Wendell Oliver Long passed away on Sunday, June 6th, 2016, from a sudden cerebral hemorrhage. He was eighty-five years of age.
Born in 1931 in Los Angeles, Wendell received a basketball scholarship from Loyola University, and graduated with a bachelor of arts in Education from the University of California Santa Barbara in 1956. He served in the US Army as a writer for the Military Police Journal. He then taught creative writing and coached basketball at San Dieguito High School in the north county of San Diego.
In 1980 Wendell relocated to Durango with his partner, Mary Ellen Long. Married in 1953, Wendell and Mary Ellen were each other’s inspiration—and the obvious joy of their relationship inspired many.
Wendell will be remembered as a well-loved manager at Durango Natural Foods in the 1980s and a fixture at countless events at the Durango Center for the Arts, where Mary Ellen serves as a member of the Advisory Board.
A long-time maestro at the Hillcrest Golf Club, Wendell was known for his playful sense of humor and clever one-liners. In his typical understated manner, he shot his age from his late 60s into his 80s. A generous friend and mentor, his care and conversation enriched the lives of countless students and friends.
Wendell was deeply proud of his family. He leaves behind Mary Ellen and two sons—Mark, a college professor in New Hampshire and Mitchell, a Los Angeles- based musician, daughter-in-law Rebecca Todd, and five grandchildren: Kaleb and Korin Stonacek, Zenos Karagas. and Nathaniel and Ellinore Todd Long.
A celebration of Wendell’s life is planned for Saturday, August 20th, in Durango.
from a series of posts by Colin on Best Slowly. Each posting is a walk, a sansaku, about 500 words long
I went on a mission last night. My friend picked me up just before sunset, and we drove up to the golf course in glorious fall weather. I was carrying some of the ashes of our good friend, Wendell.
The three of us often played golf together, and one time Wendell smiled after he made a long putt on the first hole. We asked about the smile, it was wicked, and he said, “This isn’t the first hole I’ve played today.”
He told us what he and his sexy wife had been up to that morning, and the first hole was never the same after that. I can still see the way he walked to the cup and bent down. He was pleased with himself.
There are some who would say he shouldn’t have done that, and there are some of us who loved him for it.
When we arrived at the course last evening, there was one lone golfer on the first tee and we had to wait. Wendell would’ve mocked him. The poor guy was pretending to be a pro, and after a ridiculously long pre-shot routine, almost missed the ball when he finally did swing. Had he a companion, it would’ve hit him.
Tom and I walked along the practice range, and I’ve rarely seen the golf course look as pretty. I was telling Wendell all about it.
We had to wait for our make-believe pro to putt out. Now he was playing two balls, and putted about as well as he drove. He had no idea we were watching him. It took him forever.
The green was sensuous and soft in the evening light. I pulled the flag stick and Tom got down on his knees and poured half of Wendell into the hole. Then it was my turn. I poured the other half and said, “Good-bye old buddy. I’ll never forget you.”
But there was trouble. We couldn’t get the flag back in; bones and ash had filled up the hole and the stick didn’t fit. I looked back toward the clubhouse and wondered if they could see us poking around down there.
They wouldn’t have liked what we were doing, and I started to laugh in my out of control way as I fingered the hole and tried to open it up. It’s tighter than you’d think. “Let me try,” Tom said. “My finger’s smaller.”
Wendell, as usual, got in the last laugh and we left the flag leaning at a provocative angle. The greens keeper was in for a surprise. Tom called it Wendell’s revenge.
Now there’s two reasons why the first hole at Hillcrest will never be the same.
from a series of posts by Colin on Best Slowly. Each posting is a walk, a sansaku, about 500 words long
Wendell had been given the title, El Senor Perezoso, on a sojourn in Costa Rica. He was fond of being called Mr. Sloth and promptly named his wife the mosquito. It was characteristic of his humor. He didn’t really mean he was irritated by the way she buzzed around, he was proud of her artistic industry, but bums like to tease workers.
When I lived in Mexico, the word we used was flojo. It wasn’t really a compliment, but I didn’t feel that way and quickly appropriated the term. Wendell and I are both flojo, Mary Ellen is not.
She’d done a slide show of Wendell’s life and it was going around in circles. It was a collage of carefully sculpted images. I saw it twice.
When my nephew was to be married at the posh Bel Air Hotel, I had to brag. I knew they knew it. Wendell talked about a date with Mary Ellen. He had taken her there when he could not afford to go. “She meant that much to me.” The last time he’d been there, Mitchell was playing. He didn’t have to say. I watched his eyes go moist.
