• Close Friend Showed How to Live, Die

    • Posted on Apr 19, 2009


    Over the past three decades I’ve learned much about how to live from a dear friend.  And over the past weeks I’ve learned just as much about how to die from the same friend:  Dale Phelps. 

    Dale died last Monday morning after his final pitched battle with cancer, which by then had spread to his brain.  He died peacefully at home with his wife Dianne at his side.  We had all been expecting it, but the news still came as a shock. Losing Dale is like a sudden power loss.  The lights go out and nothing works. 

    We won’t see such light again, either.  A friend who gave so generously for so long can’t be replaced.  Generosity seemed ingrained in Dale’s very character.  Anyone who knew him even briefly experienced his giving nature, from loaning tools and books to offering wise advice and counsel, to contributing to community causes. The Phelps Youth Pavilion at the Waterloo Art Center owes it existence to Dale and Dianne Phelps.   That community legacy stands as a lasting testament to his generosity. 

    Just as important: Boundless optimism.  Dale became the very personification of hope against odds.  He was diagnosed with cancer nearly twenty years ago and had undergone virtually every cancer treatment available. 

    In the later stages, the treatments’ side effects left him bald and bruised.  Yet never did I hear him complain about his physical maladies, which included losing sight in one eye due to an infection.   Instead, he appreciated his good days, his world travels, his huge garden, dinners and walks with Dianne and his many friends, all enjoyed as though nothing was wrong.

    My best life memories include two weeks one May during which we trekked to Greece with Dale and Dianne, spending our days exploring ancient sites on the Greek Islands and in Athens. The Phelps’ travel experience and curiosity about local cultures made them perfect travel companions. 

    After he had retired from his career as an orthopedic surgeon, he earned a B.A. in Art from UNI and began making prints, many of which have found their way into galleries and homes throughout the Midwest. (See them all by Googling Dale Phelps.)

    Dale seemed to take energy from whatever hopes arose from treatments, and explored a range of alternative therapies as well.  His series of prints, “Cancer Imaging” dramatized his fight with cancer, and stand as a remarkable testament to how cancer patients might use visualization to help heal.

    He not only loved making his own art, he also enjoyed all the fine arts. Rare indeed was the symphony, gallery opening, or dramatic performance in the Cedar Valley that wasn’t attended by Dale, Dianne, and often Ginny Phelps, Dale’s 95-year-old mother. 

    Dale radiated a sheer love of life, a joie de vivre that pervaded everything he did, from farming to world travel.  He and Dianne grew all manner of organic vegetables, raised chickens and took pride in giving away the best produce and eggs I’ve ever eaten.  They hosted huge backyard gatherings of the Cedar Valley Wine Enthusiasts, and their dinner parties and celebrations echoed with laughter and camaraderie.  

    For years they raised organic beef and sold it locally, as well as sheep and goats.  A visit from my kids was never complete without a visit to the Phelps farm, where their animals made for endless photo opportunities. 

    Dale Phelps died at 69, too young for anyone with so much to offer, so many more prints to make, so much more travel to enjoy, so many more concerts to attend.

    Yet Dale never lapsed into bitterness over what he would miss. 

    A month ago, another friend and I took him out to dinner.  He was subdued and probably in pain, but still relished conversation, good food and wine.

    A few days later he had declined markedly, and I visited several times, though he could no longer talk.  Still, he laughed. Several times, long and hard.  I couldn’t help but laugh too, surprised that his sense of humor seemed intact.  He seemed to be getting the last laugh.  

    You can’t live, or die, better than that. 



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    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Personalities
    • Aging & Birthdays
    • Death
    • Travel
  • The Passing of a Great Musician—and Man

    • Posted on Dec 28, 2008


    Charles Matheson, 86, died from complications of a stroke December 18.  He retired in 1982 after 27 years on the UNI music faculty.  He was my voice teacher and mentor from 1961-5 and friend and colleague until his passing. 

    He was a lion of a man, with a mane of hair that never left, though at 96 it was as white and billowy as a snowdrift.  When I first met him, his hair made as much an impression as his outspoken ways.  Back then it was black with a center streak of peppery-white.  Any man would have paid serious money for such a swept-back wave, and it became his natural trademark.

    His outsized personality quickly made more of an impression.  He dominated a crowded room, and fascinated his reticent midwestern musicians.  “Mama Mia!”  He often exclaimed before expounding an opinion. Outspoken, vocal, downright annoying at times, he could infuriate as often as illuminate.  Still, he remained one of the most beloved music professors at UNI.           

    For thousands of UNI students, not to mention church choirs, community chorales, private students, and concertgoers, Matheson taught and created music as the quintessential means of human expression.

    He made music, lived it, breathed it, took solace from it, loved it to the depths of his being.  Few of us ever care for anything so deeply and so passionately, and I always admired his unabashed enthusiasm for well-made music.          

    I remember one particular rehearsal when he revealed the emotional power of music.  His senior choir was attempting to sing a difficult 8-part Russian vocal cantata.   It involved complex harmonies, a soaring soprano line hanging over bass, tenor, and altos each split into two sections.  It was potentially a transcendent musical experience.

    Matheson urged us along for an hour, and then—Mama Mia! —We finally did it.  For the first time, in a burst of energy, all of us sang right and true.  

    The room echoed with our effort.  Our demanding conductor paused, and looked up at us with gratitude.  Then he quietly began weeping.

    We watched, dumbfounded.  He wasn’t the least ashamed.  Through his tears, he spoke up,  “I’m sorry if music doesn’t do this for you.  This is why we make music.” And he walked out, leaving us to ponder his words and that moment. 

    I’ve never forgotten it.  And I’ve certainly never forgotten Charles Matheson’s willingness to show his love of music in the most nakedly vulnerable manner.          

    Fans, admirers, students, and friends of Charles Matheson can’t help but feel a mix of gratitude and awe for his long, memorable presence among us.                        

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    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Death
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