We will never again see the likes of Iowa icon Robert James Waller

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

COOPER, Iowa, March 17, 2017 – The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls simply must find a prominent spot on campus – near the business school or library would be particularly appropriate – and create a landscaped “Waller Plaza” with a life-sized or bigger bronze statue of Robert James Waller.

The 77-year-old author, economist, musician, photographer, philosopher, teacher, visionary and long ago a remarkable athlete, died a week ago in Fredericksburg, Texas, of cancer and pneumonia after an illness of about six months.

I’d known him for 40 years, mostly from afar, at his insistence.  But my admiration of him and of his work is so deep that I regard him as one of the most notable Iowans of our era.

Let me tell you a few stories.

Robert James Waller Wenn Photo.jpg

Robert James Waller (Photo by Wenn)

Most know of Waller because of his 1992 red hot love story of a novel, “Bridges of Madison County,” which sold more than 50 million copies in 40 languages. It was later a huge movie hit, starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, and then it had success as a Broadway musical.

The book was one of the biggest publishing successes of all time, and it took him only nine days to write it, although I swear he once told me it was 11.  In the first few weeks after the book was launched, with a massive publicity campaign, it was clear how popular it was going to be.  When Waller did a book signing on the porch of the Madison County Courthouse in Winterset, my memory is that he sold and signed more than 800 books before his hand and arm cramped badly and he had to quit.

Right about then, I met him for an interview in his Cedar Falls home. 

I was a feature columnist for the Des Moines Register then, and I’d already written about Waller several times over the years, beginning in the late 1970s.  I wrote a series of columns back then, “The Big Four and One More,” in which I spent several days at each of the state’s four major universities and one small college – Dordt in Sioux Center – to check out how campus life had changed in the decade since my own college experience. 

WHEN HE WAS A HIP YOUNG PROFESSOR.  When I got to UNI, I was shown around the brand new “UNI-Dome” enclosed stadium, the new student center and the new Speech/Art Complex under construction.  And I was introduced to two hip young professors – Bob Waller, as we knew him then, from the business school, and Scott Cawelti, from the English department. Then in their mid to late 30s, they were among a new generation of faculty members who were energizing the old teachers’ college.  They’d already become two of the most respected profs, and they were also a popular musical act, singing and playing guitars with their wives in bars around northeast Iowa. 

I recall either Waller or Cawelti telling me in our first conversation that “everybody used to say UNI stood for ‘University of Nothing Important,’ but now it’s at least ‘University of Nothing Insignificant.’ ”

In the 1980s, Waller also began sending wonderfully-written essays to the Register’s opinion section.  Some of them were memories of his boyhood.  Others were observations about Iowa from his travels around the state (by car and by canoe).  He shared a couple of love stories, too.  They were very popular with Register readers, many of whom were stunned to be enjoying fine prose from an economist, of all things, the dean of a business school!

One of those essays, which the Register published on July 6, 1986, was “Jump Shots” – which remains my favorite piece of all that Waller ever wrote. 

That essay is a window into his own fascinating athletic history, while also giving testimony about self-discipline and determination in dealing with any challenge. 

Bobby Waller truly made himself into one of the finest shooters ever in high school and college basketball in Iowa.  He was a starter from late in his freshman year at old Rockford High School in north central Iowa, where he graduated in 1957.  Then he was a scholarship player for the Iowa Hawkeyes, before his UI coach Bucky O’Connor was killed in a car wreck. Waller then decided to transfer to Iowa State Teachers College – which was UNI before a name change – and played a year for new Panthers coach Norm Stewart, who would later have a long career coaching the University of Missouri Tigers.

If you’ve never read “Jump Shots,” you should. It is in a couple of different books of Waller essays that are available in most libraries or for sale online.  In 2005, when I wrote “Bernie Saggau & the Iowa Boys – The Centennial History of the Iowa High School Athletic Association,” Waller helped me arrange permission from the publishing company that now owns “Jump Shots,” so that I could include the essay as an important piece of high school sports history in the state.  (That book is available in all Iowa high school and public libraries, thanks to the IHSAA.)

