Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rest Well, Rick Walton

Rick Walton's funeral is Saturday.

Those words were not easy to type.

I've wanted to write about Rick for a while, but I found it too difficult. Writing about him now means acknowledging something I don't want to acknowledge. Rick Walton is really gone.

Few people would argue that there has ever been anybody more important to the Utah children's writing community than Rick. He was a teacher, a mentor, a cheerleader. A friend.

A friend, even if he'd never met you personally.

There are so many people who know Rick better than I do. (Even now, I can't stay in past tense.) I got to know him a little bit online, exchanging word play in the Yahoo group he led, which may have been the first real online gathering place for Utah kidlit writers. I met Rick in person, finally, at a conference. Wherever writers for young people gathered in Utah, Rick was there. He didn't necessarily insert himself everywhere or dominate, but he was there, like the Professor Emeritus overseeing everything, just by his presence. I was even taught by Rick in one conference session.

Rick was just as open to chatting with and encouraging people who were just starting to explore writing for kids as he was people who had published multiple books.

As I said, many people have closer personal ties to Rick. He enhanced the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands. And that doesn't include the countless people he touched with his books. I was recently on a BART train heading into San Francisco, and saw a woman several seats in front of me sharing Rick's Frankenstein with a child. I'm glad I was able to tell him about that.

I didn't see him in person for a few years, although we continued to share interesting or funny words with each other online once in a while. I don't even know if Rick knew who I was, really, at that point. Then, one day, he put out a call for people to help him with several projects he had in the works. I volunteered to help him with what was at that time still a pretty vague concept for a project exploring interesting roots of words. He picked me to help him. Next thing I knew I was at his house, talking words, exploring the thing we both loved so much. I hadn't seen him in a while, so the obvious effects of Parkinson's Disease, a cruel illness I've observed too closely in my family, took me by surprise.

But he was still sharp. Still creative. Still working on more projects than any mere mortal could handle. I feel bad that I have such a hard time juggling three or four projects. Rick had so many pots on the fire. (Rick would excuse the cliche. In fact, he'd probably tell me where it came from, then he'd flip it on its head and turn it into something funny.) Over the next few weeks, as the project started to take shape and gain momentum, we emailed each other almost daily, sharing our etymological discoveries.

The prospective publisher ended up pulling the plug on this project, and our collaboration was over. But I enjoyed that short period in his circle, and learned a lot from him. He didn't actually teach me anything. He didn't have to actually teach. You couldn't be around him long without learning, and without feeling like you had somebody in your corner.

Not too long after our momentary collaboration, Rick's brain tumor was discovered, and he moved into a care center near my home. I visited him whenever I could, which was not nearly often enough. At first, I went a couple times a week, but when I went back to school, my time was suddenly eaten up and I went when I could.

I wish I had been able to go more.

He loved visitors. He loved to hear how our writing projects were going, who we were submitting our work to, what projects we had in the works. Even as it became harder for him to make himself understood when speaking, he'd ask questions and give encouragement. For a while, a few of us would visit once a week to write with him. But that soon became difficult for him, leaving him visibly exhausted and frustrated.

I wish so many things. I wish I had visited more often. I wish I could have helped him more and helped him better when he asked for assistance. I wish I had known him better before he got sick. I wish I had been able to complete our collaboration.

Most of all, I wish he were still here.

See, even when he was sick, even when he was nearing the end of his far-too-short life and was clearly frustrated and depressed about not being able to develop all of those ideas that constantly exploded from the brain that was working against him, he encouraged and coached and led our writing community. He was losing the energy that was so much a part of who he was, but he still shared what he could, and absorbed what he could from his visitors. By just being here, just being on the planet, he made us better writers. Even when his own physical abilities failed him.

It's tempting, when somebody dies, to talk about the hole their passing left. But Rick gave so much, put so much out there, that he left a mountain behind.

Rick Walton forever changed the Utah writing community. He's gone now, but his influence will live on. Even when there's nobody left who remembers him personally, there will be people taught by the people he taught. There will be books by the people he encouraged and coached, and by the people they encouraged and coached. And, of course, there will be his books, somewhere around 100 of them, although an actual count is complicated because he did so many different things.

There will never be another Rick Walton. So many people were inspired by him. More importantly, so many people loved him. I hope he knew that. I hope he really understood that.

Goodbye, my friend. It really was a pleasure to know you. Most of all, thank you. Thank you for being there, and for letting me and so many others into your huge circle, and for giving us so much of yourself.

If anybody deserves a good rest, it's you. But I don't suppose you're resting. There are too many stories left to tell.