Two weeks ago, I attended a memorial service for Eugene “Budd” Gauger, a former editor at this newspaper. I hadn’t seen Budd in, I think, some 20 years, and I hadn’t worked with him in 25. When I worked at The Blade the first time, many years ago, he edited “Behind the News.”
The service, held at First Unitarian Church on Glendale, was tremendously moving to me. Not only because of the obvious love displayed for Budd by his friends and family, but also because it painted a portrait of a unique human being and a life lived to the full.
Budd was what many people would call an eccentric, I suppose. He wrote loved ones 17-page letters in longhand, on one occasion on corn husks. He was a master gardener who plowed no straight rows. He made his own gifts for people, of often indeterminate nature and materials. He crafted unique floral and plant arrangements. He was a devoted father, church choir member, Sunday school teacher, and most of all friend. He had a lifelong fascination with world religions, University of Nebraska football, and the writer Willa Cather.
He traveled the world (his bucket list included Iceland, Indonesia, and Haiti). He bought the house next door, tore it down, and expanded his garden. He raised chickens.
You could not invent, in fiction, a character so colorful. No written description could capture the man. That’s one reason his service was so great; different people took their swings at describing Budd. And some of his favorite music and literary passages also helped us to see the man.
A priest friend one told me that all theology is simply an ongoing attempt to “find the right metaphor” for God. Since God can’t be described, we keep trying.
And maybe it’s that way for all noble spirits, human beings included. You cannot reduce them to one set of characteristics. You can collect memories and data, but the parts add up to less than the sum. The missing piece, the metaphor that can’t be grasped, is greatness, which I would define as largeness of human spirit and uniqueness.
When we see human greatness we want to celebrate it, despite — maybe because of — our inability really to understand it. I have just spent 10 years of my life, and 500 pages, trying to describe the greatness of an American musician named Robert Shaw. He was a conductor who worked most prominently with the Cleveland Orchestra and Atlanta Symphony, as well as his own ensembles.
Did I find a single right metaphor? No, but I kept trying. Just as with Budd’s service, I assembled stories, surprising facts, and literary and musical snippets. I suppose the analogy is a montage: Out of many thoughts and images, the spirit of the person finally emerges.
This can almost never be done except in retrospect. We never really know what we had until he or she is gone.
We have all been to funerals at which the principal did not seem to be spiritually present. Just as we have all been at church services the good Lord seemed to pass by. You have to keep looking for the right metaphor.
Back in the day, Budd was one of several colorful Blade characters — Boris Nelson, Millie Benson, and Bill Brower also come to mind. Mr. Nelson was, for 28 years, the Blade’s Olympian music critic. Ms. Benson worked here for 27 years and for the Toledo Times for 32 years before that; she was also a pilot and author of 23 of the original 25 Nancy Drew books. Mr. Brower, a true civil rights pioneer, was on The Blade staff for 50 years.
None suffered fools, and I like to think that all haunt the stairwells here. As former Blade managing editor Ed Whipple told me on the way out of the service, many of us never knew how interesting Budd was — how varied and deep his interests were — because he didn’t promote himself. But actually, Budd had his own cosmology, as well as his own style.
Newspapers used to be collections of “characters,” and used to celebrate them. Duane Croft, another fine editor with whom I worked years ago, was perhaps too parsimonious to be an eccentric, but he was an individual. English is a word-order language and Mr. Croft was a master of syntax. (Budd edited like a musician and Duane like a scientist.)
A couple of weeks before Budd’s service, I watched YouTube videos of Jonathan Winters and listened to my old records of George Jones, both of whom had just passed. Mr. Winters was maybe the funniest man of his generation. Mr. Jones was perhaps the greatest country singer of all time.
You watch and listen and you feel privileged to witness utter and total uniqueness. The French call it nonpareil — without equal. I felt the same sense of privilege at Budd’s service and working on my book on Mr. Shaw.
Catholic theology calls it “Thomistic personalism.” This uniqueness is available to us all, and it is bigger than us all. Every soul is unreplicable, indivisible, eternal.
Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.