THEY GAVE HIM A YEAR OFF, AND LOOK WHAT HAPPENED! By the late 1980s and early ’90s, Waller had become so well respected in Iowa as an observer, thinker and a writer that the Iowa Legislature commissioned him to take a year off from teaching to travel the whole state while retaining his salary and having his expenses covered.  Can you even imagine that happening now?  He was loosely directed to talk to people, think about the state’s future, and come back with some observations and recommendations.  He turned that into a 1991 book, “Iowa: Perspectives on Today and Tomorrow.”

While he was doing all that traveling around Iowa, he visited Winterset and Madison County, stayed a couple nights, spent some time photographing the famous covered bridges, and, as I later wrote, “he felt a love story stirring in his soul.”

In my 1992 interview with him, Waller told me that on the drive home from Winterset to Cedar Falls, he was rolling that story around in his mind.  It began consuming so much of his consciousness as he was driving that he stopped in tiny Conant Park along Iowa Highway 96, three miles east of the town of Gladbrook.  He got out of his car, pulled out a paper tablet, sat at a picnic table and started writing in longhand.  “The story was coming out of me so fast, it was like it was galloping!” he said.

In those years in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Waller and I saw each other frequently – at the Iowa State University Press in Ames.  That non-profit publishing company, affiliated with the university, produced several books by Waller (collections of his essays) and three of mine (two collections of columns and the biography of legendary Des Moines restaurateur Babe Bisignano).  We appeared together in ads that ISU Press ran in newspapers and magazines. We would often chat when we’d be at the Press building at the same time, picking up page proofs or boxes of books and confirming public appearances arranged by Neelum Chaudhry, who was then the marketing director.

It was probably in early 1992 when Chaudhry said to me, “Waller has a hot one, so hot that we think it’s probably too big for us.  Want to see it?”  With his permission, she handed me early page proofs of “Bridges of Madison County.”  She said ISU Press had already sent the manuscript to a major New York-based publisher with whom they had a business relationship, and contracts were being finalized.

I took the page proofs home to my wife Carla Offenburger, a voracious reader then and now. In no more than two days, she had read all of “Bridges” and predicted it would be a huge hit.

And so it was.

Bookstores across America had a hard time keeping enough copies on hand to sell.

AT THE DES MOINES REGISTER, WE SHOT OURSELVES IN THE FOOT. Once I got the book read, I gave it a positive review in one of my columns.  Other media reaction wasn’t as favorable.

“Despite the proven popularity of the book, many in the media – including some colleagues of mine at the Des Moines Register – made fun of the story and of Waller,” I later wrote in my book about the high school athletic association. “It was unseemly, they wrote, that a business professor, a good thinker and a serious writer would win such fame and financial reward for what they characterized as a shallow love story.  He was the target of some real cheap shots, even in the Register, the newspaper that had launched him as a writer in the 1980s… Waller thereafter began refusing interview requests from Register reporters and columnists,” a policy he basically followed the rest of his life.

That was really awkward, especially in the 1990s, when Waller became one of the most famous Iowans ever, that he refused to talk to any of us at the state’s largest media outlet.

 I kept trying to convince him to let me interview him – “anytime and anywhere,” I’d always say.  I’d usually send my requesets through a mutual friend, J.R. Ackley of Marble Rock, Iowa.

Ackley had been friends with Waller since boyhood, and I’d come to know Ackley as a RAGBRAI rider and a small town mayor.  Waller was kind in his turndowns, sending word via Ackley that “sorry, nothing personal against you,” but he was still offended by how others at the Register had criticized him and his work.

GIVING IT THE OLD COLLEGE TRY.  I even attempted to sneak up on him, so to speak.

In the spring of 1993, I was the commencement speaker at Buena Vista College, as it was named then, in Storm Lake in northwest Iowa.  In the spring of 1994, BV President Keith Briscoe convinced Waller to come do that year’s graduation speech. 

I was traveling through northwest Iowa a day or two before the ’94 ceremony, when an idea occurred to me.  I stopped in Storm Lake, called President Briscoe’s secretary Donna Schoneboom, and asked her if I could drop off a written message for her to hand-deliver to Waller when he was on campus.  She said she’d be happy to do that.  So I bought some plain white envelopes and note cards.

On the first envelope, I wrote: “To the 1994 Buena Vista College commencement speaker from the 1993 Buena Vista College commencement speaker.”

