My Walter

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Cope Cumpston

W.butterfly.lrWhen I met Walter in Boston we were calligraphers in love with words and letterforms, pioneer members of the Lettering Arts Guild of Boston. I was editing its newsletter, and he was the treasurer. I went over budget so he took me to lunch to Discuss It. At that lunch we fell into each other and talked through a dentist appointment and half the afternoon. When I finally took the subway back to my job I remember saying to myself, I don’t know what just happened but I know nothing is ever going to be the same.

And it wasn’t. We ran through the ti-trees, we ran through the mulga; we ran through the long grass, we ran through the short grass. We ran through the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, we ran till our hind legs ached. We had to!

Walter was 21 years older than I, and retired when we moved to California. That opened his time to be a stay-at-home dad for Sarah, and to dive with full energy into the passions that kept expanding throughout his life. He had been a football player and not very academically oriented in college, and regretted that deeply. He returned after his years at Borden for graduate work in economics at Duke. He realized as he struggled with equations and finance theory that his heart lay in history, but that wasn’t the road to supporting his family at the time.

Around the time he was at Duke, when he also quit smoking and lost some 70 pounds from his business-executive years abroad, Walter began a lifelong immersion in history – the history of civilization, studies of Greek and Roman writers with a particular focus on Julian the Apostate and what he had to teach about the emperor-scholar, about being a ruler but also a social and religious reformer and a deeply passionate man of letters. Walter read widely in ecclesiastical studies and the philosophy of religion, following an early immersion in the Episcopal church; in his high school yearbook his intended career was “minister,” and he was headed for a time to seminary. Walter had a lifelong love of Episcopal language and liturgy.

His library is rich in history from all over the world. He read The New York Review of Books cover to cover, along with the New Yorker, and often ordered books reviewed in each issue. He read every one of his books, underlined extensively, and remembered every detail. He studied the origins of slavery, different forms of government, was an enthusiastic follower of Eugene Debs, and favored socialism. In his work and politics after leaving the south, he gravitated toward progressive nonprofits, working for organizations that dealt with everything from brain trauma victims, anti-racism training, and a stint supporting the financial organization of worker-owned cooperatives in Apopka, Florida and Puerto Rico, to his longstanding devotion to work with George Woodwell and the Woods Hole Research Center, which has become a world leader in environmental research and education.

Walter was also a lifelong traveler and linguist. He spent the first part of his career living overseas, where he learned Spanish and some Afrikaans, and after returning he continued to travel widely and study many languages. He expanded his love of language through a foray into translation. When living in Italy with our daughter Sarah during her fourth grade year – his rather startling response to the fact that foreign languages weren’t taught in her school – he befriended a group of scholars and writers in Padova, and translated a book by his friend Andrea Molesini, Polvere Innamorata, “Loving Dust,” epigraph below. Later he undertook to translate the poetry of Antonio Colinas from the Spanish, after he realized that this work was not available in English. Walter immersed himself in the world of translation through a fully-funded residency at the Banff Center in Canada with a translators’ group, and later received a grant from the Spanish government to further his work with Colinas, which he used to spend several weeks in residence with the poet.

Walter and I got into situations that we had no idea how to navigate; sometimes we did ok, sometimes not. We brought his mother Enid to live with us in Woods Hole Massachusetts and had the immense pleasure of sharing her 90th year. We got Walter through Hodgkins disease and radiation. When I realized I might lose him I wanted desperately to have a child, and so we had the magic and mystery of life with Sarah. We followed my university press career from Boston to Stanford, California. We hated the complacency of Palo Alto and so we lived in a group house in East Palo Alto, a Black and immigrant community and learned the realities of living on the underside of the American dream. The gift there was the love and creativity and power of our neighbors — Tongan, Hispanic, Japanese, Black, Hells Angels, and other urban pioneers like us. When we came to Urbana and saw the racial struggles in Sarah’s 2nd grade classroom we knew we had to throw ourselves into finding a way to be part of this entire community, both north and south of University Avenue.

Walter loved living here. We spent 17 of our 34 years together in Urbana – that amazes me. An uptight upright New Englander born and bred like me, and a Florida guy who had sailed the 7 seas. This community opened its hearts to us and let us fly – Walter acted at the Station Theater, fell by chance into running a political campaign around the school board, and then took off in the middle of the campaign to take Sarah to Italy for her 4th grade year and left me in charge. I discovered how heady it is to work with great people and win a political campaign, and that opened another episode in our lives together. We found WEFT and the joy of radio work, music, reading aloud, the power and fun of that community. We discovered the School for Designing a Society that didn’t want to settle for what we have – so let’s create a better society together. And we did. Walter learned so much from David Monk and his love of the prairie. So many of you in this room have been with us in discovering the surprises and the strengths and the beauty and the insatiable curiosity in this town, and have walked with Walter through storm and sunshine these past 17 years.

Thank you all. Thank you for holding me together when things were falling apart. Thank you for loving Walter for who he was. Thank you for loving me and Sarah. Thank you for being with us in this past remarkable, painful, amazing week. As our dear friend Renee said to Walter in the emergency room last Saturday when he had just been brought back to life for another 21 hours, “you’re going to make a great angel.”

Walter isn’t gone, he’s with us and will always be. I know that what I need to do now is be more of what Walter taught me is possible. Come live with me in Walterville.



This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.