Mary Ellen, in her understated way, said she thought she might have some art in the hotel. I had no idea what to expect.
When we arrived, both Hillary Clinton and Michael Eisner, the Disney CEO, were staying there. The place is surprisingly intimate. It felt like a tropical paradise with quaint cottages, not an LA hotel. Above the front desk in the lobby was a large collage. It was obviously hers.
It wasn’t one of those works of art you could easily describe or understand. The two women at the desk had theories about its history and they weren’t even close.
Sometimes a bird or mammal looks like the place it comes from. When I say I grew up in Boulder during the sixties, people often say, “That explains it.” Mary Ellen and Wendell are southern California at its best. They even look the part.
Their old friend, Julie, spoke after Tom at the ceremony.
“It was 1971, and the two of them were the cutting edge of that era. I still had a foot in the fifties. And then they took me to hear Gloria Steinem speak, and my marriage began to crumble.”
“I don’t know how, but they were able to usher me into their way of experiencing the world. Wendell had asked me to help with his chaotic creative writing class. The stories those kids wrote were phenomenal, and because of his tenderness with them, it led straight to education.”
“I had learned to use a red pencil, but he taught me there were no mistakes in high school creative writing classes. And where I stayed in the lines, he didn’t even see them. No wonder the kids adored him.”
“I learned the same thing from Mary Ellen, and they made me feel smart. I didn’t know I was smart back then, but because of them, I guess I am.”
“He talked about his wife and kids so much it could be extremely annoying. But he was a blessed man who loved his wife with great respect and raised two boys in a most thoughtful way.”
Julie confessed she had to distance herself after he became so vulnerable. “I couldn’t listen to him cry as he faced this stage of life and the many medical challenges. But I liked how he said good-bye.”
“I’ve been waiting for a dream, but it just came on Tuesday. He was wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. Mary Ellen said he wasn’t dressed appropriately, but he didn’t care and gave me a spectacular hug.”
from a series of posts by Colin on Best Slowly. Each posting is a walk, a sansaku, about 500 words long
Tom was the lead-off speaker at Wendell’s wake, and probably only a handful of us knew what an all-star he was. He looks like Clark Kent, and it’s a perfect disguise.
One time, after we learned Tom had won two Emmy awards for his journalism, Wendell asked him, “Why didn’t you tell us?” Tom actually said, “They give them to everyone.”
Wendell turned to me and said in his inimitable way, “I don’t have an Emmy. Do you have one, Colin?”
Tom told the story of Wendell’s life as only a highly skilled reporter knows how. “He was a child of the depression and was born into a struggling family on the wrong side of the tracks.”
“He was always a good athlete, and since Wendell never exaggerated, you had to know everything he said was true.”
“And then he crossed the tracks and met Mary Ellen on a blind date. When she opened the door, all she could think was, ‘What a big nose, don’t stare.’ All he could think was, ‘Wow,’ he wanted to stare.”
He took his time with the story, as a good story deserves. He knew how to add that touch of color. “When the kids hated school he took a leave from teaching and they spent two years in Europe. Wendell said he could rewrite the book, Europe on Ten Dollars a Day, and do it on five. “He could throw nickels around like man-hole covers.”
“If you played golf with Wendell, you had to play happy to play well. He didn’t suffer golf fools lightly.” I liked how Tom didn’t avoid the character flaws that made the man real and even better because of them.
“When the cascade of ailments began, we would try to cheer him up.” Tom stops after saying this, his voice cracks. “He always let you know how he felt about you. I never left after a visit where he didn’t thank me and tell me how much I meant to him. And then he was free.”
Tom had been at the French Open when it happened. Clark Kent knows how to fly and gets around.
Michael was the last speaker to tee off, and used a golf metaphor. “I’m reminded of another of Wendell’s one-liners. If everyone was in with his putt or had made a good drive, he said, ‘Only you can screw it up now.’ That’s how I’m feeling.”
Michael made the putt and hit a perfect drive. But Mitchell surprised me by singing three last and timeless songs. Not only Wendell but all the ancestors gathered around.
When Mitchell started to play the song, he said, “The intro isn’t this long. I’m emotional. It’s the song I played when my parents walked into a club I was playing. It’s always been a favorite.”
The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay. But our love is here to stay.
The other two songs were every bit as meaningful, and I can see I’ll be writing about this tomorrow. You know the saying, “When you’re in a hurry, go slow, take the long way.” There’s still Julie and Mary Ellen.