Inside it, I put a second envelope that had this message on it: “Why do Simon Estes, Terry Branstad, Roger Williams, Keith Briscoe, Lisa Bluder and Jim Zabel all get such favorable coverage in the Des Moines Register?”

Inside that one, I put a third envelope and on the outside of it wrote: “The answer.”

Inside the third envelope I put a note card that said: “The answer: All those famous Iowans get good coverage in the Register because they all talk to the 1993 Buena Vista College commencement speaker, Chuck Offenburger.  Anytime, anywhere – you name it!”  And I included my business card.

A couple days later, I received a card from him in the mail. 

“Chuck,” he wrote, “Nice try! But no.” He signed it, “Waller.”

From then in 1994 until 2004, I saw Waller two or three times – usually when he was giving public speeches around Iowa.  I’d always wait afterward, shake hands with him, exchange a few genuine pleasantries, and ask again if we could get together for an interview.  And I wrote to him a couple times, still through his ol’ pal Ackley.  The answer was always, “Sorry – no.”

In that time, Waller moved to Texas, and in 1998 I left the Register.  I tried again then, thinking since I was no longer working for the newspaper, maybe he’d consent for an on-the-record conversation that I could write for this website or for some other publication.  Nope.

THERE’S ONE TOPIC EVERYBODY WANTS TO TALK ABOUT!  But then came 2004, when I was working on what became the 502-page history of Iowa high school boys sports. For that, I interviewed more than 400 people, including a couple of governors, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, famous musicians and busy professional athletes.  I realized something.  As I described it in the book, “It is amazing how quickly phone calls are returned, if you leave word that you want to talk to somebody about their high school sports experience.”

I really wanted to include Waller in the book, and, as I said earlier, hoped he’d help get permission for us to include that “Jump Shots” essay, too.  So on Sunday night, May 23, 2004, I called the reluctant intermediary J.R. Ackley and asked if he’d contact Waller about talking to me for the new book, which I described. “Oh, Chuck, I’ll get in touch with him, but you know how he is on this stuff,” Ackley said. “He’s never said ‘yes’ yet, so I doubt he will now. But I will ask him.”

And?

“Just before 8 a.m. the next morning, May 24, 2004, I was out front of our house, putting up our American flag to start another day,” I wrote in the book. “Suddenly my wife Carla opened the front door and, with a special urgency, yelled, ‘You better get in here right now!’  What was the matter? ‘Nothing’s wrong! Robert James Waller is on the phone for you! Get in here!’ ”

I sprinted!

Waller talked at length with me.  The stories flowed out of him about Rockford High School, about his college sports experience, and about how his views of sport changed later.  Yes, he said, he’d be pleased to arrange permission to publish the “Jump Shots” essay in the book.

He couldn’t have been more congenial or more cooperative.  And he still looks great in that book.

Now he’s gone.

WE NEED TO DO RIGHT BY ROBERT JAMES WALLER.  As we all know, Waller struggled with the fame that “Bridges” brought him.  He moved away to Texas.  His first marriage broke up, and there was some estrangement with family and friends. He married again, developed new interests, and kept writing. But as the Waterloo Courier put it, he “became something of a happy recluse.” 

He gave a lot to Iowa – from basketball glory in his student years, to the education and counsel he gave UNI students for 22 years as a professor, to his administrative leadership as dean of the business school for six years, lots of musical entertainment, and all his essays and books.  “Bridges,” as many of us remember, created a mega-wave of new tourism in Iowa, especially in Madison County.

And in 2012, Waller made a “seven-figure gift” to UNI and assigned the school future royalties from his books.

After his death last week, his longtime faculty friend and music partner Scott Cawelti told the Courier that Waller had said “he’d had a helluva life – more than he ever expected to happen to a chicken farmer’s son from Rockford, Iowa.

“He’s sort of iconic for Iowa,” Cawelti continued. “He really made it big –50 million books sold worldwide, a great movie with major stars, a Broadway show. That’s a whole new level of making it big.  Robert became a touchstone for people.”

I hope there’ll be a Waller Plaza at UNI, telling his story for people of the future.

These were Shakespeare’s words in “Hamlet,” but they fit well for Robert James Waller now, too: We will never see the likes of him again.

You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.

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