• 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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    Posted in
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Personalities
    • Aging & Birthdays
    • Death
    • Travel
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