The last song was one Wendell had talked about, right before he died. “It was a final musical moment,” Mitchell said. “And since I just learned it, I might find myself in the wrong melody.” No way. It was timeless.
He wanted his father to know, no matter what, Things I should have said and done, I didn’t take the time. But you were always on my mind. You were always on my mind.
Because I worked with dreams, I learned to write very fast. Dreams are hard to listen to, because you need to experience, feel, and remember all at the same time. I get distracted, usually after the first image, and lost in my own fantasies. By the time I come to and they’re asking me about the dream, I have to have them repeat it.
I discovered, if I wrote what they said, I could track the dream content, my experience, feelings, and what I wanted to say, all at the same time. It looks like hell when I’m doing it.
At Wendell’s celebration, my friend, Michael, who was another of the speakers asked me what I was doing. “I thought you were writing your speech at first, and then thought it might be a dissertation.”
He wasn’t the only one who asked. I took eighteen pages of notes.
I wanted to be sure I remembered, so I listened like I listen to dreams.
Since my fast writing is nearly illegible, I have to transcribe. If I intend to save something, I put it in my journal. I have stacks of notes that will never be read because I procrastinated. I have regrets.
I continued with Wendell’s celebration this morning, and copied what his friend Julie said. I realized it had an archetypal meaning.
She began by saying, “I would have to go after Mitchell. Great.” Mitchell is Wendell’s son and a world class musician. The two songs he had just sung were last kiss killers.
While he tuned his guitar, he said, “I shouldn’t be up here playing. Wendell, my dad, I hardly know what to call him, has died.”
“I tried to write a song, but I couldn’t find the words. That’s the first line, my dad is hard for me to describe.”
He tells us how he has always played guitar, for as long as he remembers. “It’s all I ever did.” His mom bought him his first guitar, but it was too large to get arms around, so he got a ukulele.
His dad never said much to encourage or discourage, praise or criticize, he just let him play. “One day,” Mitchell said, “I was playing ‘Misty’ and he walked over and listened.” He said, “You really can play that thing.”
“That was a turning point for me, and it’s the first song I want to play for you.”
When he finished the song, he said, “That was really hard. I’m shaking.” And then he played a song that just about did us all in.
Nights are long since you went away/ I think about you all through the day/ My buddy, my buddy/ Nobody quite so true.
Miss your voice, the touch of your hand/ Just long to know, you understand/ My buddy, my buddy/ Your buddy misses you.
After a guitar break, he sang the same words a second time, and I had no idea how he performed that song. Then came Julie’s time to speak.
“There’s a scene in the movie, ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ I want to talk about. Not the famous one, but the one where he says no man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive.”
After Julie paused to cry, she said, “That wasn’t true with Wendell. I was always safe with him. We could go there. He so adored his wife, that his boundaries were clear. Even though he was a babe magnet and liked to flirt.”
“My buddy, my buddy. My mentor, my teacher, my friend.”
I’ve known for a long time that the work is most productive when the conditions are the hardest, provided you remember what you’re working on. And if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. I’m not as happy when I play it safe, but neither do I suffer.
I let it all hang out yesterday and now I’m feeling a bit fried from the over-exposure. Even my dreams let me know. What are you doing? Do you know what this looks like?
I tell stories because they are easy for me to remember, and the generalized abstractions are not. And I remember stories with emotional edges the best, especially when the hero went for broke and lost it. “Then what happened?”
I must have felt safe yesterday, because I headed straight for the unsafe waters. I was surfing a riptide of dangerous emotion and kept close to the breaking point for an excruciatingly long time.
Wendell’s ceremony of life was better than I’d expected, and I’d expected a great deal.
I loved the way his daughter-in-law opened the ceremony. “Witness the passage of a great man and a life well lived.”
She wanted to tell a story, but her voice broke. We were all listening to her as one. “When I picked up his ashes, the man at the mortuary said he must have been very young. I asked him why. He explained that the ashes of the old are light, and these are really heavy.” She added, “Wendell would want all of you to know this.”
When it came my time to speak, I knew I was going to be outrageously vulnerable, and that’s a recipe for shame. But I could only see a few of the faces in the huge crowd. Because they belonged to the people I love and who know me, I wasn’t afraid to reveal.
Wendell always told me, swing like you have no fear.
