• Robert James Waller Remembered Fondly

    • Posted on Mar 19, 2017

    Published in this morning's Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier.  

                So much of what I know about Robert James Waller comes from memory.  Recent direct experiences have been spotty, mostly via email, and then only occasionally.  We’ve often gone for months at a time with no communication due to distances and general busyness. 

                The first half of our friendship, from late 1961 until the mid-1980s, consisted of finding, arranging, and performing songs we loved. It was all great fun because we gravitated toward intensely poetic lyrics and ballads, and our voices blended well.  We often played Waller’s songs, and they were among our most-requested pieces.         

                As our lives grew more complex with fewer shared interests, we gradually moved on. 

                He became more of a jazz musician and certainly more of a writer, beginning with his Des Moines Register columns and moving into longer essays and fiction, the first novel being his blockbuster “Bridges of Madison County.”  He kept writing, too, and his novels continued selling, though nothing reached the wild popularity of “Bridges.”     

                Our post- “Bridges” friendship was less intense.  When he did visit the area from his Texas ranch, we got together for lunch or dinner, and sometimes even sang a few of the old songs.   

                I still well remember those songs, recorded in the mid-1980s.  We went to Catamount studios, where ace producer Tom Tatman recorded, in one day, eight of Waller’s songs.

                His songs were full-on poetry, with complex stories and melodies that still challenge listeners with their density and soaring mystical visions.

                For a time he even wondered whether he could make it as a songwriter, and traveled to Nashville with melodies in hand.  Producers there told him his songs were not commercial.  “Go home and be a college professor,” they told him. “We’re selling toothpaste.”

                So he did, but I have little doubt that had some enterprising producer taken a chance, we’d all remember Waller’s songs. 

                Little known fact:  “Bridges” was a song before it was a novel. 

                It was a long lyric called “North Dakota Transfer,” about a powerful erotic tryst between a farm wife whose husband was on the road and an itinerant harvest worker who falls for her:

    She was sweet apple blossoms, in her old faded jeans,

    Forty-five years old, and shinin’ like the sun,

    And the touch of her hand on your face was like a breeze

    Blowin’ sweet and clear when the long day is done.

                The smitten couple endure a bittersweet parting.  A few years later, Waller fleshed the story out, set it in Iowa, made the harvest worker a photographer, and the rest is his story. 

                He succeeded as a writer far beyond anything he could have imagined.  Yet he also created a set of memorable songs, just as potentially popular as his fiction.

                As a friend, he left a legacy of warm memories of laughter, long talks into the night, and performing for large and loyal audiences.

                He sought modesty.  As he wrote in his final book “The Summer Nights Never End—Until They Do,” “We come, we do, we go—nothing more, and that’s about as serious as we ought to take ourselves.”     

                Robert James Waller certainly came, did, and went, and now his old friends and fans seriously remember him, fondly. 



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    Posted in
    • Nostalgia
    • Personalities
    • Music
  • Epitaph for Elmer

    • Posted on Jun 15, 2014
    Published on March 1, 2008.  I repost it here in honor of Father's Day and Elmer Cawelti, who died late February 2008.  I miss him.  


    My dad Elmer lived five years shy of twice as long as my mother.

    Beany, as everyone called my mom, (she was bean-pole skinny) ) died when I was twenty.  He died at 95 early last Monday morning.  

    In that forty-five years he remarried, changed jobs, retired, traveled, and most of all became a role model as a husband, father, grandfather, neighbor, and friend. To everyone who knew him in one or another of these roles, he served almost as an ideal. Or at least that’s how it seems to me now, having known him for six and half decades. 

    Until my mother died he and I weren’t all that close.  He tended to be the reinforcer of her threats, as well as the distant, busy working man that so many fathers become to their younger children.  He lectured me on my sometimes unruly temper, and usually didn’t miss a chance to berate me about my general klutziness. 

    After Beany’s death, though, we began to spend more time together.  He transformed into quite a different man, especially after he married Jane, our family’s longtime friend and his second love.  He became, well, just plain fun, generous with his time, completely non-judgmental, and breathtakingly good-natured and optimistic.

    When he began to get down, he would mutter out loud,  ‘I’ve got to get my mind right” and sooner rather than later, he found a brighter side. He actually developed a mental habit of seeing goodness and humor everywhere. That’s a prescription every doctor would support, and probably one of the reasons he lived so long.

    He didn’t pursue happiness; he found it, in his friends, his cards, his jokes and joshing, which were almost constant, and his kindnesses to everyone.  As his neighbor Les Huth told me, he was the class act in our family. 

    Though I felt sorry for myself when my mom died, realizing that she would never see my children, my years and years of friendship with Dad has almost made up for it. He could never replace a mother, but he made a world-class father.

     When I came into his room last weekend, I woke him from one of his many naps, and I asked if he had been dreaming.  He hadn’t been dreaming, he said, but thinking.  “What about?” I asked, wondering if he had caught a glimpse of an approaching light.  “I’m thinking about what a great family I have,” he said. 

    We had become a mutual appreciation society, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

    Now, one of the many passions he bequeathed to me was a love of music, and he and my mom encouraged me to sing and play almost before I could walk.  From my dad’s example, I learned to love music, and to sing harmonies almost as effortlessly as he did.

    Angeleita and I sang this simple old folk song, not for him, but WITH him, last Saturday afternoon, 36 hours before he died.


    Down in the Valley, the valley so low.
    Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.
    Hear the wind blow love, oh hear the wind blow,
    Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.

    Dad sang those old folk tunes, and whistled so well,
    His harmonies echoed, gave hearers a thrill. 
    The best words were spoken, by a neighbor so wise,
    He knew Elmer’s presence made everyone high.

    He said it and meant it, and now it’s a fact.
    No doubt about it, you’re dad’s a class act.
    Down in the valley, the valley so low
    Hang your head over, hear the wind blow. 

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    Posted in
    • Nostalgia
    • Personalities
    • Death
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


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