No matter how early I would arrive on campus, Ray’s Stickney Hall office window would already be lit as it was his habit to arrive very early and write. I would see him almost every day when he would come to the library to read The New Yorker (and other periodicals). To this day, I subscribe to the magazine and think of him each time I pick up my weekly issue to read. We both read “The White Hotel,” the novel by D.M. Thomas, and confessed to one another we were mutually stunned by the ending.
A notorious prankster, he and a few others, produced an occasional spoof “issue” of the campus newspaper, grinding it out on mimeograph machines. Rather than its proper name, The Western Concept, they entitled it The Western Corncept and other silly titles. Greatly anticipated, the day it dropped the campus would be abuzz with talk of it and the halls filled with laughter as everyone read the stories. Most everyone was lampooned in at least one issue over the years. One college president who shall go unnamed took umbrage and tried to lasso all available copies, to no avail. I was delighted a few years ago to find one issue preserved in a bound copy of The Western Concept in the Stoxen Library holdings.
Digital copies of The Western Concept and The Prairie Smoke (the DSU annual) are available at the Dickinson State University Archive, a trove of Wheeler nuggets within due to his long tenure there. Most of the images used in this tribute are courtesy of the DSU Archives.
Another intense memory I have of Ray is from 9/11. Midday, I broke away from my office, where the TV was on and everyone drifted in on and off to watch, to take a lunch break at the student center. Here Ray sat honed in on the big TV screen, horrified about the news, not able yet to reach his son who lived there.
In the winter, Ray would never don a coat for the trek from Stickney to May Hall. He would dash out the door of Stickney and sprint to the May Hall side entrance, and on up the inner stairs of May Hall to the second or third floor, two steps at a time.
Ray and I shared a love of gardening and birding. He loved bringing vegetables, especially garlic and tomatoes, to share with his friends. He boisterously embraced email and occasionally skewered a colleague or policy decision in an email with his rapier wit. It was in one of these emails that we all learned the meaning of the word logorrhea. Once he enthusiastically shared a tomato pie recipe to all campus email recipients. I cook from that recipe to this day, one of my husband’s favorites.
He also loved a party — and he threw some of the best parties. One of the best stories he told me was the time when he and a chap (“chap” was one of his favorite words) were in Jackson, Miss., and boldly knocked on Eudora Welty’s door, which she opened. They had a lovely chat. Naturally, I thought of this story many years later when I toured Welty’s Jackson home. While he could be acerbic, he was kind and generous. Much as he relished the role of curmudgeon, Ray was exceptionally generous and thoughtful. He helped with my household moving crew on several occasions, teasing me at this or that among my possessions.
My husband and I visited him in his later years when we could. The last time we saw him, a little over a year ago, we made a point to take him fresh tomatoes from our garden. We knew he was declining and his sight failing. When we arrived, he was in his room listening to public radio. He grinned when we told him who we were and that we had brought him our tomatoes. It was deeply moving to me when I realized that I would need to cut the tomatoes, and feed the chunks to him by hand. I never imagined that me, his former student, would find myself in that place, doing something so deeply personal for him. The expression that crossed his face was profound.
So he and I came full circle and the lines from the Williams poem came to me:
they were delicious
Selected remembrances from his former students as shared on Facebook with Jean Waldera upon the news of his death
Anita Hellman: “So sorry to hear that. He was one of the great thinkers, a free spirit and lover of life.”
Bruce Owen: “Rest in peace Dr. Wheeler, your pain is over.”
Kerin Nicholson Bunstock: “He was an excellent teacher and I loved his wry wit.”
Claire Kuhn Andrus: “He is one of the reasons I stayed with English program.”
Rik Walter: “AMPLE make this bed. Make this bed with awe; In it wait till judgment break Excellent and fair. Be its mattress straight, Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise Interrupt this ground. …”
These were the first words Ray recited to me and my Poetry 101 class. He would recite; we would repeat; until by the end of the course, we could all recite it without prompting. I am forever grateful.”
Margaret Marcusen: “He was one of my favorite professors.”
MH Malloy: “Nothing but respect and admiration for the man. He brought rock into Tim’s life, consequently into mine, and what an impact that has had on me. I had many powerful moments with Ray that I’ll never forget. I’m glad his suffering is over. I’ll never forget him.”
Gwen Stark: “I appreciated his kindness and perspective on life. RIP”
Kevin Thomas: “I will always cherish the fact that Ray cast me as Marley’s Ghost in the DSU/Dickinson Children’s Theatre production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ without even having me audition. That truly was an honor. Thank you, Ray! I will never forget you.”
Michael Krzmarzick: “He was a magnificent professor who imparted his love of experimental fiction and contemporary American poetry to a bumbling freshman English major. His sense of humor and sharp intellect made his classes a joy.”
Debi Blanc Rogers: “A gentleman and a scholar. In addition to his droll sense of humor and intelligence, my favorite memories of Ray were when he and Everett would sing gospel hymn. The sessions, full of zealous gusto, fabulous harmonies and the spice of bullshit would go on into the wee hours of the night. Our lives are fuller from and we will miss you Ray. So very glad you are finally at rest and peace. (Keep stirring up the heavens by belting those songs with Everett.)”
“Now cracks a noble heart.
Goodnight, sweet prince. And flights of angels send thee to thy rest.”
Debora Dragseth: “Such a good friend to all. He taught me so very much.”
Barb Vranna: “I had the distinct honor a few years ago, of running an errand for Ray. He wanted a new razor, so I ran to the store to get one. He was so grateful.”
Pattie Carr: “He loved teases me about Yoga . . . very special human.”
Bruce Allen Lorenz: “RIP Ray! Paradise holds a special place for you.”
Gail Sparling Lipsky Freindlich: “I would say I’m sorry but looks like he was finally set free. Thank you for notifying me. I just now have two memories of him. 1. I was in his fres.Eng. He said a quote and became very surprised. It was from Romeo and J. I was more surprised that I was the only one that could identify its origin. In the same class he said: Coming to class I passed the female bathroom. One of the girls said something that confused me. I wonder what she meant. She said: I’ve got to go in here. I have to comb my hairs. I was the only one that laughed. I think these two got me my A … Lol”
Chuck Andrus: “L. Ray Wheeler, with his indescribable bizarre humor, will be greatly missed.”
Julie Fedorenko: “A fine teacher and a great human being. RIP Mr. Wheeler, thank you for making the world a better place.”
Mark Waldera: “I have so many fond memories. I am challenged to know where to begin. The Taylor Loop is just one . . .Riding in the station wagon hunting with Dad and Mr. Wheeler. . . Just the 3 of us. And, of course, cleaning birds in the garage with Adults drinking PBR and flatulence related humor. Us youngsters loved it!”