There’s a scene in the golf movie, “Tincup,” where the hero is being a complete and utter fool. His girlfriend yells, “Just go for it, Roy.” His ex says, “Don’t encourage him.” But she says, “I’ve never had a man who went for it.” The ex says, “Then he’s your guy.”
From the start of my talk, and I knew even with a microphone my voice would be too soft for those in the back of the lodge to hear, the display of emotion would not. I could barely speak at times. I felt little need to apologize.
Just before I spoke, I remembered two sayings about the ocean, and thought of Wendell. “No matter where you go, the taste’s the same.” And this one, “The ocean will give you as much as you can carry.”
We never know just how the story of our life will end. And while he died unexpectedly, he went true to character. I said to the gathering I had written some sketches.
I was already over my head and caught in the riptide, when I said I’d start with a sketch called “Transubstantiation.” Wendell was no Christ and wouldn’t have said, “Remember me when you eat and drink.”
But I didn’t back down. I could feel his sly smile, that Cheshire grin, as I took off all of my clothes and defenses. Finally, naked and feeling quite small, I just stopped talking. I’d said too much and not enough.
Chyako told me, “By the end of the talk your voice was so soft it had almost disappeared.” I said, “I’d gone inside and couldn’t come out.” I had no idea of what that must have looked like. I’m sure I scandalized a few, but most of the others came with me.
If you have a good friend, you’ve had to apologize at least a hundred times. Had I called Wendell in the last few days before his death, I would have apologized one more time.
Chyako and I had been up in the Northwest for a couple of weeks, and I hadn’t called him as soon as we returned. I knew that he knew we were back. I had planned to call on the day he died.
The two of us had a comedy routine we often played out on the phone. I’d call and he’d say, “Do I know you?” He pretended to give a cold shoulder, especially when it wasn’t.
“Yeah,” I’d answer, “it’s your very good friend who doesn’t call as often as he should.”
I didn’t mind he scolded me. I needed his forgiveness more than he needed mine. It meant that he cared and I liked that.
About this time, he’d say, “Wait a minute, my editor has something to say. Mary Ellen wants to know if you and Chyako can come for dinner.”
Wendell and I made a strange pair. He had an almost aristocratic polish and wore his clothes well. Polish is not a word that’s ever been used to describe me. I’m more scuffed up, and while we both wear visors, I wear mine for a different reason. It’s my hair.
Being elderly did not come easily to him. Neither of us identified with being old, and Wendell was one of those endless summer and forever young types. Before him, I had never seen anyone walk so tall or look so good with a fractured spine and a walker.
His medical problems began with a bout of A-Fib, and a few years later I had an episode myself. We both have sensitive hearts, and our talks deepened after that.
He knew his body was coming undone, but he suffered the indignities as gracefully and as wittily as he knew how, he complained and worried with an elegant sense of humor.
As always, I studied him.
We’d known each other for years, and then I got married. Since both of our wives are artists, the circle of friendship tightened. He was proud of being Mr. Mary Ellen, and I was proud of being Mr. Chyako. But he was far more faithful. He let me know, “This is my four thousand and fortieth art opening. How many for you?”
When he visited me at home, he often asked about an article he had read in the latest New Yorker. He knew I didn’t subscribe, but assumed that I read it just the same.
One of the last articles I remember we discussed was a history of the DSM, which is the diagnostic manual for psychological problems. He could easily have been a therapist; he understood that it’s not the problem, it’s the person. He had both brains and smarts.
Wendell liked to stand in the corner closest to the potluck table and wine. So when I speak at the funeral today, I’ll probably do a reading from the six essays I’ve written. The image is clear, it’ll be like a potluck and wine tasting.
Wendell knew that I brought Mexican beer and guacamole to potlucks. I seriously doubt he could have guessed I’d be bringing the bread and wine. It’s time for the transubstantiation.
I read somewhere that the words at death are usually good. And a eulogy literally means, the good words. I’ve also heard it said that some of the Zen and haiku masters composed poems just before they died. In fact, I have a book of them.
I’m still thinking about Wendell and what I’m going to say tomorrow.
Wendell died like a haiku and I can hear a few of them. He died, not with a bang but a smooch. It was that last kiss that killed him.
Wendell taught creative writing and poetry; he knew how to end a story and rhymed the final couplet.
If it’s true that our whole life flashes in front of our eyes before we go, I can guarantee Wendell’s got a good review. There was that time in Denver. His son with playing at a downtown club with one of the great old jazz and blues musicians.
