Indefatigable spirits

Thursday, July 24, 2008

July 24, 2008

Dear Pat,

At what age does the feeling we will live forever evaporate? When younger people start turning up in the obituaries? Maybe it's when contemporaries once charged with life fall ill and after many treatments and hospitalizations breathe no more. Sometimes dying is all that's left.

The local artist and bon vivant Rick Procter died Sunday. Joni Adams Bliss, the managing editor of this newspaper for many years, passed away two days later. I doubt they knew each other. They couldn't have been more different in most ways. Rick broke all the rules, Joni upheld them. But they were alike in some essentials. My memories of both involve laughing and a sense of being in the presence of indefatigable spirits. They never gave up. Their bodies just gave out.

Joni's staccato laugh carried across the newsroom, even when she was in her office. Journalism was serious business to her but never too serious to forget to be playful. She loved the idea that newspapers could help the people who read them. She and I knocked noggins occasionally as editors and reporters will. Her parental side didn't like her authority challenged. But she treated everyone with decency and fairness. No one and nothing intimidated her, neither testosterone-powered politicians nor the illness that took her so soon from her husband, her daughters and friends and colleagues.

She fought fiercely to stay alive. Her daughters will have the grace of having grown up in the household of a remarkably strong and caring woman.

My friend Carolyn remembers seeing Rick emerge from a closet in the art building decades ago wearing a paper sack over his head and dancing down the hall singing, "I'm Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine." Gene the Dancing Machine was a goof character from 1970s TV program "The Gong Show."

Life might have been a lot like "The Gong Show" for Rick, a jest that went wrong when taken too seriously. Not everyone appreciated his approach to art. Women's breasts were a preoccupation. When clearing out his downtown loft apartment Rick gave DC and me 30 paintings and collages depicting women's breasts. Overwhelmed, we gave them to a fellow downtowner who bares her breasts and dances for a living. Rick's mammary art decorates her bathroom.

The women downtown loved him, in part because he asked them all to dance. In a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, his shoulders scrunched up, his hands and forefingers waggling to the beat, Rick was downtown's Dancing Machine.

Having a conversation with him was like playing Pick Up Sticks. All the thoughts were connected but pointed in different directions. He told me once to pay attention to the first thing he said and to the last thing he said and not worry about the in between. A quasi-human character that populated many of his collages, one that seemed to hail from a nether reality. I wondered if Rick identified with it.

We do live forever, of course, but as St. Francis said, only by dying can we awaken to eternal life. Though most of us wish there were an easier way, those are the rules. Somewhere the spirit we knew as Joni is laughing because she knew better than to be afraid. And somewhere Rick's spirit is dancing -- especially if dancing is not allowed.



Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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