At the break, he came over to meet the parents, and asked Wendell what he had done. Wendell explained he’d retired early, and his wife was a very successful artist. “Oh, I get it,” he said, “You’ve been pimping.” I wasn’t there, but I can see his face. It was one time when Wendell didn’t have a come-back line.
When my time comes and the big book Bible opens, I’m sure there’s a chapter called Wendell. Our good friends and family become the prophets and the saints. Saint Wendell has a certain ring to it.
The ring rhymes with ping, which is the kind of putter he used. I think I’ll bring my old ping to the ceremony and use it as a prop and a stand-in. It was a gift from my friend, Larry Goff, who often played with us.
The first time I introduced him to Wendell, he earned a nickname that stuck. On the first tee he asked if Wendell wanted to ride in the cart he’d rented. Wendell wasn’t the kind to refuse a free meal.
But he wasn’t halfway in before Larry took off. Wendell made a big deal of it, as was his wont, and called him Whiplash. It fit. Larry even hung up the phone before you could say good-bye.
Then, on the third hole, Larry shanked a shot and it hit Wendell in the chest, who now acted mortally wounded. From then on, whenever Larry teed off, Wendell made a big deal out of saying, “Wait until I get behind you.”
Larry, who also had a mouth, never backed down and usually hit it straight down the middle. Without turning around, he’d say, “Any questions.”
“Yeah,” said Wendell. “Have you always been this cocky?”
A few holes later, Wendell made a long birdie putt, and using his putter as a dance cane, did an extremely lame moonwalk across the green. Larry shook his head and said, “You’d better not think about taking that dance to town.”
“Too late,” said Wendell. “I already have.”
And not to change the subject, but you should have seen him in his tidy-whities, he looked like an underwear model for Penney’s. Eighty years old and still a show-off. But as the man says, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.”
One last taste of Wendell. When he heard a wine snob say of a particular vintage that it lacked gravitas, he stole the word. His One-Liner Red, which could be a zinger, often got him in trouble. “I can’t help it, I lack gravitas.”
It’s not by accident I wrote about marriage yesterday, I was expecting a call. My friend’s son is going to be the preacher at his sister’s wedding. I don’t know how I missed the synchronicity. It was clear case of complex causation.
I’m about to speak at my good friend’s funeral, which is a ceremony and like the marriage ritual, a Celebration of Life. We know how the story ends, and my buddy lived a good one. He was lucky.
Wendell has never been more alive than after he died. We often talked for hours on the clubhouse balcony above the practice range. He liked to philosophize and I’m surprised that’s not where I see him now.
One of those last times we played, he said his game was so bad all that remained was his mouth. That’s how I see him, looking down from above, like a Cheshire Cat. Except, along with the grin comes the voice.
When Mary Ellen was planning the ritual, I said I’d tell a few stories and some of his quips. The Geezer, as we called him, might have been a really good golfer, but he was a world class lip and one-liner.
I need to confess that I took great advantage of Wendell. He was born twenty years before me and was twenty years ahead. Because we were similar in so many ways, I trusted him to guide me into my forties, fifties and now sixties. I learned what kind of an elder I wanted to be from him.
When it came to picking a team, I was always quick to choose him.
But while we made different choices, our two borders, California and Colorado, were wide open and we traveled often and shared the best of both.
I mostly listened, because he knew the way I would soon have to walk. He was generous with his experience, and I have nothing but praise.
I remembered a story this morning. We just happened to be at the Animas Overlook up Junction Creek, when the Valley Fire started. Mary Ellen pointed to some smoke, and since we had binoculars and cameras, we became witnesses in a court battle.
We’d gone up there to look across at the Missionary Ridge Fire, that was threatening their beloved home on Clearview. In fact, they’d evacuated to a friend’s house and stored some of their prized furniture in our garage.
The next day, the paper had it all wrong and another friend urged we call the cops. That’s how we ended up, the three of us, doing a day’s worth of depositions with a dozen attorneys.
Mary Ellen happened to mention Wendell kept a journal, and they requested he bring it. While he gave her no end of grief about her act of betrayal, he couldn’t wait to show them. He knew the odds were good it would include some amorous adventure with his wife or how he birdied the eighteenth hole to shoot yet another round in the seventies.
When it came my turn to testify, I had to ask, “Did you read Wendell’s journal?” They all smiled and said, “He’s a lucky man.” A single taste was all it took.
Wendell, however, wouldn’t have called it luck. He knew what he was doing when he married Mary Ellen, more than sixty years ago. I often heard him say, “It’s not luck, it’s the residue of design.”